Baraka, Al, Teddy, and Sayyid: Four black men from South Philly, two Christian and two Muslim, are serving life at Pennsylvania’s maximum-security Graterford Prison. All of them work in the prison chapel, where they have regular opportunities to dispute the workings of God, faith, and self-transformation. And then Sayyid disappears.
Down in the Chapel tells the story of one week in Graterford’s chapel. We learn how the men at Graterford pass their time, care for themselves, foster relationships, and commune with their makers. We observe Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and black Muslims at prayer and study and song. And we watch what happens when an interloping scholar of religion is thrown into the mix with hopes of making sense of it all.
When prisoners turn to God, they are often scorned as “bad men” who fake their piety or as “poor men” who have no better option than to adopt simplistic and rigid creeds. Joshua Dubler goes beyond these stereotypes to show the religious life of a prison in all its vital complexity. An essential interpretation of faith in an age of mass incarceration, Down in the Chapel reveals what prisoners do with religion, and what religion does with them.
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Graterford Prison is in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, thirty snaking miles northwest of Philadelphia’s city line. The prison sits on a bucolic plateau of 1,700 acres that rises above the Perkiomen Creek. Fallow farmland runs uphill away from the creek, where, seasonally, deer and Canada geese lounge unmolested. At the top of the rise beside a small reservoir is the OSU, the Outside Service Unit, which houses the “grays,” who are misconduct free and creeping up on their minimums. Past the parking lots is the prison itself, sixty-two acres enclosed