Seeing the ghosts in a prison hospice

Every now and then, someone in our comments pages accuses your GetReligionistas of arguing that the way to improve religion-news coverage in the mainstream press is to have more religious believers invade America's newsrooms. After all, "get religion" is a Bible Belt phrase for someone having a conversion experience of some kind. Sure, the pun is there. So sue me.

But let me say once again that, in my career, I have known some excellent reporters -- on and off the Godbeat -- who were stunningly effective at covering religion stories, yet were not personally religious. (I have also known some religious folks who just didn't get journalism. Period.)

The key is whether a reporter is curious about the views of others, to the point of empathy, and committed to accuracy (and even balance).

All of that is to say that one of the most talented writers at the Washington Post -- television-beat veteran Hank Stuever -- has once again served up a feature story that gracefully glides into religious territory. GetReligion readers may recall my previous post on Stuever's remarkable book "Tinsel," about the commercialization of Christmas in postmodern, suburban America.

Stuever is a liberal's liberal and a skeptic's skeptic and, as required in the Style section, has been known to have a major-league snarky streak. Yet his work is fueled by a powerful humanism that even allows the convictions and actions of religious believers to shine, from time to time. In other words, he's a reporter and he has the ability to care about the better angels of a wide variety of people.

This time around he is writing about a new television documentary called "Serving Life" that takes viewers inside the hospice program inside the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

There is very little overt religion in this piece, yet it seems that themes of repentance, love, faith and redemption have soaked in really deep. The bottom line: It is a profoundly spiritual act to help care for the dying, especially when the people on both sides of that exchange have both caused and experienced plenty of pain and suffering during their lives.

What happens when convicted murderers, with tears in their eyes, help their prison brothers die with dignity? We read:

The hospice volunteers and patients in “Serving Life” have committed crimes that include murder, armed robbery, rape and selling drugs. Should they rot in prison for the rest of their days? It happens -- one bedsore at a time.

The longtime warden, Burl Cain, says he has been moved by observing the kind of care his inmates are capable of giving one another. Hospice, Cain says, “is a way to die with your family. This [prison] is your family. ... Hospice is the chance to prove -- have you changed or have you not?”

Angola, infamous for its brutal history, has seen violent incidents drop 73 percent in the past decade, we are told. This dovetails with the advent of hospice and improved health care in the prison, but also other communal upgrades. The Angola seen here often appears as a tranquil, intentional farm cooperative -- growing the food it consumes, paving its roads; its denizens attend Bible college and work to gain enough trust that they are allowed to wear jeans and hoodies instead of uniforms.

Cohen’s camera follows four volunteers in the prison’s hospice unit as they receive training and care for their first patients. The rookies include a murderer, an accomplice to murder, a bank robber and a drug thug.

Even in an alternate world such as Angola, death becomes universal.

I know that it is strange to praise a newspaper story that is, in effect, journalism that is about another work of journalism, a documentary. But this is much more than a TV review.

Read it all. This is not a religion story. It's a redemption story.

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