IN CERTAIN parts of town there are so many, block to block, that you begin to lose clear sight of them. They are relics from another century — the former hardware stores, corner markets, liquor stores, pool halls, beauty shops, haberdashers — that have been remade, often on-the-fly, into miniature houses of worship.
Via car, the facades seem to slide by and become just part of the busy urban landscape of East and South and Northeast Los Angeles. By foot however, as photographer Kevin McCollister has been learning, each splintered doorway or grate-covered window is a glimpse into a specific situation, a story, one about the building and its larger community yet also about the microcosm to which it ministers.
“30 Churches in 30 Days” is McCollister’s current visual exploration of Los Angeles. A few years back, I wrote about him and his blog, East of West L.A. for Boom and I still scroll through regularly to catch up on not just where he’s been, but to get a dose of L.A. through his prism. Even if it is a specific location or a stretch of boulevard that’s deeply familiar to me, somehow he he finds some visually fresh perspective that both shifts the point-of-view and locates something hidden or brand new.
For a couple weeks, I’d been watching these storefronts and street-corner churches pop up on the East of West L.A. blog and its corresponding Facebook page, so after awhile I decided to reach out to him to find out a little backstory about the project — where it was taking him, what he was learning new about the city in his travels across it.
He had a little time to talk on a recent rainy night, deciding to use it as a catch-up evening to schedule the flow of upcoming posts and sketch his next on-foot treks. He’s been shooting mostly Sunday mornings and, with each exploration, moving into new nooks of neighborhoods. “The churches are a honeycombed through the city, but if you’d blink you miss them,” he explains. “It’s been like links in a chain. With each shoot, I move a littler further south and a little further east. One leads to another and then another and I realize, I could easily do this for another 30 days. Very easily.”
The churches visually express layers of histories, of L.A. stories. Repainted, repurposed and renamed time and again, says McCollister, even still “they remain sort of timeless. I can’t think of any of them that look like they couldn’t have been around 40 or 50 years ago.” The hand-lettering, in particular (denoting choir practice times, deacon meetings, Bible study sessions), he notes, upends linear notions of time and place. “It could be 1930s L.A. or 1930s Vicksburg, [Mississippi]. You’d be hard pressed to guess.”
But too there are the stories just outside — or behind — the frame. He’s stumbled into intimate services and prayer meetings in progress. He’s happened upon churches that seem thriving one month but quickly change hands and are dramatically redone by the very next. He’s been invited to sit down in fellowship and take part in, to his great surprise, late-night pupusas.
Now a little over midway through the 30 days on the streets, he says that he’s received range of responses to his photo inquiries. Some groundskeepers have been “quite gruff”; others, he says, “Couldn’t have been friendlier or more proud,” to take him in and walk him through their rehabilitated space, winding past the flower-bedecked pulpit or through the neat rows of worn folding chairs serving as pews.
More than anything, McCollister says, he’s wanted to remain respectful: He’ll always pause and ask before he squeezes out a frame. “I don’t want to get in the way or in anyone’s face,” or interrupt a private or sacred moment. With that in mind, what the photos most vividly convey is that he understands that these spaces are indeed sanctuaries, in every sense of the word. No matter how humble or visually ornate, they are the places that Angelenos seek out; they are places they go to pause, recharge and repair.
It isn’t surprising that McCollister has been most struck by the language lacing the exterior walls, particularly the place-name signage that’s been hand-painted over former liquor store signs or furniture-showroom placards. McCollister, it’s important to note, is also a poet, and that close attention to the telling detail comes through in each frame as well. “I am seeing a lot of churches that have that sort of comforting language — like ‘Grace and Truth Baptist Church.’ I never see those words — ‘grace and truth’ — in any shape or form in other parts of the city. Certainly not in my neighborhood. And I realize that these are more than just titles of a church, but say something touching about of faith. And place.”
You can visit “30 Churches in 30 Days” at McCollister’s blog East of West L.A. and follow along.
(all photos copyrighted by Kevin McCollister and used by his permission)