Religiosity On The Streets

There’s a breezeway between St. James Cathedral and what I presume to be the admin building for the Anglican Diocese. Photographically speaking, it’s interesting because it has a glass ceiling (for the men to walk on?) that produces good reflections when you shoot from underneath it towards the street. The other evening, I was standing there, amusing myself, when someone nearby started picking a guitar and singing. I poked my head around the corner and found a man sitting on a stone bench. The church’s exterior wall has a lot of angles that provide secluded alcoves. I asked the man if he was practising. He said yeah, he had a gig across the road, just one song but he wanted to get it right.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I asked if he’d mind me taking shots of him while he practised. He said sure, but he figured it was probably worth the price of a beer. I said I figured it was, so he did his thing and I did my thing and we both were happy. Mike speaks with a bit of a twang so I was expecting him to sing in a nasal Willie Nelson voice. Mercifully, he’s sings much better than that and his picking is fantastic. You can see from the photos that he plays a mouth organ. I grew up calling it an organ, but he calls it a harp. He plays a Lee Oskar. He doesn’t like Hohner; he says they just don’t hold up.

When it came time to make good on my promise, I realized I’d made a mistake. Normally, when I go out, I load my pockets with twonies. But this evening I’d forgotten. Well, I thought, a deal’s a deal. I held up a twenty dollar bill and said it’s all I had. Mike turned all obsequious on me and it made me feel awkward. He pressed his hands together like he was Gandhi. “Oh man, all I wanted from you was a twonie for a beer. Tell me, are you a Christian?”

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I hate when people ask me that question. I don’t want to disappoint them. At the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a bigot or an asshole. To be honest, I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m happily in limbo. I ended up telling Mike that I grew up in the United Church of Canada but I’m a bit lapsed these days. “Lapsed” describes most people who grew up in the United Church of Canada. “Well bless you anyways,” he said.

One day, my photography habit is going to turn me into a bona fide sociologist. I’d love to conduct an investigation of religiosity on the streets. While mainstream media keep harping at the secular/humanist/agnostic shift of the mainstream-cultures/middle-classes/people-who-pull-twenty-dollar-bills-from-their-pockets, that shift doesn’t appear to have touched those who live in the margins. In part, it may have something to do with the fact that a lot of front line services are run by notoriously evangelical Christian organizations. But nowadays even those organizations are under pressure to keep religion out of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, but leave their souls to the great whatever.

So where does it come from? Does it ooze up from the pavement? Is it prompted by the simple fact of poverty? Is it (consciously or otherwise) a way for those living in the margins to distinguish themselves from the secular lost and their barren normativity? Does my vocabulary and academic/investigative posturing merely underscore the barrenness?

Shut up and shoot, Dave. Shoot like it’s a prayer. Share like it’s a sacrament.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

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