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Friday, November 03, 2006


I am by nature and experience, very cynical and suspicious of the inclination towards religion, especially as it manifests towards worship, praise, and public pronouncements of piety. Lord knows, there's plenty to be cynical about.

But, throughout my life, i've almost always known people who are deeply religious, and whose faith has inspired them to act in ways which are both human and humane, and uplifting for all those whose lives they touch. Unlike many people, i don't believe that humans are incapable of good thought and action without a reminder from God every now and then as to what actually constitutes doing good. I believe that we are more than capable of formulating a moral code, based on our actual experience of the world, that leads to doing good. But i can't deny that there are people in the world, many of whom i know, who are doing those good things inspired by their faith.

Late last year, i began photographing some of the many marquees that appear in front of churches throughout th Durham area. Originally inspired by the silliness, or outright duplicity, of some of the messages posted on these marquees, i soon discovered, as i paid closer attention, that many of them were in fact sincere, and occasionally moving, missives on how to lead a better life. Or, at least, as sincere as 20 words on a billboard that most people will only see for a few seconds as they pass at 45 mile per hour can ever be. I realized they were worth documenting in their own right, and i've been publishing them every Sunday morning on this blog since the beginning of 2006. That's not to say that i don't run across a marquee every now and then that is silly, or dishonest, but that the impulse to photography has definitely become one of documentation, not denigration.

I had a similar experience when i came across this headline yesterday in the news:

Letters to God end up in ocean, unread

I immediately pictured in my mind a scam, a preacher soliciting prayers, probably accompanied by money, duping the faithful. Most of the faithful were poor. Many of them were children who had saved their lunch money to send to this guy who was running a two bit scam.

Turns out i was wrong.

Many of the letters were addressed to the Rev. Grady Cooper, though many more simply said "Altar." According to the text of several of them, they were intended to be placed on a church's altar and prayed over by the minister, the congregation or both.

Some were neatly written in script on white-lined paper, others in a feverish scrawl on tattered scraps of parchment or note cards. Many were crinkled from being in the water and then dried out after Lacovara fished them out of the sea.

A dog-eared business card inside one of the letters identified Cooper as associate pastor of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Jersey City. A woman who answered the phone at the church office confirmed Cooper once was a minister there, and had died nearly two years ago.

The reference to Lacovara is a man named Bill Lacovara, who found the bag full of letters on the beach. More on him in a bit.

The Rev. Cooper died in 2004 at the age of 79. His wife died four years earlier.

There were about 300 letters in the bag retrieved from the ocean by Mr. Lacovara. There were also personal effects, like bank statements and canceled checks belonging to the minister.

We won't know why these letters, which presumably the Rev. Cooper in some way solicited, remained unread. Perhaps he truly believed that God knew their contents, and it was unnecessary for him to read them and add his prayers to those already written and heard. Perhaps he didn't care. Maybe these 300 or so letters represent only the tip of the iceberg of the thousands of letters which Rev. Cooper did read, and forward on to the Lord, but these somehow he never found the time for.

Did the convict serving 18-54 years for a crime he claimed not to have committed ever have his case heard, his claims realized, his innocence attained or refuted? Did Cooper ever lose sleep wondering what was in the letters he left unopened, knowing there were lives he could have perhaps changed by the simple act of opening an envelope?

Who knows? All of us have some secret to take to the grave, some hidden guilt or lost, unconfessed love, a life we could have saved, or wrecked, along the way. Should they stay in the grave, should they be ferreted out? Is there a moral choice here?

Lacovara said he is sad that most of the writers never had their letters read. But he hopes to change that soon: He is putting the collection up for sale on eBay.

I hope he's going to donate the proceeds to charity. Hopefully something like the Innocence Project.

Anything else would be wrong, Mr. Lacovara


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