(Pacific Standard) – “Sorry if I just stabbed you in the back,” Joshua Dubler writes in the closing paragraph of Down in the Chapel. Hugging one of the prisoners whose religious faith his book chronicles, Dubler forgot to cap his pen.
The apology is a joke, but uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has labored to tell the stories of others, especially a group so disenfranchised as the prisoners at Pennsylvania’s largest maximum security prison. Joshua Dubler was a graduate student at Princeton when he began visiting Graterford, which is just outside of Philadelphia. His research at the prison, sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and conducted over six years, included meticulously observing the life of its chapel for years and repeatedly interviewing some of its 3,500 residents.
Down in the Chapel, published last year, is an adapted version of Dubler’s dissertation, a record of one particular week in the life of the chapel, along with 10 broader theses about religious life at the prison. Dubler’s voice is rarely absent from Down in the Chapel, but it blends with many others: a Catholic convert who has studied Greek and Hebrew for seven years since being sentenced to life for murder; an atheist who works as the chapel janitor and thinks more about the philosophy of religion than most seminarians; Cherokee and Lakota prisoners who come together for smudging ceremonies and prayer circles; the rabbi, imam, Catholic priest, Lutheran pastor, and former guerrilla warrior in Sierra Leone’s civil war turned reverend who serve as chaplains; a lazy-eyed Wiccan who wears a silver pentagram but refuses to practice anywhere but his cell; and the many corrections officers, some callous and some caring, who staff the prison.