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Saturday
Mar302013

In the Spirit and on the Street

Written by David Gonzalez, Content shared via lens.blogs.nytimes.com 

© Larry Racioppo - Christ carried his cross down fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. 1979.

It was Good Friday a little over 40 years ago when Larry Racioppo’s aunt called and urged him to grab his cameras and race over to her parish, St. John the Evangelist, in South Brooklyn.

“My aunt was active in the Rosary Society there,” he recalled. “She said, ‘There’s something going on you might be interested in.’ It was a procession.”

When he arrived, he found biblical scenes playing out along the street: Centurions standing guard over a sorrowful Mary and a tortured Christ in his agony. On the sidewalk, people watched reverently.

That encounter has led Mr. Racioppo — who retired in 2009 as photographer for New York City’s housing agency — to seek out similar pageants and processions in Brooklyn. Over the years, he has been going to these public celebrations in four churches, accumulating an archive of images that show how faith is lived on the streets of New York.

Unlike some traditional documentary essays about Holy Week in Spain or Guatemala, his images show an intimacy with both the people and the city. It has been a running concern in his street photography, which includes a series on memorial walls and religious spaces in daily neighborhood life.

“He has an intellectual curiosity focusing on how faith manifests itself throughout our city,” said Patricia C. Pongracz, the acting director of the Museum of Biblical Art, which featured some of his photos in “The Word on the Street,” a 2005 exhibit. “Larry shows you the throngs, but he is able to identify people and, through the construction of his photos, really show as much as this is communal and joyous — it is a parade after all — it is coming from a deep personal context. He is not documenting a moment in time. He is showing it as a living tradition.”

During his old day job, Mr. Racioppo often traveled to neighborhoods that were home to growing numbers of Latinos steeped in Catholic tradition or African-Americans for whom faith was a bedrock value, especially during hard times. He could relate to some of it.

“Raised as an Italian Catholic, you have this visual predisposition to this stuff,” he said. “The statues, my grandmother’s altar with candles, the liturgy of the church itself was very visual.”

His first foray into the world of processions started at his aunt’s parish, where more Puerto Ricans were moving in and bringing their Holy Week customs. As he got to know the people he photographed, he learned that this participatory public liturgy was mostly a result of the efforts of a core group of volunteers.

But after five years, as with many volunteer efforts, people moved and the tradition faded. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Mr. Racioppo learned of another such procession in Bushwick, at St. Barbara’s Church. What he discovered when he arrived there was a theater troupe whose ambitions matched the sanctuary’s grandeur. He went behind the scenes, taking pictures of the work of dozens of volunteers who met at night in the run-up to Easter. They would include everyone from seamstresses who made the costumes to a D.J. who used smoke machines and recorded thunder for dramatic effect during crucifixion scenes.

© Larry Racioppo - The children’s choir at the Greater Zion Shiloh Baptist Church

In addition to the public procession on Good Friday, the group mounted tableaux vivants in the adjoining school, replicating biblical scenes with great attention to detail.

“They would have elaborate stagings, and people would freeze on the stage and hold the pose,” he said. “You’d see people reaching for Christ with a look of joy. They’d hold the pose for a minute or two, then the curtain would close. There’d be a 15-minute break, you’d see the curtain move, scraping on the floor and then there’d be another scene. No moving or talking, but a three-dimensional live sculpture.”

On the street, however, there was plenty of talking during the Good Friday procession. At a time when drugs and violence were claiming lives in pre-gentrified Bushwick, the procession was used as a way to illustrate an urban via crucis.

The priest would stop in front of a place where drugs were sold and say: ‘Here Jesus falls for the third time. This is where our people are crucified today,’ ” Mr. Racipppo said. “He anchored the liturgy in something specifically in the community.”
 

The Rev. John Powis, who was pastor during that era, remembers how those prayers made some people nervous.

“The cops were afraid of it because they thought it was going to create a problem on the scene,” said Father Powis, who retired from St. Barbara’s in 2004. “But many of our people thought it was a good idea. The drugs were just going wild back then.”

Mr. Racioppo himself was alarmed in more recent years by something he witnessed at Greater Zion Shiloh Baptist Church on Fulton Street, where the deacon played the role of Christ.

“There was a lot of singing and dancing, more emotional like Pentecostals,” Mr. Racioppo said. “At one point, the deacon started shaking. I thought he was having a seizure and took out my phone to call 911. He was shaking and writhing on the floor. Then people made a circle around him and started dancing. He wasn’t in danger. He was in the spirit.”

 

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