“It’s Like a Safari, and We’re the Zebras”

Inside the bizarre tourist trade at Harlem’s Sunday church services.

As the summer tourist season draws to a close in New York, so too winds down the high period for one of the more peculiar attractions the city has to offer: Sunday church services in Harlem, which bring in thousands of foreign travelers each week.While the practice has been the topic of debate for years, I discovered it only last spring, when two friends were visiting from France. In addition to a list of more traditional tourist destinations, the couple wanted to experience an old-fashioned gospel service. Though I was uncomfortable at the prospect of joining other underdressed white gawkers observing how “locals” pray, I reluctantly decided to go.

At Kelly Temple, we joined about 100 others in the church balcony, cordoned off by ropes. At the start of the morning service, the pastors and church leaders blessed us, giving a special welcome to “all the visitors today, especially those from France and Spain.” Some of the visitors stood up along with the parishioners during the more animated portions of the ceremony, even joining in the call-and-response. I have always considered prayer an intensely serious and personal act—even when conducted publicly—so witnessing the spectacle of 100-plus tourists watching over a religious ceremony from an observer’s gallery was disconcerting. But the bizarre sight made me wonder why tourists would include such stops on their itineraries and how some Harlem-based worshipers could have become so accustomed to large groups of white and Asian tourists gawking at them.

At least 60 of Harlem’s 338 churches take part in the gospel sightseeing trade. Twenty-five years ago,the thought of sending visitors to Harlem for any reason was abhorrent to New York’s tourism board. Now, thanks to all of the tourists in the pews, Harlem is one of the top places for international vacationers to visit in New York.

The church services—and the neighborhood itself—became mainstream attractions after the Harlem Chamber of Commerce realized it could tap into the mythical place that gospel and jazz music—and African-American worship services—hold in the minds of many foreigners. In the 1980s, Lloyd Williams, president of the chamber, went to Europe with former New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson—the father of the current governor—to promote Harlem as a tourist destination.“The further we got away from New York, the better the image of Harlem was,” says Williams. French and German publications began covering Harlem tourism and the churches, encouraging more tourists to venture above 96th Street. Eventually the city’s established tourism industry—the hotels, the guide books, the tourism board, and the guided bus tours—recognized the neighborhood’s economic potential.

Since then, tourists have flocked to the churches by the busloads, sometimes as part of guided tours and sometimes individually on the advice of guidebooks, hotel concierges, travel agents, and friends. Many of the churches have well-developed systems for welcoming visitors, with special greeters at the doors and prominently displayed house rules forbidding flash photography, eating, drinking, shorts, and flip-flops. Ceremonies usually start at 11 a.m., and most visitors take in the choir performance and announcement portions of the service before departing prior to the start of the sermon.

Every week, Greater Highway Deliverance Temple hosts between one and four busloads of visitors from Harlem Spirituals, the first company to have started taking tourists to Sunday services more than 20 years ago. Co-pastor Hazel Page said Greater Highway receives $3 per visitor from Harlem Spirituals, which charges $55 to $99 per ticket for Sunday tours.

At the church, a row of international flags—Argentina, Portugal, Jamaica, England, Korea, Spain—line the balcony walls. The first five pews were taken up by about 50 well-dressed black parishioners and one exuberant white worshiper in a Derek Jeter jersey. The middle and back rows were packed with tourists, mostly from Europe. (According to Page, many parishioners come to church after the tourists have left the service, though when I returned in August, I didn’t see any new arrivals after the Harlem Spirituals group left.)

When the music started, the usher who had greeted us began dancing up and down the aisle. The congregation stood up and started to clap and sway. One tourist pantomimed the drumming and imitated the dancing in what looked like an attempt to impress two female friends. The choir performed “I Came To Praise the Lord,” and the lyrics—”I don’t know what you came to do, I came to kneel and pray”—stung almost like a collective rebuke. At one point, a church leader declared the “visitor” count for the day’s service at 147, listed the represented countries, and told us “thank God for each and every one of you”—even, I suppose, the dozing Japanese woman to my left.

When we were back on the bus, our tour guide, Sheila, asked if anyone had any questions. There was just one: “They weren’t offended?” Frances Van Ewyle, an Australian, asked awkwardly. Sheila responded that these programs help churches fight against rising attrition by allowing them to renovate and grow—and that they enjoyed having the tourists as guests. But Frances, who had taken the “Sex and the City Tour” the day before and was directed to Harlem Spirituals by her hotel’s concierge, told me that she still felt like an intruder and now questioned her decision to attend the service.

Of the dozens of tourists I spoke with, Frances’ perspective came up only a couple of times. Filipe Lima, a 29-year-old Portuguese Catholic and a regular churchgoer, told me that he felt like a gatecrasher after having visited Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was packed when I visited in June and August—but with 80 percent of the seats occupied by tourists. His instinctive reaction was that the few remaining flock were being taken advantage of by the ministry.

Mother A.M.E. Zion was the first black church in the state of New York and is known as the “Freedom Church” for its role in the Underground Railroad. Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth once worshiped there. But now, the vast majority of its Sunday visitors are tourists, many of whom have failed to get into the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church, the crown jewel of the tour circuit. The Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s Lloyd Williams insisted that Mother A.M.E. Zion’s heavy ratio of tourists to parishioners on Sundays is more than justified by the good that the church does during the rest of the week, in part because of the money that tourists donate. “I don’t have a problem with that seventh day.”

Williams cites Abyssinian, which boasts a membership base in excess of 4,000 people, as the model for separating business from worship. It is the hottest, and most elusive, ticket among the Sunday services. Every Sunday morning, between 200 and 300 people wait outside of Abyssinian, hoping for a glimpse of its famed choir. Dozens of visitors each week never actually make it into the church: Abyssinian’s parishioners have first dibs on the church’s 1,000-plus seats. A church deacon warns potential visitors, “[T]his is a service and not a gospel concert. If you are here just for a gospel [concert], then there are other churches that can accommodate you.”

But the reason foreign visitors come to Abyssinian—sometimes by the thousands—and other churches like it is clearly to see a performance, and claims that they won’t get one ring hollow—even if services themselves are completely genuine. “Many of them come to see a church show,” said Dr. Obery Hendricks, a religion professor at the New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University. “And what is sad is that often they’re not disappointed.” Hendricks sees disturbing racial and religious implications in the church tourism circuit that ties into the “performance orientation” among both African-American churches and many evangelical churches.

If you ask tourists why they visit, the answers are similar to those you might expect to hear on Broadway or at the Empire State Building: “It was in all the guide books.” “My travel agent said that I just had to come.” “It’s so iconic from American movies.” Frequently, they’ll point to how different this style of worship is than what they are accustomed to.The music and the worshippers’ enthusiasm are big draws. No one mentions race—at least not to an American journalist. I overheard a 19-year-old Parisian tell his parents, “Ils dansaient les negres“—”They were dancing, those Negroes.” When I asked them why they had visited Kelly Temple, the group—a Jewish family with North African roots—said they were there because “it got two stars” in Routard, a popular French guide book that describes the church’s “very authentic” program. “It’s peculiar, you know,” said the mother, who was clearly impressed. “They are very enthusiastic. You get the impression that they’re really paying true homage to God.”

The idea of “authenticity” is a major theme among tourists and the tourism industry. Harlem Spirituals’ brochure offers the opportunity to “[a]ttend an authentic Sunday worship service and experience the soul stirring power of gospel music.” For an additional $44, “[y]ou can enjoy a soul food brunch at one of Harlem’s local restaurants.” Fodor’s New York guide, meanwhile, describes guided tours as “an expeditious, if not inauthentic way to experience Harlem” and encourages readers to try a more genuine DIY approach.

Though it’s difficult to gauge, parishioners at participating churches seem to welcome the visitors. “They give your church publicity … so I have no problem with the tourists at all,” 21-year-old Ray told me outside of St John Pentecostal Church on Lenox Avenue. Still, Harlem residents are very much cognizant of why the visitors come. “They’re there to see how we worship,” an elderly woman named Reda Beeks told me outside of Mount Moriah Baptist Church. Tourists sometimes stop her on the street to ask, “Which church has the best show?”—sometimes even when she’s not in church clothes.

Even if visitors are welcome at individual churches, there is a larger antipathy toward some of the tour buses. Williams said that, although the Chamber of Commerce works closely with some programs, tour guides are still too often filled with stereotypes and misinformation. “It’s like you’re going through a safari, and we’re the animals as you are on the bus riding by, pointing at the zebras.”

As an outsider, it is difficult to judge the tourists or the churches that welcome them. Still, entering a church where some are emptying their hearts in dramatic displays of worship and others are snapping photos made me feel as my tour-mate Frances did: that something might not be right.

View a slide show of Harlem’s Sunday church tours.

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