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Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African American Worship Experience    by Jason Miccolo Johnson order for
Soul Sanctuary
by Jason Miccolo Johnson
Order:  USA  Can
Bulfinch, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

In Soul Sanctuary, photographer Jason Miccolo Johnson captures the essence and rhythms of the multi-denominational black churches and unique African American worship experience. 165 duotone images (out of 15,000 prints taken over ten years and across twenty States) garnish Johnson's book. Places of worship range from small rural and urban storefront churches numbering two or more congregants to large inner city and suburban mega-churches numbering thousands. Johnson focuses on subjects' hands and eyes. When I received the book, I glanced first at its photos and by the time I reached Jason's words - 'If the eyes are the window of the soul, then truly the hands are the tour guides. Every soul deserves a good sanctuary - a Soul Sanctuary' - I began to cry, knowing I was about to experience something very special.

In the Foreword, filmmaker, poet, musician, and photographer Gordon Parks writes that Johnston, 'recaptures past moments of sacred worship ... within the sanctuary of a black church it is an experience that's not to be surpassed. Jason's photographs pushed me back in that sanctuary, put Gabriel's horn in my hands'. Complementing Parks' words is a photo of the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. Jason Johnson's Preface recalls the first photo he clicked with a rangefinder camera. Johnson writes, 'To me, the sanctuary is the soul of the black church, and the soul is the sanctuary of our spiritual being'. Jason portrays the 'arresting and inspiring images found within the African American worship experience ... tears flowing with joy and pain from internal demons still housed in the basements of our individual memories ... a paradise of 'visualosity'.'

Dr. Cain Hope Felder, professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC, praises Johnson in his Introduction, saying 'the author's view of Soul Sanctuary not only invites readers to join a continuing spiritual journey, but also encourages all Americans, particularly Christians, to celebrate this ecumenical cultural legacy'. Essayists Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, Rev. Cardes H. Brown, Jr., and Rev. Dr. Lawrence N. Jones weave activities before congregants arrive to when they leave. Beginning with Preparation early on Sunday morning, Brothers and Sisters unlock doors and adorn altars. Church vans pick up those needing a ride, ushers stand tall, musicians and choirs enter, making all ready for the seamless flow of the service. The preparations announce, 'The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him.'

The Inspiration essay is preceded by Psalm 150 (KJV), 'Praise ye the Lord ... Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.' The essayist writes that unrehearsed words unite with 'worship represented through lively, and emotional spirit-filled music, moving liturgical dance, and youthful foot-stomping step teams ... African Americans praise God from the bottom of the pews to the top of the rafters'. Johnson's photos show the expressions of a soloist hitting the high notes, a choir of beatific children's faces, and a magnificent two-page spread of liturgical dancers leaping, suspended into 'sanctified air'. In the essay on Dedication, 'prayer, praise, and giving' - the 'trinity of a black church service' - invoke Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Johnson's photos portray a worshipper in 'reflective prayer at the altar', the concentration on a young boy's face as he follows scripture, and the heartfelt 'passing of the peace' by congregants through handshakes, greetings, and embraces.

The Sermon is the power of the Proclamation, 'giving hope to pain-filled hearts and troubled minds, broken by the daily grind'. Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor is caught by Jason's camera, with his peaceful face and gesture of arms outstretched, benevolently smiling as he 'delivers an inspiring sermon'. Celebrations are joyous on Sundays, but even more so for dedications of all that is used for 'God's' glory and kingdom'. On the Annual Woman's Day program, Sister Etherine Brown catches Johnson's shutter as she is honored with a plaque for fifty years of service, while Rev. T. Wright Morris is captured in a forty-year-old tradition of baptizing a congregant in Chesapeake Bay - a fabulous action shot. Then time for the Benediction, the closing. A photo to be treasured shows 'one of the oldest active pastors in the country', as he stretches out for a firm handshake at service end.

Bishop John Hurst Adams, adjunct professor at Candler Seminary, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, writes in his Afterword, 'This photographic chronicle of worship ... captures the tensions ... and contradictions of black life in America'. He tells us that 'When you worship in the black church in America, you experience both our history and our hope.' Rev. Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., senior pastor of the six-thousand-member Metropolitan Baptist Church, Washington, DC offers a resounding Epilogue, entitled 'A Sanctuary for My Soul!' He tells us that Johnson 'has defied the dictionary definition of the term sanctuary ... Sanctuary is not place; it is people ... sanctuary is a state of being and becoming ... where my soul finds peace ... where my heart is at rest ... where pains and sorrows ... disappear if only for a moment ... I don't know about you, but I'm going back'.

Jason Miccolo Johnson is a nationally known award-winning photographer. He has taken exclusive photos of celebrities including Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, and Colin Powell. I unhesitatingly recommend Johnson's Soul Sanctuary as much more than a book to adorn a table top. It is a compilation to be respected, its text digested, and its photographs studied and treasured. This is a book to go back to time and again.

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