The Gospel Churches of Harlem have been welcoming visitors and tourists to their services for a long time but the motivation and behavior of both are coming under much more scrutiny as changes take place in Harlem. Once a neighborhood that was visited only fleetingly and with some care by whites, Harlem is now a favored tourist destination for the quality of it’s food, music, culture and yes, it’s gospel churches.
But there is a world of difference between trying out a soul food restaurant for the first time and dropping in on a church service to check out those great gospel singers. One is a totally legitimate eating experience the other is an intrusion into a worship service that is not there just so anyone can come and snap holiday pictures and comment on the quality of the singing. Services in gospel churches are not quaint cultural performances for the entertainment of tourists, they are an act of worship.
So chuches which in the past have been very welcoming of visitors and tourists are now more careful. They will often forbid anyone but the regular congregation from attending special Christmas and Easter services, restrict which services outsiders can attend and set rules about clothing and behavior.
And there is another more disturbing issue that has to be taken into account. At a time when there is still some distance to go in fully recognising and reforming the widespread discrimination against black Americans, even in a liberal city like NYC, it is particularly inappropriate to turn Harlem residents into some kind of cultural performers. The particular form and nature of gospel church services grew out of the oppression of black people and for these services to be seen as ‘just’ a musical performance shows an extraordinary insensitivity.
The two videos attached to this post both feature well known gospel churches in Harlem. The first is about the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Church has long welcomed tourists but is now enforcing strict behavior rules to ensure that services are not disrupted by disrespectful behavior, see the first video.
The First Corinthians Baptist Church was at a low ebb when a new church leader revitalized and grew the congregation by welcoming all. This church has undergone a huge renaissance and now has over 8,000 members with a small percentage who are white. It welcomes all tourists and like the Abyssinian Baptist Church they have to queue to get in, but the church balcony where tourists sit is spacious and few miss out. They don’t appear to have any rules around staying for the whole service or what people wear. See the second video to see and hear the church’s gospel choir. If attending any Churches in Harlem, visit the church’s website before hand an