“How the Other Half Worships” by Camilo Jose Vergara

Read an excerpt from Camilo Jose Vergara’s postscript to “How the Other Half Worships” (Rutgers University Press, 2005):

For four years I had been attending Sunday services, Bible school, choir rehearsals, revivals, and anniversaries in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods. I attended services in basements and on the second floor of former factories, places I was able to find only by the noise of rattles and the preaching and the energetic singing that came from inside. I drove nights through desolate streets looking for houses of worship with their lights on. I walked into happy celebrations and graduations. I felt close to strangers as they testified, and observed poor people as they were being fleeced out of their money.

I search for places where the homeless, the drug addicted, and those recently released from prison go for food, shelter, and clothing, and get those things plus religion. Newcomers are given a grim view of humanity. Hungry and sleepy visitors to the Emmanuel Baptist Rescue Mission in Los Angeles were told: “It is in the heart of men to do evil,” and are asked to belt out such hymns as “Send the Light,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” A few sheets of toilet paper are handed out to those who need to use the bathroom. After the service people are asked to go, ladies first, gentlemen and with crutches second, and then according to rows to the dining room for breakfast.

I was often asked to explain my presence and said that I was writing a book on churches. Once asked to speak to the congregation during Sunday services at Saints of God House of Prayer in the Bronx I commented that in 2004, fewer churches were offering Thanksgiving dinner.

Bishop Craig Hall, the pastor, thinking I had come to service looking for a turkey, offered me money to buy one.

I met many people who assured me that God had spoken to them. I enjoyed listening to pastors who mixed American practicality with zeal to save souls.

Among passionate preachers I found many who in their sermons combined their religious views with witty stories about human follies.

My life will be duller if I stop visiting these churches. I will miss faith healing, speaking in tongues, and meeting people who believe that the spirit of God is in their sanctuaries and who treated me as a friend. I will be curious about new preaching styles and ecclesiastical fashions. I will miss the church buildings, their artifacts, and the food prepared in them. And I am certain that I will find myself humming “there are souls to rescue, there are souls to spare,” or Have thy own way. Have thy own way Lord” when I least expect it.

How could I hear promises from an “awesome God” with the power to give eternal life and to eliminate suffering and remain unaffected? In these houses of worship I found an oasis from a world obsessed with celebrity, youth, possessions, and status. If I had felt it in me, I would have repented, become a believer, and perhaps I would have walked with God.

  • Songbird

    During my senior year in high school, I was privileged to sing at a rescue mission near our community. Those moments in song as I watched weary worn faces, caused me to experience a life shift. I realized how privileged I was and at the same time felt immense sadness for those who were struggling with financial crisis, addiction and the harsh reality of a world I had never experienced in my middle class environment. I can still see the room exactly as it was when I first walked in. It was dimly lit with several rows of wooden benches. People were sitting a part and looked very lonely. Those times at the mission changed me forever and gave me the desire to help others and make a difference in their lives. The year was 1955. I was sixteen and had grown much older in my heart.

    Thank you for your insightful words.