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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is News and Notes, I'm Farai Chideya.

For centuries, the church has been a cornerstone of the black community. Author and photographer Jason Miccolo Johnson wanted to document the many facets of black church life—in pictures. In his new book, Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African American Worship Experience, he presents iconic images of black church life, and its role in the community. Welcome

Mr. JASON MICCOLO JOHNSON (Author, Soul Sanctuary): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, you say you drove through every state east of the Mississippi and south of Tennessee, at the start of this photographic journey—to document black, Christian life. Tell us about that road trip.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that was a very interesting road trip, because I did not have any particular churches in mind when I started out on the trip. And I was really just led by the spirit, and would stop in small towns and communities, and first inquire about churches at soul food restaurants. And sometimes, barbershops and beauty shops. I wanted to stop in some of the places that had some historical significance regarding the civil rights movement. So, some of the places I visited were like Clarksville, Greenville, Mississippi; I went through Tuskegee; Selma. And from there, I started to fly all over the country to the major markets where African Americans live. In fact, the top 20 African-American cities that are most populated.

CHIDEYA: The late, great photographer Gordon Parks wrote the foreword to your book and in it, he says of your work: How splendidly it awakens memories of those sacred Sundays of my own childhood, when God took over and all angels were black and sinners caught the wrath of a belligerent preacher's tongue. That is a great quote. He was a great artist. How did Gordon Parks inspire you and how did you get him to write your foreword?

Mr. JOHNSON: Gordon has been in my life and in my head for over 30 years. As a student at Carver High School in Memphis, Tennessee, I read The Learning Tree, which was one of the first novels that I wrote--that I read. And I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would even meet him, let alone befriend him. And then, in 1990, while we were working on, Songs of my People, book, he was part of the team on that.

And on those tours, I got a chance to spend more time with him. And it was then, riding back in a limo, that he gave me his home number and told me to call him. And that started a closer friendship that lasted until the very end. So it was really a friendship and a sense of love and respect--that he wrote the foreword to my book.

CHIDEYA: You talk about history, legacy, tradition, but let's put that in the context of religion. As some African Americans choose other religions--everything from Buddhism to Islam, and some choose no religion--is the black Christian experience becoming less universal to the African-American experience?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I think--quite the contrary--it's becoming more universal, as more people find their way back to the church. Because, in effect, the black church is about family, it's about moral values, and it's about establishing kinship through a community of people. And that transcends the religiosity part of it, and becomes more of a place now that has a social link. It has been used for health screenings, and it is becoming the central place in one's lives, particularly in households where they may not be but one parent in the household.

CHIDEYA: You also link the church to the civil rights movement, of course, a long history there. What do you find today, in terms of how the church relates to issues of civil rights and empowerment?

Mr. JOHNSON: Many of the leaders who are--who came out of the civil rights movement, they were grounded in the black church. Now some of the political leaders, in particular, are co, no matter what movement takes place in black America, it is still rooted in the black church. And those same politicians of today return to the black church when they want to get a message across to the masses of people.

CHIDEYA: Well, before I let you go, I have to ask you about one picture. All of your book is in black and white, very stately, and this is a picture of a minister in long black robes, wearing white gloves and white face paint or a mask, and the tag underneath reads, Minister BJ Daniels praises God through mime at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, Washington, D.C. Mime?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. That is part of the new tradition or newer traditions that are being practiced. In addition to liturgical dancers and step teams, or praise step teams, we're seeing mime being used to, as they say, usher in the spirit of the Lord. I think what it does is allow those who have the talent a chance to display it and it's making more a visual link towards religiosity and towards spirituality.

CHIDEYA: Well, a display of talent is in your book, Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African-American Worship Experience. It's by Jason Miccolo Johnson. It's in bookstores now. And if you'd like to see some of the images from his book, please log onto our Web site at NPR.org. Jason Miccolo Johnson, thank you.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of “Draw Nearer”)

Chorus: (Singing) Draw nearer, my Lord to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Oh Lord…

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Nearer to thee…

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Come on…

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) …sing it.

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Nearer, my Lord.

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Nearer, my Lord, to thee.

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Oh Lord…

Chorus: (Singing) Nearer to thee…

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