The year was 1967, when a young man from Red Banks, Miss., James Perry Walker, decided to make a difference. Right out of college, he began work as a Head Start teacher at Gatewood Baptist Church in Slayden, Miss. Picture a group of awestruck children surrounding him as he read Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.
At the time, Gatewood Baptist Church was
a ragged, tumbling wood frame structure with tilted steeple, sinking foundations, and loose planks bowing from the ceilingor in real estate jargon, a bona fide “fixer upper.” It was here, while attending a fall-morning revival service, Walker met the focus of his six-year photographic quest.
In this unlikely place, less than twenty miles from Walker’s home, existed a preacher unlike any other. He was a man who,
seemed to fill the shoes of Maritain’s ideal philosopher, who shared with Martin Luther his bluntness of speech and love of dogs, with Erasmus his reverence for learning and proverbs and his rigorous suspension of judgment, with Paracelsus his vision of the world as capable, at any moment, of epiphany and revelation.
The Reverend Louis Cole was an old-fashion circuit preacher who spent each weekend ministering to four different churches in Marshall Co., Miss., and Fayette Co., Tenn. Between ministering to his flock of seven or eight families per church, he tilled and sowed the soil of his own homestead. Reverend Cole believed,
A preacher whose livelihood depends on the favor of his congregation faces a constant temptation to temper the Word to suit his worldly benefactors.
From 1976 to 1981, Walker spent many hours in the company of Reverend Cole and his flock, taking photographs of religious ceremonies and the everyday life of his congregation. The collection of his work, which displayed in New York City, is now available in book format.
The Reverend contains 79 black and white photos filling the pages with atmosphere and passion. Children on their way to school, well-worn church buildings, teen boys in their best Sears pose, black choir robes drying in a morning fog, mourners at a funeral, an innocence of a virginal baptism, and the strong images of Reverend Cole preaching are just a few of the scenes in this book.
As an added bonus, the book includes two of Reverend Cole’s sermons and his biography. After reading his sermon, “Strange Fire,” get ready to witness. I had trouble focusing on the book once I felt the fire in my feet and hands.