Storefront Salvation

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."

The name of the church often comes to the pastor in dreams or visions, though it is not uncommon for the name of the area, the street or the founder's last name to become part of the church's identity. The words "First," "Second," "Third" or "Greater" might be added when the church registers with the secretary of state to distinguish it from a church with a similar name. Stagnant congregations often change their names in an effort to make a new start. Sometimes the pastors have other reasons. "I chose the word 'hosanna,' meaning 'save us,' " says Felipe Salazar of Iglesia Apostolica Hosanna in Compton. "I thought that people would ask me what the name meant and I would tell them that it means salvation, then I could explain to them what salvation means."

"I called it Rainbow because I worked for a Rainbow Casino in Gardena," says Pastor Raymond Branch of Heavenly Rainbow Baptist Church in South-Central. "Everything I got I name rainbow. I had a barbershop and beauty supply I called Rainbow. I had a mattress store called Rainbow Ray Mattresses. One of the members of the congregation suggested calling it Heavenly Rainbow," making reference to the rainbow that appears to Noah after the great flood, and that way tying it to the Bible.

Windows and doors are often barred, since thieves break in searching for sound equipment or video cameras. If this represents reality, then the steeples represent dreams, and something more. "A lending institution will tell you that the steeple gives the character and the distinction that makes a church," says Vivian Thompson of Messiah African Baptist Church in South-Central. "They won't lend to you otherwise. The steeple then comes on a truck, and you have to hire a company with a crane to put it up."

Most of the storefront pastors are male and are often referred to as "our men of God," although women make up the majority of the congregations. Some eventually do acquire large congregations--such as Bishop Charles E. Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ on Crenshaw Boulevard--and are able to construct mega church buildings, a dream held by many storefront preachers.

But there are others who believe that getting bigger will cause them to lose touch with their members, as pastors no longer have the time to visit the sick or despondent. "Big churches figure the small ones have nothing to offer, but the small churches give the best sermons," says Bishop Andrew Davis of Go Tell It on the Mountain Full Gospel Church in South-Central.

"The church is like the ocean, and I would liken each building to a ship," says Pastor E.L. Williams Jr. of Southwest Institutional Baptist Church in South-Central. "There are ocean liners that convey people through the seaways, there are battleships and cargo ships and tugboats. The ocean liners and battleships need the tugboats, and some tugboats dream of being ocean liners, while others are content to be tugboats. All of these ships have one thing in common: They are running in the water, which is the word of God."

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