Black churches as tourist en­ter­tain­ment

Con­gre­gants ir­ri­tated as rules ig­nored

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY MEGHAN BARR

NEW YORK | The stern warn­ing is­sued from the pul­pit was di­rected at the tourists — most of whom had ar­rived late — a sea of white faces with guide­books in hand. They out­num­bered the con­gre­ga­tion it­self: a hand­ful of el­derly black men and women wear­ing suits and dresses and old-fash­ioned pill­box hats.

“We’re hop­ing that you will re­main in place dur­ing the preach­ing of the Gospel,” a church mem­ber said over the mi­cro­phone at this Har­lem church on a re­cent Sun­day morn­ing. “But if you have to go, go now. Go be­fore the preacher stands to preach.”

No one left then. But half­way through the ser­mon, a group of French girls made their way to­ward the vel­vet ropes that blocked the exit. An usher shook his head firmly, but they ig­nored him and walked out of the church.

The clash be­tween tourists and con­gre­gants plays out ev­ery Sun­day at Mother African Methodist Epis­co­pal Zion Church, the old­est black church in New York state. It’s one of many Har­lem churches that have be­come tourist at­trac­tions for vis­i­tors from all over the world who want to lis­ten to soul­ful gospel mu­sic at a black church ser­vice. With a record num­ber of tourists de­scend­ing upon New York City last year, the crowd of for­eign­ers is be­com­ing a source of ir­ri­ta­tion among faith­ful church­go­ers.

To pre­serve the sanc­tity of the ser­vice, pas­tors strug­gle to en­force strict rules of con­duct. But the re­al­ity is that these vis­i­tors are of­ten fill­ing church pews that oth­er­wise would re­main empty — and fill­ing the col­lec­tion bas­ket with pre­cious dol­lar bills.

“Our build­ing is in need of re­pair,” church mem­ber Paul Hen­der­son said af­ter the ser­vice. “We need as­sis­tance. They’re help­ing to sus­tain us.”

The rules are sim­ple enough: No pho­tog­ra­phy, no flip-flops, no ex­it­ing dur­ing the ser­mon. They are printed on pam­phlets and mul­ti­lin­gual signs and an­nounced at the start of ev­ery ser­vice. But they are of­ten ig­nored. Ush­ers roamed the pews like se­cu­rity guards, stop­ping more than one per­son from us­ing dig­i­tal cam­eras.

“I un­der­stand that you’re vis­it­ing and you want to have a mem­ory of it,” said Car­los Smith-ram­say, who joined the church sev­eral years ago. “But when we ask you to stop and you con­tinue to do so af­ter the fact, that’s dis­re­spect­ful.”

Some pas­tors qui­etly man­age the crowds by re­quir­ing a writ­ten con­fir­ma­tion of guests from tour op­er­a­tors, whose busi­ness has boomed in re­cent years. Some churches pro­vide as­signed seat­ing for tourists, while oth­ers de­mand a list spec­i­fy­ing the tourists’ home coun­tries and whether they speak English.

The Rev. Gre­gory Robe­son Smith, Mother AME Zion’s pas­tor, re­fuses to work with tour op­er­a­tors. He doesn’t even like to use the word “tourist,” pre­fer­ring in­stead to call them part of his “in­ter­na­tional con­gre­ga­tion.” He won’t turn away any­one.

“I refuse to com­mer­cial­ize the church worship ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “You don’t pay peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence the Lord, to come and pray. I think that’s un­con­scionable.”

Yet the tourists’ pres­ence is un­de­ni­able. At Mother AME Zion, there were nearly 200 of them, over­whelm­ing the con­gre­ga­tion by at least 5-to-1.

“They want to see what they’ve seen on tele­vi­sion,” said Larcelia Kebe, pres­i­dent of Har­lem Your Way Tours Un­lim­ited. “They want to see what they’ve seen in the movies.”


Tourists sur­rep­ti­tiously record video and pho­tos dur­ing a church ser­vice at the Mother African Methodist Epis­co­pal Zion Church in New York. The soul­ful gospel mu­sic has at­tracted vis­i­tors from around the world.

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