Photo Essay

Small places of worship

The Touch

I Often find myself driving down Western Ave, between the 10 freeway and Sunset blvd. Many times I have noticed these small places of worship, I couldn't call them churches, they are not grand enough to warrant such a title. They look barely legal, small commercial spaces, formerly liquor stores, massage parlors or retail spaces. This particular stretch of Western Ave runs through Korea town and is as run down as Los Angeles gets. There is no city sign ordinance to keep everything looking uniform and orderly. This neighborhood is a rainbow of textures and styles, most stores don't even have their identification signs in English, they are either in Korean or Spanish, some sections resemble a Colombian town rather than one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. I'd always wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall in one of these places. What type of people go there? What goes on in there? What happens in there.

Last Saturday. as I drove past "La Iglesia Pentecostes" curiosity got the better of me soI pulled over and peered inside, I looked on for a while until it became apparent to those inside that they had drawn my curiosity, so upon my discovery I felt compelled to enter and explain myself, "Hola Senor, Como estas? Tienes una tarjeta de negocia? Now they really looked puzzled, a white man who spoke Spanish with an accent of indeterminable origin, I could hear their questions "Who is he? What does he want?". But in good religious form, they gave this stranger the benefit of doubt, I was a peculiarity to them as I'm sure I was probably the first guerro to enter.

I told them that I was a photographer and that I was interested in doing a series of documentary photos exploring small places of worship in Los Angeles. I said that I had seen their place many times and finally decided to come in and talk to them. Pastor Tomas, the man who greeted me, a shaved headed, steely eyed man with a face that told a story of having lived a different life prior to becoming a pastor, concerned that I might document them in an unfavorable light, questioned my intention. I told him that I thought his church was probably closer to what organized religion should be. I told him I thought it was despicable that the Catholic church had built an opulent and expensive church downtown LA just blocks away from skid row, where every night there are 40 - 50 homeless mothers with children without a place to sleep. Yet the church lay empty while these poor people lay in the street. Tomas agreed emphatically and then searched his bible for the section that related to only needing people present in order to worship their god.

I assured him that my intentions were good and he said that I could come back the following Saturday and sit in on their service. The following Saturday I turned up and an excited Tomas told me that tonight there was to be a prophet leading the service, a man named Maurice all the way from Lima, Peru. I told Tomas that I had been to Peru many times and that I love the place, happily he took me over and introduced me to Maurice who greeted me warmly then began to question my intentions. He asked me what my religion was, being an atheist I thought that my personal beliefs would either be a deal breaker or that they would see me as a conversion challenge, perhaps they would spend the rest of the night trying to save me. So respectfully and without the intent to deceive, I told Maurice that my grandmother's side of the family was Catholic and my Father's side was Christian. This seemed to satisfy Maurice and he moved on from the subject of my religious beliefs. Maurice told me that he was a Police man in Lima, he pulled out his Federal identification card and showed me a photo of himself in uniform. By this point it wasn't clear if I was permitted into the church to photograph yet, Maurice told me that there were a lot of bad people out there and he had to protect the people he worshiped with, again Maurice asked me exactly what were my intentions, at this point I thought that I needed to push a little, I looked him in the eyes and said, "Maurice.. with all due respect, you were a policeman in Lima, I have been to Lima many times, it can be a very dangerous place. You have been speaking to me for 20 minutes now, I know that as a policeman you must have had to trust your judgment on a daily basis, look into my eyes as I say this,, I have no bad intentions here, I have no ulterior motive, I am a good person and I will not do anything to harm you or your friends. He looked closely at me and at that point he made a decision that I was OK.

Then Maurice gave me a quick sermon. He set forth his proof of God's existence, using Peru's Nasca lines as evidence. Then Maurice informed me that it wasn't too late for me and that I could be saved, all I had to do was to repent and take the hand of the Lord. I told Maurice that this was great news and we stepped inside to start the service.

Tomas started the service by introducing me and saying that I was a documentary photographer and that I wanted to photograph them. I could see the unease come over everyone. Then he introduced the prophet Maurice. During Maurice's service,Tomas stood at the front of the church dancing and waving his hands up and down. I heard cries of "Dios" and "La gloria Dios" as the service progressed the energy in the room rose, the people were seemingly amped up by Tomas' trance like dancing. Then Tomas pulled out some kind of animal's horn which he blew on incessantly, this increased the fervor amongst the people to the point where even the shyer less vocal women in the small audience started moving into the isles and dancing with arms raised upwards as though in subservient praise to God. The women started wailing and crying, Maurice called them up to the alter, he manhandled their heads and in response the women seemed to go into some sort of seizure, their arms shaking uncontrollably, crying and asking the Lord for forgiveness as Maurice cast out the demons from their souls, until, what I believe must have been the final expulsion of whatever demon the women suffered with, one by one the fell to the ground where they lay until they seemed to regain consciousness. Next, the group summoned the three young children in the audience, everyone lay hands upon them and began to work their exorcisms. The children seemed to be very calm with this process. I got the impression that this was nothing new to them. The fervor had reached a high point by this stage, everyone had started to praise the Lord a few octaves higher and louder. Everyone seemed to have found a place in their own state of being which had rendered them mere vessels for their religious patriarch.

Tomas, once again took the mike and thanked everyone for coming. The hat was passed around for a collection and I couldn't help but notice that despite the small attendance, the people had given generously, Tomas asked me to take the mike and say a few words, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to do some " Glory Hallelujahs" so I thanked the people for letting me into their lives, their religion and their culture. I couldn't have expected to experience anything so raw, so honest. Despite being an atheist it was an amazing experience to have been a fly on the wall in this environment.

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8 responses

  • ♥ Cairenn ♥

    ♥ Cairenn ♥ said (24 Jun 2010):

    **Excellent** presentation!!

  • Mike Melnotte

    Mike Melnotte gave props (24 Jun 2010):

    Very, very nicely done and the documentation behind it is excellent. Congrats Lee.

  • David Adler

    David Adler gave props (28 Sep 2010):

    Very interesting and insightful photo essay. Fully reflects and rewards the care taken to gain meaningful access to the subject matter.

  • Maura Wolfson-Foster

    Maura Wolfson-Foster   gave props (7 Oct 2010):

    Mesmerizing images & absorbing essay......my enthusiastic vote ~ !!!!! :)

  • Roxana Brivent-Barnes

    Roxana Brivent-Barnes said (14 Oct 2010):

    Just imagine, I am alone in my workroom and I shake the house with laughter at 22.29, this is the result of your story, love it, a big YES from me!

  • Chibelle

    Chibelle said (12 Nov 2010):

    Fantastic writing, also if your up in L.A. I would check out the Dream Center, you should get some excellent photo ops there. :)

  • Laura Hartley

    Laura Hartley said (1 Jan 2011):

    Werll, I voted this Story of Week, and TO BE PUBLISHED. This is just fascinating. The pics are a rare glimpse into passionate, Pentacostal charismatics, and that a fellow non-church-goer got them tickles me! but you ARE right - THIS is closer to what Jesus preached than what can be seen through the garish, money grubbing monstracities that one sees spreading as fast as their plastic, hair helmet evangalists can do. Your work is masterful, here, and everywhere.

  • John Linton

    John Linton gave props (10 Feb 2011):

    Hell YEAH! Rad!

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