by Heather Rivers and Elliot Ferguson
We both had noted the changing scene in the religious community for several months. Heather had noticed that mainstream Protestant and Catholic congregations were struggling to come to terms with challenges that threatened to radically alter the religious landscape of the city.
Protestant congregations were faced with ever-shrinking congregations and aging buildings. Many Catholic churchgoers struggled with a decision by their leaders to close three churches and merge those congregations into one “super church” due to declining attendance, changing demographics and a shortage of priests.
Meanwhile, Elliot had been contemplating doing a photographic essay on the blossoming of evangelical Christian churches. In contrast to the declining mainstream religions, these churches were gaining members.
Thus, the series examined both the weakening of the mainstream churches and the growth of the evangelical, charismatic movements that offer followers an intimate, supernatural relationship with God many find lacking in traditional churches.
Our success in reporting the series, which ran over four days leading up to Good Friday in 2006, was due largely to the relationships we’d established in the community in the months prior. Through her day-to-day lifestyle reporting, Heather had already gained the trust of many leading figures in Woodstock’s religious community; perhaps one of the biggest challenges Heather faced was resisting their efforts to convert her.
Likewise, Elliot was able to negotiate relatively unfettered access to a wide variety of church activities, photographing everything from the de-consecration of a mothballed Anglican church to a multi-day project that involved reading the Bible from cover to cover.
Along the way, we reported on serious concerns among the Catholic flock over the leadership of the diocese and the impact of sexual abuse lawsuits. Central to our series was access to Pastor John Power, a self-described former hippie who admitted to more than dabbling in drugs in the 1970’s. His Life Church services are filled with supernatural elements, including speaking in tongues; at his healing services, he is said to have cured asthma, diabetes and drug addiction.
Photographs inside Life Church produced some of the most powerful images we published.