The incense wafts in thick coils, creating ghost-like apparitions that drift in the penumbra of this makeshift tabernacle that once served as a barn in southeast Texas.
From the window next to me, I catch the sudden flash of spreading peacock feathers. The bird is perched on a fence post outside this place where members of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church have gathered to worship.
I’m here for a narrative photo project exploring faith after the metropolitan (bishop) gave me permission to photograph the early Saturday mass. These devotees proudly trace their spiritual roots all the way back to St. Thomas, the former resurrection skeptic who eventually brought the gospel to the sub-continent over two thousand years ago. These orthodox Indians, in turn, have brought their exotic liturgy to the American bible-belt where church malls and the franchise mentality sometimes dominate the religious landscape of today.
This is also a traditional congregation. Church members peel off their sandals and dress shoes, leaving them by the door. The women wear bright saris with headscarves. I even spot a couple of church members clad in shalwar kameezes, pantaloons with long tunics. The celebrants worship in the sanctuary barefoot because this is a sacred place. Lost to the majesty of it all, the younger children wiggle in their parents’ arms.
We’ve come to the part of the mass where celebrants greet each other. The resonance of Malayalam prayers and rattling cymbals linger in the air. From the front of the church, a young girl breaks away from her mother. I can see her approaching me at the back of the church. Her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. The veil covering her dark hair flutters like a patch of blue sky in the shadows. She can’t be more than twelve.
When she stands before me, she raises her fingertips and bows her head.
“She is offering you a ‘kiss of peace,’” the man next to me says.
But I am not part of her devotion. Heck, I’m not even one of those Good Christian Soldiers people used to sing about in church when I was a child.
I am a believer, but I am also straggler, limping on the road with all of God’s other walking wounded. The camera lens is my stained-glass window.
“This is our greeting,” the man adds. He presses his hands together and nods for me to do the same. I clumsily return the girl’s sudden act of kindness, this welcoming gesture for the stranger in their midst. And in that one moment my orphan heart, grief-worn and dirty with doubt, sees the face of God.
What drove me to this secondhand church began with a deep funk that began a year ago.
I had just come off a bad sickness. I woke up one morning, swung my feet from the bed to the floor and froze. It felt like all the air was sucked out of the room. Just like that. Then it descended. The invisible weight of a pitch-black depression.
I’ll be honest, I have struggled with depression for most of my life. There had been ebbs and flows over the years, but this latest episode just crushed me. If you talk to people who know me, they’ll tell you I can be the life of the party. I could have been a comic. The thing is, I’ve learned to be as functional as I can be without falling apart. But this last episode was brutal.
I use the story about the Indian girl at church because her simple act of kindness touched me at a very dark moment in my life. I know that sounds melodramatic, but you can lose friends when depression strikes. I had one person ask me why I didn’t “reach out” during the worst of it. My response was how do “you reach out” when you’re hanging on by your fingernails?
Photography, and listening to other people’s stories, was a doorway out of the darkness. Every act of kindness, every tiny morsel offered to me, tasted as sumptuous as a feast in the wilderness.
That Indian congregation, where the girl in blue greeted me, asked me to break bread with them in a traditional meal after mass. I felt love that day. Later on, a tiny Jewish congregation in remote Suriname offered me bread and salt after their Sabbath service. I wept on my way back to my hotel, the taste of salt on my lips. Three Afro-Guyanese young girls posed for me as the afternoon sun poured through the tall stain-glass windows of an old church in Georgetown, giving me a deeply private revelation. These moments were—and remain—very important to me.
I took some of these pictures in Mexico City, London, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia, and the Welsh-speaking hinterland of Wales. Each photo has its own narrative. I hope you find some beauty in them.
Tom Darin Liskey spent nearly a decade working as a journalist in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His fiction and non fiction have appeared in the Crime Factory, Driftwood Press, Mount Island, The Burnside Writers Collective, Sassafras Literary Magazine, and Biostories, among others. His photographs have been published in Hobo Camp Review, Roadside Fiction, Blue Hour Magazine, Synesthesia Literary Journal,and Midwestern Gothic. He lives in Texas where he tells his children that he has done worse things for less money.
More work by this artist:
- Homelessness in America
- Bootmakers Offer an Example
- Trinidad & Tobago: Listen to the Beat
- You Can’t Build a Wall on Common Ground
- Rebel with a Cause
- Kosher in Corsicana
- The Bookbinder of Bogota
- We Are Spectrum
- Manager’s Special
- Five Photographs by Tom Darin Liskey in Issue 2.1
Thank you, I learned something new! I didn’t know there was a Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. I attended an Antiochian Orthodox Church for many years and before that, a Greek Orthodox Church. I haven’t been a member of any church for a while, but this essay made me remember some of the better benefits of belonging. I understand and relate to the author’s statement about not being able to reach out during the worst of it when you are hanging on by your fingernails. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this! Thanks!
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