cover image How the Other Half Worships

How the Other Half Worships

Camilo Jose Vergara, . . Rutgers, $49.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-8135-3682-8

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.)