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Jacob Riis: shining the light in the darkness

Jacob Riis: shining the light in the darkness

Readings for the feast day of Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Jacob Riis, Prophetic Witnesses, July 2:

Psalm 72:12-17

Isaiah 46:8-11

James 2:14-18

Matthew 7:7-12

Out of the three people commemorated in this feast day, the one that I was most drawn to was Jacob Riis. Although his photography exposing the realities of slum life in the ethnic neighborhoods in New York City of the late 1800’s made him one of the most famous men in America (particularly his book How the Other Half Lives,) the early years of his life were marked by extreme poverty and periods of homelessness. Rather than make his fortune in America, say “I’ve got mine,” and go on his merry way, he devoted his life and his craft to the hope that exposing the unhealthy and unsanitary conditions of New York City’s tenements would plant the seeds of change.

Because of the darkness of the alleys and tenement dwellings (court cases at the time regarding living conditions in the tenements ruled, interestingly enough, that people did not have a right to fresh air or light) he ended up being one of the pioneers of flash photography. Indeed, one of his most popular and often shown work is the photo Five Cents a Spot. Judging from the looks on the faces in the picture, the light generated from Riis’ magnesium flash powder may well have been the most light the walls of the flophouse had ever seen.

Rather than carry on with words, instead I invite you to, after reading today’s readings, simply browse the photographs in the links (here and here) quietly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully, inviting the Light of God to define the shadows and borders of how “the other half” in today’s America lives.

What words come to mind as you view the photographs?

How is God asking you to throw light onto the darkness of poverty and despair?

What is God calling you to do in bringing God’s realm closer to this realm in our broken world?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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