Rich In Faith

A photographer documents the unusual places used for worship by improverished congregations in Baltimore and 20 othe U. S. cities

March 20, 2006|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Camilo Jose Vergara confesses that he was initially puzzled why members of the storefront church at 1600 N. Bond St. would name it Thank God for Jesus Church.

The building stood in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. It seemed to have little room inside. There were crack vials in the gutter outside the front door. What did the congregation have to be so thankful for?

After talking to the minister, Vergara got his answer.

"In Baltimore, the belief that people should be grateful to God is so strong that they make it the name of their church," he said. "They put it up in big letters for all to see, in the bleakest of neighborhoods."

At other inner-city churches, worshipers say they have plenty to be thankful for, too, he said.

"They say, `Thank God I woke up this morning. Thank God I wasn't in a subway accident. Thank God I have a husband. Thank God I have a driver's license.' They're thankful for a lot of things most people don't even think about."

Thank God for Jesus Church is one of several hundred buildings featured in How the Other Half Worships, a book by Vergara that examines the way the poor worship in Baltimore and 20 other American cities.

Vergara, a New York-based sociologist and photographer who won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2002, has made a career of chronicling the downwardly mobile aspects of post-industrial America - areas sometimes referred to as "reservations of the poor" or "hyper-ghettos."

His previous books include The New American Ghetto and American Ruins, which have been described as "bibles of architectural dysfunction." His Web site is invinciblecities.com. He has also mounted photo exhibits at the National Building Museum and the Library of Congress in Washington, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, Spain.

While traveling around the country documenting urban decline, Vergara said he became intrigued by the places where poor people worship. In many cases, he said, churches are the only signs of activity on blocks otherwise abandoned because of crime and poverty.

These inner-city churches have little physically in common with the traditional houses of worship where most Americans congregate. They're typically set up on a shoestring in buildings that were constructed for other purposes. Many were corner stores abandoned due to lack of business. Some were gas stations, fast-food outlets or old movie houses. More than a few Christian congregations took over buildings that served other faiths, such as former synagogues.

At first, Vergara said, he would photograph just the exteriors of urban churches that caught his eye, from Camden, N.J., to Los Angeles. But soon he began going inside the churches, attending services, talking with the worshipers and taking notes. The title of How the Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, 2005) is a reference to Jacob Riis' 1890 landmark study of tenement life in Lower Manhattan, How the Other Half Lives.

Memorable churches

During a recent visit to Baltimore to talk to students at the Johns Hopkins University, Vergara took a reporter to the local churches he included in his book. One was a former Honda dealership on Monument Street that became the Gospel Church According to Jesus Christ. Another was a one-story building on North Avenue, near the Baltimore Cemetery, that now houses the New Zion Hill Baptist Church.

Vergara said his book is not meant to be a comprehensive listing of urban churches and is not purely an architectural study. In a city such as Baltimore, where some poor communities seem to have a storefront church on every corner, he wouldn't have had room to include every one. Vergara said he chose churches that were particularly striking or memorable for one reason or another, whether it was the way the building stood out amid its surroundings or the people he met inside.

"The idea was not so much to give a master concept of all this but to give an impression, to mirror it - as the church would say, to bear witness."

He included the old Honda dealership, he said, because it was the most outwardly un-religious building one could imagine, low and unornamented. "It was almost a test: How are you going to permeate it with the religious spirit? That's what interested me."

The minister was drawn to the property because it had a large vertical sign with space for five letters, Vergara said. She wanted to replace "Honda" with "Jesus." When he photographed it in 2002, the building was still painted blue and white from its showroom days and had the car name on the vertical sign: Honda Gospel Church.

The North Avenue church stood out, he said, because it was painted pink and white when he saw it and had modern lines that made a strong graphic image. Its minister later removed the pink, telling Vergara the color was a "random choice made during a time when the congregation was without a pastor."

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