Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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How the Other Half Worships by Camilo José Vergara (Rutgers University Press, 2005, 286 pages).

***1/2

It’s little wonder the mass movement that became Christianity found its first adherents among the poor. Offering those with the least in this world riches in the next, Christianity helped its followers make their suffering a little more bearable.

And 2,000 years later, it still does.

In How the Other Half Worships, sociologist and photographer Camilo José Vergara vividly shows us that Christianity is alive and well in the inner city, if a little different than what we’re used to seeing in the churches in more affluent neighborhoods. Indeed, you won’t find any churches with names like Faith Episcopal and Trinity Lutheran featured in Vergara’s book.

In their place you find churches with names like True Vine Temple of Christ, the Ebeneezer House of Prayer and House of Faith Church of Holiness. And these aren’t your typical New England churches, with nice, white trim and soaring steeples and bells. No, these church are more likely to be in corner storefronts and old movie theaters.

To paint his inner-city tapestry, Vergara uses some 300 engaging photographs, interspersed with interviews and conversations he had with pastors and congregants in 21 American cities over a 30-year period.

The book’s name takes its inspiration from Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, an 1890 book of photographs that showed the world the slum conditions that were abundant in New York City and  served as an indictment of the city and the rest of the country for allowing such conditions to exist.

In that context, however, the name might be a bit misleading, because How the Other Half Worships is no indictment. If anything, it celebrates the diversity of religious worship in the inner city and the people who worship there.

At the same time, though, it does show all too well how separated the classes are in this country, despite what we sometimes like to believe.

We live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, wear different clothes, eat different foods and shop at different malls. And Jesus’ words regarding blessedness of the poor notwithstanding, we still worship at different churches too.

— Will Stewart