Attending church in Harlem

As part of our journey around the world, we have been checking out different churches and experiences of faith. From a small church in Ecuador to the Billy Graham library, we have been trying to attend with friends where possible and learn how others worship.  We had been talking for awhile about wanting to see a traditional gospel church and decided to do this in Harlem, an area just north of Central Park.  I had read a bit about this becoming a bit of a tourist industry, and so we tried to pick a church that was less popular.  Despite this, it was still an odd experience.

All of the churches that we passed had long lines, and when we got to our church it was the same thing – a line of predominantly white tourists and a line of predominantly African-American church members.  Although we understood that this is intended to ensure that church members get seats it felt oddly like segregation.  As we moved in we were given offering envelopes to make a donation, which seemed fair enough. We stood in line for about 15 minutes, but I understand that some people wind up waiting hours at some of the big churches.

All of the tourists were seated together in the top gallery.  The service began with traditional singing with an awesome choir and soloists. After an hour or so, the sermon began.  Towards the very end of the singing and throughout the sermon tourists simply got up and left.  This meant that more local church members came and took their seats. The sermon began quietly and calmly…but by the end of it the pastor was speaking so quickly and loudly we struggled to understand him at points.  At the end of a three hour service, the section we were in had changed from 95% tourists to 95% locals. We preferred this as it felt less like being spectators and more like participating in a service. We really enjoyed the style and the content. I had a few thoughts after going:

  • The concept of going to a church service to watch the singing during a service seems odd to me.  However, if people do decide to go, it seems like they should be respectful by staying throughout the end. Or should it be just seen as good that people are interested in exploring faith?
  • Lining up for church was a little weird but I’m not sure how else crowds could be managed and not disturb their own congregations?
  • If  people wanted to really experience a gospel church and the culture within that, they were missing out by not hearing the sermon.  It was interesting both from a theological perspective but also in terms of understanding more about the thinking and expression of faith in that church.
  • Do we become part of the tourist problem if we attend church? Or are we attending as members of a faith community and therefore not part of the problem?  Is it actually a problem if the tourists contribute to the offering and the running costs of the church?

Not many answers, just questions, and gratitude to have experienced and been enriched by this kind of service. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. hayley says:

    Whoa, interesting! I think you could see yourself more as worshipping with brothers and sisters and less as tourists – even though you had to sit with them 🙂
    I remember feeling very ‘white’ and left out when we went to church in the Cooks on our honeymoon. I think they thought we were just there as tourists, no one talked to us anyway. (but the singing was phenomenal!)
    Sad that so many just got up and left (and that the locals couldn’t fit in until they did!)
    Glad you got to go


  2. Kate says:

    Hmm, I’m not entirely sure of my thoughts yet, but I seem to have a lot of them.

    I will say one thing, though – if people are going to a church service as tourists, they should freaking well have the courtesy not to walk out partway through the service 😡


    1. Karen Olson says:

      Email me your other thoughts, I’m interested 🙂


  3. murray says:

    In south asia, at a childrens performance, once the child performed, the parents would leave straight away meaning at the end there would be hardly anyone left!

    Listening to music and not joining in i guess is found in many traditional european traditions where the traditional choir performs. Personally i would still like to join in to commit myself to the words being sung.

    I want to see preaching like that! I wonder if the choir were shouting amen at every good point the preacher was making!


    1. Karen Olson says:

      The choir and the rest of the congregation were shouting amen by the end!


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