Ghetto Salvation

How the Other Half Worships, by Camilo Jose Vergara. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 2005, 304 pp. $49.95 (clothbound).

Suppose an alien came to Earth. It is searching for God’s presence. It asks you where to look for it. What would you tell it? Well, if the number of houses of worship indicates the strength of God’s presence, I know where I would send it: the black ghettos and brown barrios of the United States. Houses of worship line their streets in numbers and patterns rarely observed in other types of neighborhoods.

We know from social science research, particularly Congregations in America by sociologist Mark Chaves, that approximately 20 percent of all religious congregations in the United States are located in poor neighborhoods, where an overwhelming majority of the congregations are Christian churches. The churches are uniform and diverse, their presence historic and new. Faith is manifested in traditional and unconventional ways.

In his latest book, How the Other Half Worships, Camilo Jose Vergara explores both the presence of churches in poor places and their contradictions. The title is intended to evoke a historical connection to the work of Jacob Riis. Around the turn of the last century, Riis documented the desperation and degradation of America’s slums in How the Other Half Lives. Like Riis, Vergara uses photographs and words to detail the lives of the poor and describe the places where the majority of them reside. The difference is that Vergara recognizes that there is more to the poor than poverty; generally, they are a people of hope and faith.

Vergara is a visual artist. In fact, he is an acclaimed photographer. (He was a 2002 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, an appointment commonly referred to as a “genius prize” for outstanding creativity.) For the last three decades, Vergara has traversed the nation’s cities with cameras in tow and wonderment in his eyes. He has seen and studied through his lenses America’s changing urban landscape, as well as some of the grittiest neighborhoods in the nation. His photographs reveal the effects of public policy, private decisions and community sentiments. They also indict white (and black) flight from cities, deindustrialization and joblessness, concentrated poverty and politics. His words are energetic, reflective and erudite. It has always been this way with Vergara.

Many may recall his earlier book, The New American Ghetto, in which he combined rich text with black and white photographs from 18 years of travel through the streets of more than 20 urban cities. He integrated, in his words, “description with meditation.” In the end, he illuminated the dark urban spaces that haunt the mind of the body politic in America. Moreover, he advocated for social change, relying on his photographs to represent the voices of the urban downtrodden, including the inanimate buildings that often memorialize what had been vibrant, stable and decent places.

A decade later, How the Other Half Worships revisits many of the neighborhoods photographed in The New American Ghetto. The 316 color photographs in the new book allow us to observe alterations in the physical and social topographies of inner cities. For Vergara, the return was more profound. “I wanted to know, for example,” Vergara writes, “why Christian churches were so pervasive in destitute neighborhoods, and how local residents thought about fellowshipping, living virtuously, the afterlife and ways of communicating with the divine.” His informants – male and female, black and non-black – ranged from storefront pastors to street preachers, church mothers to church deacons. He also includes church buildings and hymns for they, too, have histories and stories to tell us about God and Caesar in the ghetto.

How the Other Half Worships is a “coffee table” book, although more philosophical than most. Its images and narratives reveal the mix of “answers to basic questions about human existence.” We see the faces, hear the stories and vicariously witness the lives of those who worship their Lord in neighborhoods where many would be justified in questioning God’s existence on Earth at all. We learn of the social architecture of religion in poor places. We observe religious spaces as physical sites of reuse, and of the renewal of abandoned and newfound hopes. We better understand the utility of religion, particularly how it empowers its adherents to overcome and to improve their temporal, or worldly, conditions.

The book conveys a deep honesty, especially about Vergara as questions about his beliefs are posed. “Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Are you saved?” I know from my own experiences conducting research on black churches in poor neighborhoods that those are common questions informants ask. They employ them to identify and classify the person they are speaking with. They are, in short, low-level but extremely personal inquisitions. Vergara’s reflection on them reveals much about his own candor and grace: “If I had felt it in me, I would have repented, become a believer, and perhaps I would have walked with God.” But, he was not called, and he is content not to believe.

The book is also more timely than most picture books we may display in our homes and review at our leisure. The intersection of religion and poverty today is receiving a degree of attention not seen since Riis’ days, when faith-based organizations (e.g., the Salvation Army) emerged in American cities to redeem the lives of the poor and the downfallen. Vergara’s book implicitly raises concerns about the assumptions policymakers make today about religion, especially Christianity, as an antidote to dependence. It suggests that “faith-based” initiatives to reform the poor and resurrect their neighborhoods may not be sufficient balms for healing broken people and places, even if it helps them endure their circumstances.

Readers, however, may question some of Vergara’s decisions about the book. For instance, he fails to include images and ideas that explore two truths about churches in the inner city. One, many residents of poor places look askance at the churches in their midst. Some residents perceive pastors preying upon the plights of the poor. Others despise the return on Sundays of church members who fled their neighborhoods and act as if they fear the denizens who remain. Two, not all who worship in poor places do so in traditional spaces, be they edifices or storefronts. Living rooms of houses and apartments are also important sites for congregations of relatives and friends. Such congregations hint at a hidden world, one populated by de-churched people determined to not abandon their faith.

Vergara’s single focus on Christian churches is surprising. There are many and increasing numbers of Muslims in poor neighborhoods, especially majority-black ones. To ignore Islam’s presence within poor places is to render invisible how and to whom some of the poor worship. Also, there is no discussion or depiction of the prophetic voices and behaviors of the churches in poor places. While much of the book opens our eyes further to churches as institutions of salvation and charity, we never see how they may serve as staging areas for political mobilization and critique among their attendants and others in their neighborhoods.

Lastly, and this is nothing more than a quibble, Vergara’s choice of title is problematic, even if it draws useful ties to the past. It suggests that the scale of poverty equals what it was over a century ago. This is incorrect. Although poverty has not been eradicated, and we may always have it with us, it has declined dramatically in America over the last one hundred years, especially since the 1890 publication of Riis’ book. The title is also odd because a conservative interpretation of it may be that there truly is no hope of resurrecting poor places. This message clashes with much of the subject of the book and the routine contents of the magazine in your hands.

Nonetheless, I judge this an extraordinary book. How the Other Half Worships “is the beginning of what I hope one day will be,” Vergara writes, “a well-developed and rich interpretation of Christianity in the inner city.” That day has drawn closer thanks to his book. It compels us to think harder and clearer about the place of religion in contemporary life, and not just for the working poor and others in impoverished communities. It is one that everyone who sees it will pick up, read and recommend.

So, if you run into an alien in search of God, instruct it to read How the Other Half Worships. After reading it, the alien will know where to go, at least as a next step in pursuing the Divine.

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Michael Leo Owens is a scholar of urban politics; state and local politics; political penology; governance and public policy processes; religion and politics; and African American politics. Author of God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2007), his current book project is Prisoners of Democracy, a study of the politics, policies, and attitudes that diminish the citizenship of felons in the United States. Former chair of the governing board of the Urban Affairs Association (2013-2015), Owens serves on the boards of directors and advisory boards of Prison Policy Initiative, the Georgia Justice Project, and Foreverfamily, as well as the editorial boards of the Journal of Urban Affairs and Politics & Religion. Owens also holds courtesy appointments in the Departments of African American Studies and Religion.

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