Harlem Churches Experiencing Gospel Tourism

March 12th, 2012 by Black Gospel Choir
greater highway church ny

Photo by Susan H

In some churches, members are find themselves in a sea of unfamiliar faces, outnumbering the congregation itself. Signs have been posted, “No photography, no flip-flops, no exiting during the sermon”.

Tour companies are listing churches for foreign visitors to New York City so they can experience sermons from black preachers and hear black gospel choirs. Pastors see both a blessing and problems.

Struggling to preserve the sanctity of the service visitors are asked not to leave once the sermon has started or not to take pictures during worship, requests that are sometimes ignored. “I understand that you’re visiting and you want to have a memory of it,” said Carlos Smith-Ramsay, who has been a church member for years. “But when we ask you to stop and you continue to do so after the fact, that’s disrespectful.”


Gospel singers by Gloria Bell via Flickr ~ used under CC-BY license

Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has become an attraction for tourists from all over the world and is the oldest black church in New York state, membership that once included black leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Paul Robeson. On a given Sunday almost 200 seat are filled with visitors and the collection basket with dollars.

In an interview with the Associated Press, The Rev. Gregory Robeson Smith, Mother AME Zion’s pastor, said he 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.” And he won’t turn anyone away.

“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.”

Near by Abyssinian Baptist Church, another house of worship popular with the tourists, often turns away visitors because the pews are too full.

Options are divided, some would say that people are just coming to see a show, like on TV or in the movies. Others would like to believe the tourists have come to listen to the word of God. Either way the tour guides will continue to lead new visitors to the steps of the church and each visitor will have their own reason for being there.

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