Storefront salvation

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Drive down any major Detroit thoroughfare and, among the check-cashing joints, liquor stores, coin laundries, abandoned buildings and vacant lots, you’ll see churches. All manner of churches. Grand cathedrals and humble chapels, converted storefronts and former synagogues, monumental megachurches and squat brick temples. Whether imposing or unassuming, they’re sure to have some surprising mural or quixotic name that speaks of a unique vision. These houses of worship are a persistent feature of the postindustrial urban landscape. And Camilo José Vergara is their chronicler.

Vergara, an inquisitive churchgoer and intrepid photographer, has been shooting urban settings for more than 25 years. The winner of a MacArthur genius grant, he’s long been obsessed with recording inner-city religious rituals in America. Interrogating pastors and interviewing worshippers, he’s amassed an abundance of information on his subject. As he jokingly admits, he’s one of the few people who goes door to door bothering Jehovah’s Witnesses.

His new volume of photos, How the Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, $49.95, 286 pp.), is an attractive and unusual coffee-table book at the intersection of art, urban studies and religion. A fascinating, thorough and fair look at urban Christianity, Vergara’s images of people and places span four decades, encompassing 21 cities from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, including a wealth of images of Detroit’s storefront churches.

Part-documentarian, part-sociologist, Vergara casts a wide net, capturing traditional houses of worship that must take on new denominations or risk perishing, storefronts that “open and close like flowers in spring,” massive megachurches that pull in worshippers from miles away, and churches slowly built by small crusading congregations on a cash-only basis.

Seeking the reasons behind their choices of objects, texts and imagery, Vergara explores the people who build religious institutions in neighborhoods plagued by depopulation, disinvestment and dereliction. The profiles of storefront churches afford an eerie glimpse of Rust Belt cities, where religion has replaced manufacturing, where once-busy places of gathering, entertainment and commerce — union halls, movie houses and stores — are reborn as temples and chapels. Similarly, the pastors often have former lives in now-scarce professions, as line workers, union officials or municipal employees. Drawing on his deep portfolio, Vergara is able to chronicle how churches and the neighborhoods around them change over time, how storefronts become adorned with steeples and crosses, while the neighborhoods are gentrified or demolished, by design or by neglect.

The “resting Jesus” from Shiloh Temple Apostolic Faith on Linwood Avenue, Detroit.

Like many of the architecture lovers who descend on Detroit, Vergara laments the churches felled here by wreckers. “There are no takers for the land, and the place is just left there. Detroit, for instance, has the best collection of 1920s gas stations, and a lot of them are churches now. ... They’re really riches. If, instead of acting as if they were an embarrassment, they would educate people, have people look and see the richness of those buildings, they wouldn’t have swung at them the way they did.”

With such history fading and disappearing, his book is a welcome record, with its profusion of full-color reproductions of naïve religious art. Urban churches are among the last retreats of vernacular art, where unschooled talents seek a way to bear witness to their faith. Vergara is often able to uncover stories behind the paintings, photographs and statues that widen the viewer’s appreciation.

For instance: the white Jesus at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit that was painted black during the 1967 riots. He says, “Of course, it was painted white again. And then the folks from the seminary realized that the right thing to do was to keep it black. So there it stands as a symbol, a way of making peace with the neighborhood.”

True Vine Temple of Christ on St. Aubin, located in a former union hall.

One especially haunting image of a suffering Christ comes from a Cass Corridor church where the pastor told Vergara it was painted by an ex-convict coming off a stretch in Jackson (see cover). “This is all hearsay, but I heard later that the artist had killed a man and went back to prison — like a Detroit version of Caravaggio. Whether that’s a true story or not, it’s a compelling story — and the image is compelling. It’s almost like a Byzantine icon, an essential image of suffering. It’s painted by somebody who must have really had a feeling of anguish and desperation. That long face, the blood, the open mouth — it’s not the image of a Christ who knows he’s going to be in heaven in the next hour, but a Christ asking, ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ So it moved me very deeply. That’s one of my favorite images.”

The art moves Vergara even when it drifts into unintentional whimsy, as in a mural of a resting Jesus at the former Shiloh Temple Apostolic Faith on Linwood Avenue in Detroit. Vergara recalls, “It’s in a former bank. The building had burned, and I decided to go inside to see what traces were left and, of course, I saw this wonderful picture. I had never seen Christ taking a break. He always had people harassing him.”

Some of the most visually striking artwork in the book is that of John B. Downey, which Vergara discovered in the chapel at the Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission on L.A.’s skid row. Downey painted the mission’s chapel in 1973, like a Michelangelo of the skids. Of Downey’s “Devil’s Juice,” Vergara says, “The way he represents that image is tremendously powerful. I think that his belief saves it from being kitsch. He wants to tell you that he’s representing it straight from the Bible — it’s not idolatry because it’s straight from the book.”

Of special interest to urban historians are photos showing how African-American and Latino residents inherit Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and Jewish synagogues, making them their own. In many cases, these buildings retain original features, such as Byzantine crosses or Hebrew text, hinting at the history of how people migrate through a city. Thomas Klug, director of the Institute of Detroit Studies at Marygrove College, says there’s a wealth of scholarship on these intra-city migrations, explaining, “One could look at these religious sites as part of a contested terrain, people making their claims, whether it’s storefront churches or mosques or orthodox churches.”

Throughout the book, the reader is struck by Vergara’s eye for the ceremony, art and costumes of religion, something he says he has felt since his earliest days. Born in Santiago, Chile, in his youth Vergara was deeply impressed by what he calls “old-fashioned Catholicism.” Speaking by phone from his Harlem apartment, he still recalls with awe the atmosphere of churches, the incense, the stations of the cross, the colors of the ceremonial clothes embroidered with silver and gold thread, the whole array of hats that ranged from the comical pom-pommed biretta to the sober and imposing bishop’s miter. He recalls, “Today those styles seem interesting and strange, but to me they were part of life.”

His introduction to urban America came later, not long after he arrived in the United States to study sociology at Notre Dame in the mid-’60s. As a poor Latino in the “epitome of white Catholic America,” he says he was well treated, but felt pushed to the side. This sparked a lifelong obsession with the American ghetto.

“You want to know, ‘What’s going on? Why am I marginal here? Why are other people marginal?’ So you go to the black neighborhoods and hear stories of Gary, Ind., and Chicago, where bigger concentrations of minority people are, and discover a world that has its own rules.”

His investigation led him to understand why urban Christianity thrived in America’s redlined neighborhoods. When asking the people he met if poor folks have a greater need for God and religion, Vergara says “the answer often given was that the rich basically have their needs taken care of. They don’t have to be constantly dealing with being evicted, a marriage falling apart because you have no job, kids that are becoming unruly because of the neighborhood.

“The anguish of having all these problems leads people to put their faith and trust in God. Who else are they going to trust? The mayor? The president?”

In visiting neighborhood churches, Vergara was fascinated by ceremonies he saw and the ministers who find “completely different ways to communicate with people,” from speaking in tongues to stage-managing an elaborate show. Of the latter, Vergara says, “These are real professionals, in the way they move, the way they pause, the way they speak, the way they convey emotion and feeling, become one with the crowd. Here comes this impressive man in this long, steel-gray coat with a booming voice and this powerful presence. Some of the stuff is better choreographed than anything on Broadway. One of the greatest examples is [Pastor Marvin] Winans in Detroit.”

John B. Downey’s “Devil’s Juice,” 1973.

Though much has been written about the conservatism of urban Christians, Vergara takes such assertions with a grain of salt. He admits, “It’s true, homosexuality is referred to as an abomination, but I don’t think they lose too much sleep over that.”

Such condemnations do make their way into the book. One sign on the exterior of a West Side Detroit church lumps in gays with drug addicts, prostitutes and murderers. Vergara takes a charitable stance, saying, “I’ve had people comment on this sign, and I guess their reaction is that if you’re in those neighborhoods, you have to talk straight and hit people over the head with a 2-by-4.

“I guess part of what attracts me to these places, these ruins, the way of life, the graffiti, is that I find it very interesting that the human experience is not limited the way it becomes limited when you are, say, a graduate student at the University of Michigan. As a so-called rational person, you are ready to dismiss anything that speaks of irrationality, so you tend to dismiss this stuff. But, once you are in the presence of this stuff, some of the strangest things can become meaningful, unforgettable.”

In many ceremonies, worshippers are asked to bear witness, to testify about what’s deeply personal to them. Vergara recalls, “I can’t forget this one old lady in Newark, speaking to the congregation about being given a blue chicken when she was a little girl.

“This is great stuff. Most of us aren’t asked to speak our minds. We’re not called upon to stand in front of our peers and say what’s really extraordinary about our lives, and it’s really important. What’s our blue chicken?”

The Jesus at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary on Chicago Boulevard was first painted black during the city’s 1967 riot.


To see more of José Vergara’s work, visit his Invincible Cities Web site at

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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