COVENANT - Living in the Presence of God - Photographs by Tyagan Miller

Introduction by Tyagan Miller

In September 1996, I began a photographic exploration of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church-an inner city, African American congregation located in Indianapolis, Indiana. I had become interested in African American spiritual life when I was a teacher in an alternative high school for urban high-risk youth. It seemed to me that if my students' families were struggling effectively against the hardships of inner city living, they were also deeply connected to the life of a church. I felt compelled to photograph and learn more about this vital aspect of black culture.

As a white male having come of age in the era of civil rights, nurtured by its consciousness and conscience, I cannot help being convinced of the signal importance of the problem of race in America. I am equally convinced that this issue deserves our constant and enduring attention. Covenant: Living in the Presence of God is an attempt to document one facet of this enormous subject by bearing witness to the complex life of a particular community in a particular time and place.

Gustave Flaubert once said that "one does not choose one's subject matter; one submits to it." I began this documentary knowing little about the world I would enter and possessing few points of reference to guide me through it. At that time, I wished only to try to understand how and why religious faith enabled young people to succeed where other kinds of programs had failed them. What I discovered at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church is a community whose struggles against life's vagaries are transformed by the shared vision of a perfect world beyond this one and guided by a covenant they believe will lead them safely into it. In the end, it has been the terms of their covenant - an affirmation of life and the human spirit through fellowship, knowledge, worship, and salvation - that I have let guide my course through this project. Covenant has been and continues to be for me a journey toward deeper understanding of a way of life very different from my own.

At present Covenant comprises two hundred fifty photographs made from over four thousand negatives. The first section, entitled "Fellowship, Knowledge, Worship" records nearly four years of Sunday and weekday church activities. The second section, entitled "Advancing the Kingdom," describes the daily lives of church members as they engage in missionary work around the city and as they interact with their families, friends, and co-workers. A third section, entitled "Dust of the Ground: Professions of Doubt and Faith," explores the perceptions of the people who know Friendship's realities best. In this series of environmental portraits and accompanying interviews, church members talk about a variety of topics, such as ecstasy (or as they put it, "getting happy"); seeing the face of Jesus; the death of one's child; being young, black, and saved; losing faith; miracles; racism and brotherly love; having no fear; seeing an angel; and being poor. As it progresses, the project will also include church histories (Friendship was founded in 1917), as well as essays on race, religion, renewal, and the city.

While Covenant is a record of things seen and heard in unique circumstances, the view of life that underlies it reflects the mutual aspiration of human beings everywhere. The pursuit of a better life - whether it is sought on Earth or in a world beyond this one - is our common heritage. Indeed, it is our individual dreams of rescue from an existence defined by suffering that motivate our most significant actions.

But Covenant also gives expression to issues of another kind. The problem of race in America has informed the social and economic tapestry of our national life for nearly three hundred years. Because Covenant focuses on African American religious experience and community life, we can view its images and texts as an exploration into a number of meaningful topics concerning race that do not take as their starting point a pejorative portrayal of the black community. Despite their enduring focus on a world beyond this one, the people who make up this community pursue the elusive promise of the American dream. It is these aspects of Covenant that I hope make it a helpful contribution to the continuing dialogue about race relations in our time, where we have a renewed opportunity to come to terms with the historical specter of slavery.

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