City of Angels, City of Churches

When you think of Los Angeles, what comes to mind? 

Maybe this.

Maybe this. 

Maybe this guy and this team. 

What about this spot? 

PHOTO: Kevin McCollister

According to Barna Group -- an evangelical research firm -- Los Angeles is the 14th "least-churched" city in the U.S. It's also 80th (out of 100) on Barna's "Bible-minded" cities list. 

With that in mind, why is a photographer born in the Midwest now traipsing across the U.S.'s second largest city in search of church façades and Bibles-in-hand? 

Kevin McCollister has called L.A. -- a sprawling megalopolis of nearly 13 million people in the greater urban area -- home for nearly two decades. He arrived in the City of Angels by way of Cleveland and New Orleans. He came with the dream of many who come to L.A.

"I always considered myself to be a writer and came to L.A. to be a screenwriter," McCollister said. "Gradually, I discovered taking a picture of something can convey the same emotion as writing about it and it was way more fun than writing," he said.

McCollister's work has been featured in books such as East of West LA and displayed in L.A.'s Union Station. Lately, his work has focused on the store-front churches and Bibles of the city's blue-collar, working class, population. 

He said, "Even though there's tremendous affluence in Los Angeles, my work is centered on the blue-collar world which I grew up with in Cleveland and New would be surprised at how much of that is here." 

Indeed, L.A. -- my hometown -- is full of surprises. From the L.A. Coroner's gift shop (now there's a souvenir!) to the Electric Dusk drive-in theater to the fact that zoot suits are prohibited within city limits (FACT) L.A. can bewilder and bewitch from just about every angle. As Randy Newman put it best, this is why Angelinos "LOVE L.A."

But L.A. isn't just beautiful on the surface. This is no superficial city. It also has a sonorous soul. Catholics, Black Baptists, Ashkenazi Jews, Buddhists, Evangélicos, Pentecostals, and Lutherans all call L.A. home and can stake a claim as one of the city's most spirited religious communities. 

The juxtaposition of what is expected about L.A.'s religion is perhaps what defines it best and what is made most evident in McCollister's photo series entitled, "Churches of L.A." From the differentiation of the sanctimonious silence within the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels next to the hustle-and-bustle of the 101 freeway or the dim light that casts a shadow over the subtle, but vibrant, energy of a store-front pneumatic congregation that McCollister captures on film, this city's spiritual vivacity is as unexpected as it is paradoxical. 

Below is an interview with McCollister, along with a few of his photos. Be sure to visit his website to learn, and view, more: 

Why did you decide to start this project taking photos of churches in LA? 

"Sexy Madonna on Hopper St." PHOTO: Kevin McCollister

I've been taking photos of Los Angeles for almost ten years. It's so much fun to see all these different elements to Los Angeles. But it was about two years ago on one of my many walks that I started, finally, to notice all these small storefront churches. Very easy to miss as they're closed in the early weekend mornings when I'm out with a camera. It slowly dawned on me how many of these churches there are and they are everywhere, except for the more affluent parts of town. Also, they were all so plain. Not quite plain as a Quaker meeting house, but almost. And certainly nothing bombastic about them, just the church hours of service and maybe a Bible quote. 

What have you discovered as you’ve photographed so many churches? 

PHOTO: Kevin McCollister

I don't know about LA's overall spirituality and I don't attend any of the services but the congregants on the street coming and going are quite friendly, lots of smiling, all carrying Bibles. 

Culturally I'd have to say it's a little surprising to sometimes see the service live on the video screen (sometimes more than one) in rooms that you would not think it necessary or even possible

I also want to add that I am occasionally invited in for food during a break in the evening services. While most people are home watching TV, I'm in South Central Los Angeles at ten o'clock at night eating fried chicken or maybe a cheese and bean pupusa (a Salvadorean staple). 

But I think what I've really discovered is the sheer number of the the churches (once I counted eight in as many blocks) coupled with how many people attend each one. And this is not just for Sunday mornings but for weeknight services too. As much as I can tell, it's an under-reported phenomena here in L.A. 

When did you shoot these photos? 

I started about two years ago. Since then its been an ongoing project and I'm still pursuing it. I've also seen how some of these churches have folded up since I shoot pictures of them. It's just the nature of the beast, I guess. 

Did anyone react to you taking these photos? If so, how?

PHOTO: Kevin McCollister

I occasionally encounter some suspicious people but it's rare. For the most part it's all very open. There are a few churches I visit as I sort of make my rounds. I'm thinking of one preacher in particular, Carlos, who, when I told him of a recent bout with kidney stones, quickly had someone come over from an extended prayer circle.

You seem to focus on spiritual/religious subjects in your photography. Why is that? 

Because there's just so much of it here! This is really a case of once you start looking for something, it can generally be seen. And if my earlier understanding of L.A. is any indication, the spiritual and religious iconography here in this town is almost completely unknown and unappreciated. 

And maybe on my part there's also a slight touch of perversity to it. Churches and religion can be such a hot button topic, people instinctively look away from it. With this project, I'm actively and repeatedly forcing people to be aware of this aspect of L.A. This avoidance has been somewhat confirmed in that at this point it's just been you and one other organization that has acknowledged the "60 Churches In 60 Days" project. The Twitter response has so far been almost non-existent.

Also, having been raised as a church-going Catholic, the religious imagery, even in the evangelical churches, does not seem completely foreign to me as it might if I was raised in a totally secular household. There's one church in particular, a Catholic mission, that's one of the oldest structures here in Los Angeles, going back to the 1700's and the interior, which thankfully has not been updated, brings back a lot of memories, the sights, the smells and the very somber mood  of the first Catholic church I attended in the late fifties in small town Ohio. That church might be what started all this.

What do you hope people discover in this series? 

PHOTO: Kevin McCollister

I don't see a day that when people think of Los Angeles they think swimming pools, movie stars, and little storefront churches, but I honestly do want to move the needle just a little toward this idea. I also want people to appreciate the churches for themselves. In some cases it would be the simplicity of the design being indicative of their devotion. In other cases, the loud vibrant colors of their interiors being part of their exuberant faith. At the same time, I don't want to romanticize the churchgoers themselves. I understand that, just like me, they have ideas and beliefs that fall short of the mark. That's one reason why I am for the most part avoiding portraits as part of this series.   

Do you have a favorite church? Shot? Spot? 

The cliched response is my favorite photo is my most recent photo. I would say my favorite church is in MacArthur Park, literally in the park. It's completely outdoors, they sweep the leaves under a group of very large trees and set up their folding chairs, pulpit and sound system. Every Saturday evening and every Sunday morning for more than three years. Attendance is growing, probably close to fifty people on Sundays. During the week, Minister Carlos is both a valet attendant and a free lance mechanic but he really comes alive during his services.

What makes this photo series “Los Angeles?" 

Honestly, I don't think too many people would think of this series as being based in big, bad Los Angeles. And that's a big reason as to why I took on the project, to let at least a few people know that a large number of very devout churchgoers are here. I also think that because these people are overlooked or maybe even ignored in favor of the glitzier crowd might be the thing that makes this a "Los Angeles" series.

What is your personal spiritual posture or perspective? 

I don't hold this to be an absolute but "A prayer not followed by action hasn't been a real prayer."

Thanks to Kevin McCollister for sharing his experiences and insights photographing the "Churches of L.A." For more, visit his website

*For more on religion & culture, follow @kchitwood on Twitter.