On July 28, OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s new television network, broadcast a powerful new documentary film that did not get nearly the attention it deserved. There were many reasons most Americans missed Serving Life : late summer vacation schedules, a desire for a diversion from a summer of intractable political debate, and the fact that OWN is just beginning to develop its following. Of course, the film’s subject matter—a hospice run by inmates in one of our nation’s maximum security prisons—may have also scared viewers away.  

I confess that I watched Serving Life because I serve on the board of directors of Odyssey Networks, a media company that played a major role in bringing the film to life. So I had an official reason for tuning in. However, I soon discovered that there are much deeper reasons to watch the film.  

As I sat down to watch, I was prepared for a different view of prison life, and I expected to see scenes of death and dying that are not easy to watch. But what surprised me were Serving Life’ s powerful lessons about human community and—strange to say—the power of spiritual practices to change lives. Here, with almost none of the normal religious trappings that we associate with congregational life, was a stunning example of what our congregational life can and should be. (OWN has not announced the date for the next showing of the film, but I encourage you to watch for it.) 

Serving Life takes viewers inside Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison. This maximum security prison has the reputation of confining within its walls “the worst of the worst”—rapists, kidnappers, and murderers. The average sentence for its inmates is more than 90 years. 85 percent of the people who enter the prison will never go anywhere else.  

Narrator and executive producer, Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, introduces us first to the prison and then to a group of inmates who have just volunteered to serve in the prison’s hospice. As we follow Justin Granier, Charles Rodgers, Ronald Ratliff, and Anthony Middlebrooks, we get a view of prison life—and of human transformation—that is very rare.  

The film follows the four new volunteers into the difficult but strangely beautiful work of caring for the dying. As they complete their 40 hours of training, the inmate caregivers learn to always wear plastic gloves, how to put on fitted sheets, how to move patients in their beds, how to bathe and feed them, and how to care for the bed sores that often accompany the last stages of life. Then come lessons in preparing a body for burial, placing it a plain wooden casket with a cross on its lid, and walking it to the crematorium.  

While I doubt that the filmmakers would describe their work this way, what they offered viewers was a close-up view of a powerful process of human and community formation, where people became more than they were before because they participated in ancient human behaviors. In the stark, stereotyped world of the maximum security prison, the power of these practices is startling. Viewers confront the fact that under some circumstances contract killers and drug dealers can surprise us with an unexpected grace and humanity. The prisoners in Angola have something to teach us about redemption and compassion. How many of us accompany the dying so well? 

There are deeper treasures in the film, if one looks closely. The inmates play cards with and tell jokes to the hospice patients. They sing, read Scripture, and pray. They make quilts to keep the dying warm. They make funeral palls with open hands and butterflies embroidered upon them. They take four-hour shifts keeping vigil as patients near death. As they do these simple, yet so difficult, things, they provide tutorials for the rest of us about how to live. I was especially moved by the fact that one of the inmate/volunteers identified himself as a minister and another claimed an identity as an imam. There they were with their worlds of difference working together in one community of compassion. 

They learn how to do all of this because they are assigned mentors who in turn learned from someone else who mentored them. As prison warden Burl Cain (who championed the cause of hospice at the prison he runs) says, “I’m going to dig your grave, someone else will dig mine.” Somehow in the midst of the deepest human despair, hatred, and suffering imaginable, a group of dying patients and life-sentenced prisoners become a community of reciprocity, a congregation if you will, that teaches people to reach beyond their own needs and care for others. 

There are powerful lessons here for those of us who lead more conventional congregations. Under certain circumstances, even the people we give up on can change and do amazing things. The most elemental human practices—caring for the dying, reading texts, keeping vigil, singing, feeding, bathing—can do so much more than we imagine. I was stunned to watch hardened criminals soften as the film unfolded. As they became a community of compassion, they began to talk about the terrible things they had done that led them to Angola, to take responsibility for their lives, and to seek to repair the worlds that they had made and dwelled in. At their best, congregations do this very basic human work—teaching people life-giving practices that can change so much. Sometimes we lose sight of those core purposes in the midst of all the activities that flood our parish and synagogue calendars. Sometimes we need to step away from all the familiar distractions that complicate our lives and our communities of faith and go to a strange place like Angola to get our bearings.