In a small Southern town of only a few thousand, sits Messiah Miracle Worship Center:  A storefront church in the middle of Main Street. The town is Senoia, Georgia which has been the set for the popular television show “The Walking Dead” as well as the backdrop for movies such as “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” Thousands of tourists flock to Main Street weekly with hopes of catching a glimpse of their favorite star and for the chance to soak in some Southern charm and small town quaintness. 

Passing by the church, most don’t notice the dark green door with blinds pulled tight and the small sign. It’s neatly tucked between a gift shop and the aptly named “Waking Dead” café. I found Messiah while out to lunch with my wife and at a nearby restaurant. After our meal I was walking with my two children when we passed by the door and we could hear music. Intrigued we went closer and could heard the loud thumping of a bass drum paired with a powerful voice singing repetitive lyrics muffled by the building’s walls. We sat on a bench right outside the door just listening. It was a new sound to me. I loved it and wanted more. The music would waft out loud and clear each time my kids peeked through the mail slot in the door. I went home that day with the intention of finding a way to photograph what was going on inside. I searched but couldn’t find any online presence and didn’t have the guts to just pick up the phone and call.

Months later while searching for a new photo project, I remembered Messiah. I searched online again and found they had since made a Facebook page. I messaged them and said that I was a photographer and wanted to come in and make pictures. I didn’t know what I was looking for but I thought I might find it here. No questions asked I was invited to visit.

When entering through the front door, you’ll pass through a narrow corridor lined with pictures and event notices eventually leading to a sanctuary not much larger than a two car garage. The wood paneling lining the walls and the drop ceiling make it feel like that of a government office waiting area, or perhaps a basement you played in as a child. The space is kept warm by an old gas heater in the winter and a wall mounted air conditioner in the summer. Rows of chairs line the center and perimeter of the room while drums, keyboards and an electric guitar along with the musicians that play them are crammed into a small corner. The sanctuary is just that, it’s a snug but inviting fit for the thirty or so regularly attending devoted members.

Years ago Pastor Roger Foster and First Lady Foster started Messiah with their family and have slowly built it into the church it is today. This is their life and I was just an outsider - a thirty something white guy with a camera and I wanted to come into their home and take pictures while they worshipped. It was shocking how quickly I was accepted and welcomed in as “Brother Helton.” I was treated as any other visitor to Messiah and made to feel as if I was a member of the family. I was invited and encouraged to participate, sing, laugh, cry, and oh yeah, also take pictures: pictures of some of the most intimate, exposed moments of their lives.

Once stripped of any preconceived notion about what this church was like, I fell right into the rhythm. That said, I was still a boy who grew up in the South as a Sometimes Methodist. The Black Church was completely foreign to me. It was raw, rough around the edges, beautiful and genuine; completely contradictory to what I was taught religion was supposed to be. Messiah Miracle Worship Center is a place where all are welcome and everyone is family. I am forever grateful to the amazing family at Messiah who allowed their vulnerabilities, their happiness, and their sadness and love to be photographed.
 
About the artist:
Ben Helton is a recovering wedding photographer from Senoia, GA where he and his wife are raising two small children. His ongoing photography focus is centered around religion, politics, and anything strange going on in the South. Ben takes a straight forward and honest approach to photography relying on his endless curiosity and love for meeting new people.

Drawn to the unfamiliar, he chooses photography as an opportunity to experience and learn new things as both an outsider and a participant. Ben is forever chasing the illusive moment that can only be seen sometimes by a camera. He shoots with a wide-angle lens and hand-held flash with the aim of making the viewer feel like a participant.
His work has been featured in The Atlantic, PetaPixel, The Eye of Photography, The Inspired Eye and many others and has work included in the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, GA.