Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison – By Joshua Dubler

An excerpt from Dubler’s new book

Down in the Chapel
Joshua Dubler, Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 400 pp., $30

[This MRB exclusive is an excerpt from Joshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, released today, August 13, 2013Copyright © 2013 by Joshua Dubler. Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved.  Also, see the MRB interview with Dubler here, and the LARB review here.]



In America, a man is not a man without his confidence. And a man cannot have his confidence without someplace to put his certitude. As Protestant theology stretched to its pluralist, pop-existentialist extreme, the mandate of American religion is quite simple: Thou shalt believe. Believe in one thing, whatever that thing may be. This pluralization of legitimate creeds functions as the cornerstone of American religious freedom and, as a derivative, as an engine of tribalism.

Similar to the Land of Canaan, then, and its menu of religious cults, American religion is henotheistic: there are many Gods but you must choose one. In principle, as long as a guy is what chapel regulars call “God conscious,” his belief in some other God needn’t be a threat to me. Far from being a “conversation-stopper,” then, our mutually reinforcing religious certainties offer up endless fodder for dialogue.

But good fences make good neighbors, and so a hedge is erected. To avoid fraying nerves, “religion,” it is often said, is a topic to avoid. Because across denominational lines, many practice this restraint, religious conversations become largely an intramural pastime. And so, in the fecund field of religious plenty, enclaves sprout. If, from a crane shot, there are at Graterford many religious paths, from the position a man comes to occupy on the ground there is, more often than not, conventionally only one. This path is a narrow path, and error encroaches from all sides.

As a hotbed of religious diversity and personal transformation, if any environment was to be supportive of religious in-between-ness, one might figure that the chapel would be it. But this presumption would be wrong. Religious seeking here is encouraged only if one proves himself willing to find what he is looking for. Indeed, the conviction that one has conclusively found it conventionally becomes a core facet in one’s presentation of self.

There is reason to distrust the force of chapel certitudes. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to turn the theological confidence of confessedly convicted wrongdoers into a proclamation of spiritual insecurity. Or, to chip away on another façade: If the Lord demanded that I produce from Graterford ten undogmatic souls to keep Him from reducing the place to smoke and ashes, I have zero doubt about my ability to do so.

It was at St. Dismas on one of my first days at Graterford. Exacerbated by the close confines of Classroom A, I was still quite self-conscious, as much from the discomfort of watching as from being watched. Communion commenced. The men offered me grape juice from dosage-sized plastic cups, which I politely refused. I remained unsure of what to do with my body or my eyes. Following the liturgy, the singing, the eating and drinking, everyone traded hugs. At the crescendo of my discomfort, I received an embrace from the enormous man who had joined the group only for Communion. Beyond the man’s sheer size, there was something grounding in his touch that made my anxiety dissipate. I made a note of him. Gradually, over the coming weeks and months, this large man would crystallize into Al.

Now, almost a year later, Al is my primary source for making sense of Graterford’s Christian practices, and is my sparring partner in some of the most thrilling arguments.

By his own lights, Al is an unyielding Biblicist. Everything that happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection — the Church fathers, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation — that’s man’s history. This historical, manmade stuff — that’s religion. Religion is a wrong turn. What matters is one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. For it is through Jesus, and not via any church, that we come to the truth of His Word. In explaining this, Al pointed me to John 14:26, where Jesus assures His followers that His imminent disappearance will prove no obstacle to their ongoing understanding of His Word. As Jesus said: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” While Al frequently cites chapter and verse, he also talks about “my Bible” — the highly subjective yet nonetheless objective Truth that the Holy Ghost renders on his behalf transparent. “I don’t need this book,” Al said to me, pointing to his Bible. “It’s only when I’m talking to a nonbeliever that I need this book. Do you think that when we talk amongst ourselves we use this book? Why would we?”

Keita places Al’s anti-intellectualism in cultural context. In their blindness to history and textual complexity, men like Al turn Jesus into a boorish American: jealous, judgmental, individualistic, and not remotely demanding enough of righteous action beyond faith. Action, moreover, when it is called for, is rendered by this literalism somewhat perverse — to reconcile after a row, Al and Teddy wash each other’s feet.

Al is unswayed by such criticism. For Al, the Holy Ghost is the ultimate democrat, speaking directly to the heart of the Christian, Jew, or Muslim, the saved or unsaved, the learned or unschooled. In his populist skepticism, Al grants as much credence to Keita’s ministerial appraisals as he gives to the dismissive judgments of the prison psychiatrists. “According to them, I’m ignorant. A psychiatrist says that I have a third-grade education. That’s what they say. That’s why I don’t go by what they say.”

Truly a gigantic presence, Al is magnanimous, charismatic, and, in moments, residually terrifying. In a way unique among the chapel workers, Al remains a dangerous man. At least that’s how he tells it. “Oh, you wouldn’t like Al,” Al responded to my onetime inquiry into how I might square the man before me with the man Al once was. “Al is an animal. The Al you know and like is the Al that loves Jesus.”

“When I was a child I did childish things,” Al cites Corinthians. Among the childish things Al did was inflict tremendous cruelty. Now and again, gruesome details bubble up in the office: snatches of breathtaking violence, sometimes lethal, mostly wanton, coldly reported without rationalization or apology. Still more revealing has been Al’s testimony, a genre that favors the prideful recollection by the saved of the consummate sinner he used to be and the still worse sinner he would have been had not God been looking out for him, especially back in his time of overwhelming ignorance.

If through his relationship with Jesus Christ Al overcomes his natural proclivities, and submits instead to what God wants for him, he still struggles. While his years in the hole are long behind him, he struggles with his temper, as he does with overeating, and with the smut mags he recently threw out when he realized that he was hauling them around like a spare tire. Like Baraka, Al cautions against the dangers of having too much latitude, especially in a place like Graterford. He likened man to “a frog on a lily pad in a pot of water. Turn up the heat. The frog will survive. That’s the danger of being in here. A man can adapt to anything.”

As a first-year student in the Education for Ministry program, Al is working on a spiritual biography, which he is preparing to deliver orally. Over the year I’ve picked up some of the defining moments: how as a kid in Macon, Georgia, Al was a Baptist, but how in prison he converted to Islam. Since it was 1970, that meant the Nation, and so from 1975 to 1983 he was a Warith Deen Muhammad Sunni and attended a mosque in West Philly. Back then he was called by his Arabic name, Mumit — the Angel of Death — and he “took care of problems in the mosque.” He thought he was doing right, that he was “eliminating heresies,” but one day in 1983, after he’d dealt with a couple of guys, he was told that he’d just taken out a couple of rival drug dealers. Having thought that he was doing God’s work, Al was shocked to learn that he was just murdering people for criminal gain. Shortly thereafter, Al was on his way to another job when God stopped him dead in his tracks. He was up at Broad and Allegheny, in North Philadelphia, and suddenly he found that he just couldn’t go on. He called his wife, sobbing. She came down and met him and took him straight to Greater Ebenezer Church, where he joined “the right hand of fellowship,” getting involved at once in a range of church activities, including Bible studies and musical groups.

While I doubt I know personally another man as directly responsible for as much physical suffering as Al, the Al I have come to know can be disarmingly loving. One morning he pulled me into the conference room, where a group of guys were concluding the meeting of a self-appointed committee dedicated to “moving the members of the body of Christ at Graterford in the direction that God wants it to go.” He was offering the concluding prayer: “Lord,” Al said in a way that didn’t feel the least bit overbearing, “You plan for everything in such good ways, and Brother Josh came here to learn, but as you’ve seen, he’s also here to teach.” Another time, after noticing that I was walking funny, Al asked me what was wrong. I’d screwed up my back, I told him. “Does it hurt there?” he asked, touching the spot to the right of my spine just above the waist. That was the spot. “Yeah,” he said, “back when I trained fighters they used to get that, too.” In the sort of presumptiveness from which intimacy is fashioned, he instructed me to lie on the floor, where, holding my left shoulder down, he pushed my right knee across my body until something popped, cracking my back into place.

Al can be hilarious, too. On Christmas Day, a day that is, in Al’s view, a pagan holiday, no more special than any other, Al waddled up to me. The choir was singing “Joy to the World.” He said: “When I was a kid, I thought they was saying, ‘And never let a nigger sing.’ ” In his flat bass, he sang along with the carol, laughing from his belly.

And never let a nigger sing
And never let a nigger sing
And ne-e-ever let a nigger sing.

At other times, I’ve glimpsed the hazardous edge to Al’s attentiveness. One morning, a week after I’d drunk a couple cups of his coffee and casually promised to bring him in a replacement bag, he greeted me with a firm handshake. “Where’s my mud at?” he said. I didn’t understand. “My coffee,” he explained, still shaking my hand. I told him I would bring it in the next time. With a silent smile, he nodded his affirmation, but refused for an uncomfortable duration to release my hand from his grip. Even as the joke I presumed it to be, I took the incident as not unrevealing of Al’s modus operandi, and it was scary.

Back over the summer, after a teenage mugger “fishhooked” me (the term, as I learned in the office, for dragging somebody down from behind by the inside of his mouth) and I showed up with scrapes, cuts, and the story of what had happened, Al and Baraka both were quite unimpressed. Some punk put his fingers in my mouth and walked away with all ten digits still attached? What the hell was wrong with me? Slipping into character, I asked them if they would train me, just as Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau asks his Chinese houseboy, Cato, to jump out and attack him when he least expects it. After sharing a good laugh, I promptly forgot about the joke. A couple of weeks later, though, as a portentous thunderstorm gathered to the north, blackening the sky, Al called me into the Imam’s office. Pointing toward the window, he asked, “Have you seen what’s-her-face?” Not catching what he said, I followed him into the dimly lit office, only to find myself locked in a smothering chokehold. With Al’s forearm pressed against my larynx, I met Baraka’s eyes with inquisitive shock. Three interminable seconds later, Al released me, laughing as he did. Soon I laughed, too. But into the next day, my mortality remained lodged in my throat like the ghost of a fishbone.

But these were moments of play. Where I’ve truly managed to awaken the devil in Al is in arguments about God. One August night, Al and Teddy were pressing me about the strange attitude articulated by the Rabbi and Brian both that God is not an active presence in shaping their day-to-day lives. I owned up to the fact that this, too, was my position. Speaking frankly of a distant God, the only one afforded by my feeble theology, I testified that as I see it, God doesn’t care who wins wars or who scores touchdowns or what exactly I do with my brief time on earth. I explained that after I learned about the Holocaust at age nine or so, I figured that either God doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s going on down here or that he has some serious explaining to do.

“You’re giving God the case!” Teddy yelled at me. That is, I was blaming God for man’s crimes.

Al was less charitable. His face trembling, he tore into me. “Over here we have a worthless piece of mud, a lifeless piece of dirt, a piece of garbage,” he said, and gestured as if shaping clay with his humongous hands, like in Genesis God made man. “And over here, we have the Creator of all that ever was and is! Now, this piece of mud is gonna talk to the creator like HE got some explaining to do?”

Filled with holy rage, Al slipped into testimony. Here he was, on the lam, bare-assed in the South, being dragged out by a bunch of cops with loaded guns after he’d taken a shot at one of them, and they’re about to kill him. And then this one cop, a guy a hundred pounds smaller than Al, grabs him in a bear hug and drags him away from the other cops who are ready to shoot him dead. God saved him that night. He doesn’t know why God saved him. What he knows is that God did save him as part of some plan that God has for him. “Why do you let me see these things?” Al quoted Scripture. He doesn’t claim to know the reason why. But in his heart he knows that there is a reason.

By what was at the very least a curious twist of fate, an hour and five miles down the road later, I walked away from a head-on collision that saw both cars totaled. When Al saw me next, again black and blue but this time only half as glib, I met his questioning eyes with: “Now, about that divine plan for me  … ”