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Domestically and abroad, America is known as the richest country in the world. It is hard not to be impressed by the standard of living in the nation’s most affluent suburban and urban neighborhoods. Yet, scattered amid stretches that abound in wealth, the country is home to neighborhoods rife with violence, poverty, segregation, and decay. Within these blighted urban landscapes, however, there is at least one notable example of plenty: churches. They do not always appear as traditional houses of worship, but often emerge from the retrofitted shells of former storefronts, garages, factories, warehouses, domestic dwellings, and public institutions. Regardless of the façade, churches populate America’s poorest neighborhoods.
Bringing together more than 300 richly textured color photographs and a series of candid interviews with pastors, church officials, and congregation members, this extraordinary book explores the conditions, beliefs, and practices that shape the churches and the lives of the nation’s urban poor. Over a period of thirty years, sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara repeatedly visited these places of worship and the eclectic mix of buildings that house them. In twenty-one cities located in ten states across the country, photographic sequences coupled with insightful narrative show how ordinary structures assume, modify, and shed a religious character, how traditional churches—if they fail to adapt to new congregations—are demolished, and how new churches are designed and built from the ground up.
Vergara pays special attention to the objects, texts, and imagery that religious leaders make use of to create environments that inspire devotion. Pastors of developing congregations often arrive as crusaders, with missions that cannot be served by traditional religious iconography, and with budgets that force them to use inexpensive materials. In some cases, pastors bring objects of worship from their home towns in places such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Africa, and the West Indies. Despite the idiosyncratic features and folk decoration that distinguish ghetto churches from one another, however, Vergara shows that, for the most part, they are driven by similar religious agendas. They tend to preach about resilience, avoid involving themselves in national and international events, and consider their truths to be absolute and eternal.
A powerful, poignant, and visually arresting portrait, How the Other Half Worships stands as a stark witness to how churches are being rebuilt in the dilapidated streets of America’s cities and how religion is being reinvented by the nation’s poor.
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Camilo Jose Vergara, a 2002 John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellow, is the author and coauthor of numerous books including The New American Ghetto, American Ruins, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery, and Subway Memories. His photography has been exhibited widely and acquired by institutions including the New York Public Library, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, and the Getty Center in Los Angeles. He lives in Manhattan.From Publishers Weekly:
In this accessible, lively account of poor, inner-city churches in America, Vergara offers well-placed snippets of his own analysis and then lets his photographs and the church members do the rest of the talking. Vergara, who has been photographing "ghetto" and "storefront" churches in several major U.S. cities for the past 30 years, avoids any overarching academic thesis about the religiosity of the urban poor, in large part because their religious institutions are, more often than not, fascinatingly eclectic, idiosyncratic and not easily traced to one specific Christian tradition. Truths about these churches and their members reveal themselves without Vergara trumpeting them. In chapters that range in focus from architecture to theology, Vergara's photographs document the strange beauty of spiritual oases in tough neighborhoods. Rather than holding forth about their unusual names, such as America Come Back to God Evangelistic Church, he lets clergy explain the origins and import of these names; creative aesthetic practices, such as using contact paper to achieve an effect similar to unaffordable stained glass windows, are similarly commented upon by church leaders. By allowing members of these churches to define themselves, often in widely divergent ways, Vergara makes it impossible to draw tidy conclusions, but leaves readers with much greater awareness of the religious poor. (Nov.)
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