A large number of south London’s nondescript buildings are bursting with life and colour inside. Tom Seymour explores the vibrant world of the city’s African churches.
With more than 240 majority-black churches in the borough of Southwark, London has the greatest concentration of African Christianity in the world outside of Africa.
Few Londoners know this. From the outside, the churches – concentrated in the industrial stretches and quieter, often poorer suburbs in the south of the city – are largely anonymous. As photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews says, they are in “unlikely, reinvented spaces”: former factories, workshops, offices and warehouses, all transformed into sacred places of worship.
But on Sunday morning, such buildings come alive. “You can see the churchgoers, dressed exquisitely, walking to or from a service,” says Dewe Mathews, who photographed the Christian community there for her series Sunday Service. “You can hear sounds reverberating from these very nondescript buildings.”
On a cold November morning in 2013, Dewe Mathews arrived at Liberty House Church for her first shoot. To her surprise, she found an “audio-visual extravaganza of coloured lights, a sound desk, projection screens and an eight-piece band.”
In less than hour, 200 local people had filled the former ironmongery to engage in an “ecstatic, expressive form of worship,” she explains.
Dewe Mathews spent each Sunday morning photographing such churches. “On those cold early mornings, as I lugged my equipment to church, I asked myself why I had chosen to do this,” she says. “But I found I was drawn to the intensity of the African Pentecostal church experience. To see people singing so tenderly, dancing wildly, praying quietly, sometimes weeping and convulsing – it was deeply invigorating to witness, and I was moved to tears.”
As well as spiritual experience, Dewe Mathews’ photographs explore urban transformation – particularly the change in how buildings are used. Subtly, the buildings have been repurposed from their industrial origins into places for their congregation to worship together. With names like Holy Ghost Zone, Freedom Centre International, The Christ High Commission and Faith Ministries International, the buildings feature none of the monumental architecture or symbols of power of the historically dominant denominations, Dewe Mathews explains.
Instead they are often only temporary and all but invisible to outsiders.
“They are anonymous, but very visible to the communities they serve,” says Dewe Mathews.
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