Gods Among Us

A Scarborough architect-photographer documents the unlikely buildings that serve as places of worship for the suburb’s diverse faith communities.

Esmond Lee’s current installation at Malvern Town Centre is part of the 2021 Scotiabank Contact festival. Photo by Esmond Lee

TEXT Doris McCarthy Gallery

PHOTOS Esmond Lee

Esmond Lee’s ongoing project Gods Among Us presents a history of Scarborough’s diverse faith communities through representation of provisional architectural homes for places of worship. Often operating under the vernacular of industrial plazas and ubiquitous strip malls, these buildings provide important spaces for newcomers to socialize and to worship. The Scarborough-based artist and architect’s images of these meeting places are positioned on a curious architectural feature at Malvern Town Centre, highlighting the structure’s cathedral-like qualities.

Esmond Lee, Sri Ayyappa Samajam of Ontario (2019)

Whether located in the corner of an old plaza or standing tall at a major intersection, the spaces that Lee has documented are more than just buildings; they are second homes for communities to come together and share their culture. Lee, a second-generation Canadian, remembers going to church with his mother and feeling a sense of unity within this newfound community. To immigrants, these places nurture the sense of belonging in a new land, and can lead to spiritual, social, and economic connections.

Esmond Lee, Masjid Al-Jannah (2019)
Esmond Lee, East Scarborough Pentecostal Worship Centre (2019)

Lee’s research, often taking the form of meandering walks to far-flung plazas and strip malls, revealed that Scarborough is home to around 300 such improvised places of worship. Unlike central Toronto, where minority groups make up around 39% of the total population, the suburb of Scarborough has a vibrant immigrant community with an astounding 74% of residents identifying as visible minorities. As the number of newcomers increases, and the countries of origin diversify, so has the need for places of faith. With true immigrant resourcefulness, this sometimes means finding affordable, available space in unexpected, and even unlikely places—a mosque tucked next to a Pizza Nova, or a Pentecostal church in an industrial plaza. The multiplicity of these locations reflects the diversity of the communities that constitute Scarborough.

Esmond Lee, Masjid Bilal (2019)
Esmond Lee, Jame Abu Bakr Siddique (2019)

In this installation, Lee’s large-scale photographs are situated in a space similar to many of those he photographs: a structure in front of a mall, surrounded by a parking lot. His images heighten the resemblance of this idiosyncratic structure to the frame of a house or a cathedral, while maintaining its function as a path toward the mall. Not unlike places of worship, malls are a gathering place for people from all backgrounds, ages, and socioeconomic status. Viewing these familiar locations from a different perspective, Lee generates a typology of spiritual sites that invite contemplation of the possibilities therein.