By Rachel Zoll
Saturday, January 7, 2006; B09
Camilo Jose Vergara has spent the past three decades taking his camera to some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, documenting places few outsiders ever visit.
Over the years, he noticed that urban areas emptied by blight were filling up with storefront churches. The pastors were cabdrivers and retired steel and transit workers with little or no formal religious training, yet they took on an important role in their communities.
Vergara, author of the book "The New American Ghetto," saw these churches as part of the story he's been trying to tell with his photography about the lives of the poor. After four years of Sundays spent in churches from the Bronx to Detroit to Los Angeles, he has published a book of photos called "How the Other Half Worships."
"The work I've been doing all of these years is for the country to come together," said Vergara, recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." "If you get beyond what you know and you begin to get into other people's lives, people who tend not to be in the media, the next time you find yourself there it becomes more meaningful."
The title is a nod to the influential Jacob Riis book of photography published in 1890, "How the Other Half Lives," about tenement life on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Vergara, also a New Yorker, filled his book with photos of churches in unlikely places: a former car dealership, a shutdown KFC restaurant, a former furniture store. Many still have iron bars and metal gates that had been used to protect merchandise inside.
A few of the congregations are in houses of worship that once served another faith. A synagogue in a destitute section of Brooklyn has become a Latino church, La Sinagoga. Stars of David still adorn the facade and sanctuary.
Inside, the churches were often decorated with paintings by congregants or items they found in vacant churches or bought cheaply in local stores. Hanging on the walls of one church was contact paper from a home supply store with a pattern that worshipers said reminded them of stained glass.
As compelling as the buildings are, Vergara said, he was struck even more by the devastation that surrounded them.
He once saw a body being pulled from an abandoned building near La Sinagoga. In Camden, N.J., he photographed a brightly painted white church with a tall steeple -- a former Ukrainian Catholic church that became a Pentecostal congregation -- which sits at the end of a row of crumbling houses with overgrown front lots and boarded-up windows. Vergara wrote that the church looked as if it was from another planet.
Amid this decay, many of the congregations thrived, providing aid to the poor and homeless, a social network for church members and a human presence in areas that had been all but abandoned. Vergara, a native of Chile who was raised Roman Catholic but is no longer active in the church, found a range of religious traditions in the neighborhoods.
Among the congregations were affiliates of the Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal denomination with a large membership nationwide; independent churches promoting hard-line traditional views of the Bible; and Spiritualist churches, whose members believe in communication with the dead. Many immigrant groups started congregations, and churches generally were organized according to ethnicity or native country.
Vergara was particularly fascinated by the pastors. He said many were retirees who "in the pecking order of society, weren't really high up" but had become revered within their own churches, he said. The start-up congregations also gave worshipers a chance to play important roles they could not fill in larger, more established churches, he said.
"In the little church, everybody is sort of a king," Vergara said. "When there are 20 people or 30 people, it's a lot easier to do than when you have 500."
Yet, this dynamic wasn't always positive, he said.
He remembered one pastor whose congregants so idolized him, they would rush to drape a coat over his shoulders as soon as he opened the door to step outside. Vergara also saw church leaders create intense pressure on worshipers to make large donations for new buildings. They would ask congregants to line up in the aisles according to how much money they gave. In one poor church, Vergara wondered whether the one person he saw standing in the $500 line was a ringer. He said some congregants even mortgaged their houses to contribute.
"Oftentimes, the pastor couldn't pay them back, so people would lose their homes," he said. Still, Vergara found only a "minority" of ministers taking advantage of worshipers. "The general feeling I had was I was dealing with decent people who really cared for the folks around and who wanted to help," he said.
Despite his years of research on the congregations and the nearly 300-page book of photos and text, he believes he has only started looking into the significance of churches in poor communities. He hopes the book will inspire other researchers to build on what he started.
"It's amazing how much it tells you about the country," he said.