Finding the Sacred

Commentary by Ben Bowen King

“I’m Stranded on the
Banks of Ole Jordan”
by the Angola Quartet
from Angola Prison Spirituals

Many people believe there are "sacred sites” located throughout the world. Sedona’s Red Rocks, ancient Irish monasteries and the Himalayan foothills are just a few places known to exude sacred feelings.  The belief is that these locales, because of their histories and or “vibrations,” have the potential to bring us closer to the Divine.

One place you won’t find on the sacred sites list is Louisiana’s Angola State Prison Farm. Tucked away in a corner of the state, Angola Penitentiary is home to 5,000 inmates. To get an up-close look at the prison, just go to your Netflix queue.  But don’t click on the documentaries icon.

The living conditions at Angola are front and center in gritty prison films like Dead Man Walking, The Green Mile and Dead Man’s Ball. Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke was supposed to be set in Angola, but it whitewashes life on a chain gang with an entertaining Hollywood sheen. The common description of Angola is “pure, undiluted hell.” 

And yet Angola is where you will hear some of the most sacred music on the planet. This music is featured on the singular Angola Prison Spirituals CD. 

During the early ‘60s, folklorist Harry Oster sweet-talked himself into the prison with a tape recorder. He walked out with a collection of spirituals that will literally raise the hair on the back of your neck. In addition to the featured cut by the Angola Quartet, Oster found a wealth of spiritual music among the prison’s predominantly African-American population. Along with the choral groups, Oster recorded lone guitarists and a capella singers on this 22-track CD.

What unifies these tracks is the sense that these men are pouring out their souls to communicate their unique brand of spirituality as forgiven sinners. A quick scan of the New Testament teaches us that forgiveness, repentance and redemption are at the heart of Jesus’ message. You get an aural meditation on these concepts on Angola Prison Spirituals.

Some people may debate whether the inmates’ songs are higher or lower on the spiritual scale than, say, chants done by monks at an abbey. But what’s not up for discussion is the fact that the prisoners’ music is an expression of the sacred that came out of a locale that won’t ever be part of a “sacred site vacation package.” It’s human nature to think that God is all about soaring mountains and inspiring architecture, but the truth is, God is more subtle than that — Mother Teresa taught us God  is in the world’s poorest slums and the men of Angola show us He is in the worst of penitentiaries.

During the 1500s the Anabaptists, a Protestant group that eventually morphed into the Baptists, put out two small booklets. In one of them they asked “believers” not to look for the sacred in cathedrals and works of art. The essence of their reasoning was: “Why do we seek God in stone buildings when He is all around us in the people we see every day?”

Take a minute and think about “sacred sites” within a 10-mile radius of your home. Where are the places that have the potential to bring you closer to God? Is there a hospital, hospice or food bank where something special and sacred is happening?  Consider when and where we are closest to Jesus’ message? Is it as at an exotic locale or just down the street helping somebody else?


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