When I decided to become a journalist, I believed that I had to choose between writing and my love for visual imagery and sound. David Gonzalez’s “House Afire,” a three-part New York Times series on the Pentecostal Church, was a journalism awakening for me. This series showed me the limitless opportunities multimedia journalism provides and how you don’t have to sacrifice strong writing and reporting to do it. It has pushed me back to my roots of photography and video, which I gave up to become a newspaper reporter.
The series tells the story of a storefront Pentecostal church in West Harlem that mirrors many in Latino inner-city neighborhoods. The stories of these churches went virtually unnoticed by mainstream media. Religion has always been an important part of the lives of Latinos, from Santería to the Catholic Church and all that lies in between. The nuances of how we worship have always seemed of little importance to outsiders, yet they have such tremendous impact on our communities.
Gonzalez spent a year with the Pentecostal Church Ark of Salvation for the New Millennium in West Harlem, and with photographer Angel Franco he created the first bilingual multimedia work for the Times. He writes:
It is also the story of Hispanic faith in the 21st century, seen in tight focus. Though Pentecostalism, a strain of evangelical Christianity, was born a century ago in Kansas and is often associated with the stereotypical “holy rollers” of the Bible Belt, it has made deep inroads in Asia and Africa. In this hemisphere, its numbers and growth are strongest among Latinos in the United States and in Latin America, where it is eroding the traditional dominance of the Roman Catholic Church.
Experts believe there are roughly 400 million Pentecostals worldwide, and this year, the number in New York City is expected to surpass 850,000 − about one in every 10 New Yorkers, one-third of them Hispanic. Precise numbers, however, are hard to come by because there are scores of denominations and no central governing body.
What I saw in this series was familiar, having grown up the daughter of a Dominican immigrant whose unwavering faith in God had me walking past these very storefront churches on my way to our Catholic Church. I always wanted to peek inside the Pentecostal Church, which this series allowed me to do. Gonzalez’s descriptions of what the church looked and sounded like, brought a flood memories:
Now, on most nights when the neighborhood winds down to rest, the fluorescent lights inside the room flicker to life, and the spartan, whitewashed space rattles under a sonic barrage of prayers, yelps and tambourines. As a teenage band pounds out bouncy Latin rhythms, men in crisp business suits that belie their dreary day jobs triumphantly pump their fists. Women in flowing skirts shout, stomp and gyrate wildly. The air crackles.
These were the sounds and cries I would hear from outside when I walked past the storefront church of my childhood. Gonzalez went on:
But during the blessing, the band’s hypnotic beat quickened. Prayers became cries of “Glory to God!” The crowd pressed forward, and a thicket of hands strained to touch the pastor’s outstretched arm. Some women began to quiver and shake, their ponytails whipping from side to side.
The room grew hot, and a strange sound came rumbling from up front.
“Omshalamamom!” shouted Lucrecia Perez, her hand thrust into the air, her eyes clenched shut. “Shambalashalama.”
She was speaking in tongues, an ecstatic and indecipherable flood of syllables that often erupts during intense worship − brought on, the faithful believe, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, part of the divine Trinity. Though uncommon or unheard of in most other Christian churches − even dismissed as hokum by some ministers − it is celebrated here as the very mystery that gives the faith its name.
Even after five years of advancement and growth in multimedia storytelling, the multimedia packages hold up. The platform allows Gonzalez and Franco to take you inside the church, to hear the music and sermons. I still find myself lingering on every image, transfixed by the sounds of the church and Gonzalez’s soothing yet informative voice.
I am particularly struck by the third package in the series, which focuses on the youth. It begins with the voice and image of a teen praying for his father to get out of jail, then goes on to talk about how much the young congregants love their church, the feeling of community and love. This package’s dramatic photos and videos of baptisms in the Delaware River are very different images than we usually see of young Latinos. Today’s stories are mostly about undocumented immigrants, drug dealers or tragedy, not of teens speaking of “religious ecstasy,” or, on the verge of high school, praying against temptations one girl describes as “cute, boys, being popular…”
I was in my first year of full-time teaching, after a long newspaper career, when I first saw this series. It was January 2007, and I was already experimenting with web-based reporting, but had yet to push my students toward photography, video and sound. In many ways I was still a student myself, trying to figure it all out but aware that the boundaries were limitless.
“House Afire” helped me realize that all I wanted, as a professor, was to teach my students how to do work that, like this, succeeds on several platforms. This series has remained my standard and my inspiration.
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