My church (and 5,000 men doing hard time)… standing in the light.


The surreal, spectacular Angola Prison Rodeo, photo by Mark Saltz.

Today, Lulu and I are at Angola State Prison in Louisiana with Heartbound Ministries and a bus full of chaplains, wardens and prison folk from Georgia. We’re here for the Angola Prison Rodeo, held every weekend in October. There’s a fabulous Arts & Crafts Fair before the rodeo, where the prisoners make $250,000 a weekend from the artwork, jewelry and furniture they’ve created. It’s a shopping bonanza!

Of the 5,000 men incarcerated here at Angola, 80% are serving life without parole and will never leave this 18,000 square-mile prison that is the size of Manhattan and oddly, terribly beautiful. But somehow, there is not the hopelessness you would expect. Warden Burt Cain has transformed this “bloodiest prison in America” to one of the least violent, which you can read about in an amazing book called Cain’s Redemption.

When I’m here, I think a lot about my own transgressions, mistakes, sins.

And that’s when I say to myself, “There but for the grace of God (and some serious luck), go I.”



Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Atlanta

So, I’m Catholic. A practicing Catholic. And I am therefore supposed to (required to) go to church every Sunday.

I am also (super old school here) supposed to tithe, i.e. give 10% of my income to the church. However, since I have a very modest (okay, pathetic) income and basically live off my husband, I’m just going to pretend, for the purposes of giving myself one day a week off from this blog, that I’m making a reasonable income and go from there. So every Sunday – all year long –I’m going to be giving $100 to Our Lady of Lourdes, my amazing, adorable church in the heart of the Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark district in Atlanta.

Our Lady of Lourdes was founded in 1912 as an African-American Catholic community, financed by Mother Katharine Drexel – a rich Main Line, Philadelphia heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and donated her fortune to serve Native American and Black people. From the steps of OLOL (no relation to LOL, kids) you can see Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his father, grandfather, and brother all preached); and the neighborhood infuses the church’s soul.

I love OLOL so much, it’s ridiculous. It’s small, it’s mighty, it has awesome music (thanks to our Minister of Music and chair of Spelman College’s Department of Music, Dr. Kevin Johnson), and it’s got our brand-new pastor: Father Jeffery Ott, a Dominican friar from New Orleans, and our new Assistant Pastor Father Bruce Schultz … not to mention our affable, groovy deacon, Chester Griffin (whose beautiful wife Janis also leads the choir), a liturgical dance company called Amazing Grace, and some highly gifted & competitive sports teams (of which I’m not a member).

I’m not sure if you know many Catholics, but I can tell you for sure, we’re not the monolithic, homogenized, “jump to the Pope’s every proclamation” pack of lemmings that you may think. I, for one, believe that the church’s stance on birth control is socially irresponsible, morally insupportable, and just plain nuts.  But I also think the church’s position on poverty, social responsibility, gun control, the death penalty, immigration, health care, equality, civil rights, justice, peace, and charity is truly inspired.

For these reasons – and for the reasons I’ll add every Sunday that I go to church and am freshly inspired (or spiritually challenged), I’m making this my weekly tithe. And if you can find a church you love even half as much as I love Lourdes, you’ll feel blessed to support it, too. I promise.

4 thoughts on “My church (and 5,000 men doing hard time)… standing in the light.

  1. Thanks for the response Betty! And, again, I adore what you do at What Gives 365 and will keep reading, passing “you” on to friends and family and supporting the causes you highlight!


  2. I love what gives 365. First, that. Not today however….

    I have to comment on the major disconnect between praising a penitentiary for their transformation of violence while promoting just that. You glorifying their rodeo, in which inmates are allowed to force other living beings to participate in something both traumatic and frightening to them (violent) and which by its very nature uses the violation of one’s “manhood” literally and physically to make them “violent” enough to buck and cry!

    Just doesn’t make sense!

    • Dear J — I have to say that the rodeo itself is not my favorite — I literally can’t stand to see the potential for injury to the prisoners (although they compete to participate) and I always feel sorry for the animals involved, too. It IS violent and disturbing. Mostly, i love the Arts & Crafts show — but it’s the rodeo that brings in the money that supports the classes, programs, clubs and what little the prison is able to offer in terms of rehabilitation, due to hugely deep budget cuts and very little public support. So — I hear you loud and clear, J!!!

  3. That’s a wonderful photo from the Angola rodeo. It looks like the guy on the ground is about to be licked to death by the bull (?) My puppy would be happy to help. Now I have to go see what their handicrafts look like. I never would have known. Thanks Betty.

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