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Storefront Salvation

They Have Taken Over Abandoned Banks, Boutiques and Even Bars on a Mission to Redeem Lost Souls. They May Look Like the Poorest of Churches, but They Are Some of L.A.'s Richest Folk Architecture.

January 12, 2003|Camilo Jose Vergara | Camilo Jose Vergara recently received a MacArthur "genius" grant for his work as a photographer.

Wherever you go in South Los Angeles you see them, sometimes four or five to a block, the simple buildings with their Bibles and crosses and their sometimes crudely lettered signs that mark them as "storefront" churches. They have been around since African American migrants came from rural Southern towns to the promise of prosperity in Los Angeles. I have been photographing them for more than 25 years, and they remain rooted in their original mission--to offer salvation--while also serving as a place for people to meet and help each other, to remember their place of origin and to share meals. I have seen them offer consolation from the stress of daily life, render assurances that God is good and cares for them, and even give worshipers the simple pleasure of dressing formally one day a week.

Typically these churches are located in former commercial buildings left vacant by white flight to suburbia. They were dry-cleaning establishments, butcher shops, hardware stores, banks and bars, as well as warehouses, factories, post offices and libraries that didn't have traditional front windows. Some have been churches for more than two decades; others have reverted to commercial use, becoming barbershops, mattress stores and metal shops.

These urban storefronts lack the elegant proportions of rural and small-town churches. Rather, they show a healthy disregard for symmetry and conventional aesthetics. My interest was stirred by their simple, unique facades, the result of a collaboration between pastors with no design training and contractors working on tight budgets. I admire the imagery imported first from the South and, as the churches absorbed a new group of Latino worshipers, icons from Mexico and Central America. They are among our best examples of folk architecture, yet they show an almost unconscious reverence for the traditional: On their calling cards, collection boxes and handouts are pictures of the tall-steepled churches they aspire to be.

In Los Angeles, most storefront church congregations come in four kinds: African Americans who continue to attend services in their old neighborhoods even though they have moved to Riverside, San Bernardino and Apple Valley in their own version of urban flight; dwindling numbers of elderly African American residents; mixed-age African Americans who share church space with a growing Latino population; and exclusively Spanish-speaking memberships.

Storefront churches are usually located along busy commercial streets where they can be seen by potential members. Popular avenues include Central, Western, Broadway and Vermont in South Los Angeles and Wilmington in Watts. A one-block stretch of Florence Avenue in South-Central represents what I call a "Street of God," with five churches, four of them adjacent to each other. These concentrations tend to mark the more destitute parts of the city, where pastors see themselves on a mission to help save the neighborhood's addicts, dealers, prostitutes, alcoholics and gang members.

These churches are often viewed as signs of economic decline, renters of last resort, tenants who arrive and leave overnight. They are believed to do little in reducing crime as they are shuttered for most of the week, and they contribute nothing to the tax rolls because of their nonprofit status. While the pastors bring their own idiosyncratic styles to the churches, they are united in dismissing the building as the focal point. "The Lord is not looking for great churches; anywhere that people are adoring Him, He is there," says Pastor Armando Moran of Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostes El Amor De Cristo in South-Central.

Yet there is often an effort to give the building permanence and respectability. The word "rock" is frequently part of a church's name. Sometimes the front of the church is covered in Permastone siding, or the facades are inscribed with Bible sayings that draw on the rock imagery. Popular is Matthew 16:18: "And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

Among the poorest houses of worship, Christ is more often white than dark-skinned, but pastors warn of drawing any conclusions because skin color has no significance in the spiritual realm. Still, some acknowledge the discrepancy. "You are dealing with an identity crisis," says Pastor Lonnie McNamee of Do Right Christian Church in South-Central. Congregants "see a white Christ as someone to look up to. They have been taught that white is better and that has become embedded in them."

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