Heavenly Lights: Camilo Jose Vergara's Storefront Churches

July 8, 2009


ALMOST EVERYBODY has forgotten part of West Madison Street in Chicago except Jesus, the congregation of the Bibleway John 14:6 Ministry and the photographer Camilo José Vergara.

You likely won’t find a more tenacious man with a camera than Vergara, who has been shooting the leftovers of American cities for 30 years. Over that time, he’s turned special attention to the little city churches that fill up old shops and houses and, if nothing else, he’s got a buried message for the mainline faiths, where collections are going dry: We’re over here.

In a new show, “Storefront Churches: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara,” at the National Building Museum, Vergara says he wants to catch these churches in an even light, but he’s done a lot more. In more than 80 framed prints and 100 slides, his focus on architecture has taken him to faith at its most provisional behind signs lettered by hand to warn or uplift, ecstatic murals with often fierce-looking depictions of Christ (including one of “The Real Last Supper,” in which Jesus and his boys are black), stenciled crosses and crucifixes and even a mail-order steeple to call the wayward to God. In these repurpose-driven lives, a former Honda dealership, an old furniture store and a Taco Bell each converts to an ark equally well.

The names of these tabernacles alone bring out a kind of liberation poetry: the Cluster of Grapes Ministries, the Praises of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the True Vine Temple of Christ, the Holy Raiders Revival Church and, in Baltimore, the Thank God for Jesus Church. Vergara, whose work earned him a MacArthur don’t-call-it-genius fellowship in 2002, has been to many of these places time and again, documented the crumbling of poor neighborhoods on both coasts and in the middle of the middle of Gary, Ind., Chicago and Milwaukee.

Alongside his deadpan building pictures, Vergara selectively populates some shots with pastors, bishops, mothers, sisters and deacons, who for the most part work without the elaborate trappings of richer cathedrals and who like their expression rather direct.

In one picture, there isn’t even a church, just a woman preaching at a lectern on an empty lot in Brooklyn with one arm pitched urgingly to her flock, who are seated in plastic patio chairs. Vergara heard her say: “Satan, you are no longer my lord.”

» National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, through Nov. 29, free; 202-272-2448. (Judiciary Square)

Written by Express contributor Bradford McKee
Photo courtesy Camilo José Vergara/NBM

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