Harlem's newest globe-trotters Tourism: Visitors from all over the world are converging on Harlem churches, where some wonder whether the influx isn't a mixed blessing.

Sun Journal

December 02, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

HARLEM, N.Y. -- After decades of watching their audiences dwindle, the preachers of Harlem are celebrating a boom. Their pews are packed again.

But the audiences look a lot different from the way they did in the neighborhood's heyday. During the 1920s and '30s, the people crowding Memorial Baptist Church and the Kelly Temple Church of God in Christ were African-American men and women in suits and silk hats. Today, most of the people filling the sanctuaries are white tourists in jeans, sweat shirts and sneakers.

The tourists are coming from Europe, Asia or Latin America to see a battered, decayed community that was once the hub of African-American culture and politics. They want to stroll past the clubs where greats like Duke Ellington performed. And they want to feel the energy of African-American worship services.

So on Sunday mornings, they leave their midtown Manhattan hotels to board buses for guided excursions to Harlem -- the 50 densely populated blocks north of Central Park that are among the most popular destinations for tourists in New York.

"For years people would come to New York and they would not venture above 96th Street because they thought they were putting their lives in danger," says Mahalia Stines of Harlem Spiritual Tours. "But more and more people understand that Harlem is a stimulating neighborhood with a lot of history. It's mystical for them."

The tourism has brought benefits for the community's shops and restaurants. And in the churches, where tourists are called "worshipers from afar," collection plates runneth over.

"Tourism has given us a new lease on life," says the Rev. Preston Washington, pastor at Memorial Baptist Church. "Inner-city communities are normally isolated or neglected. Jesus said to go out to the world with a message of love. Now the world is coming to us."

The Harlem tours cost from $28 to $100, and tour companies pay churches $5 to $10 for every visitor to the Sunday services.

On a recent Sunday at East Ward Baptist Church, at First Avenue and 102nd Street, a heavy Burgundy cord separated the back pews reserved for tourists from the front pews for church members. The regular worship service began at 11 a.m. The pews at the front were about half full.

About an hour later, the church doors opened and about 200 tourists entered.

During the visitors' 45-minute stay, the Eastwood choir sang four hymns. The choir members beat tambourines and danced as they sang, moving people in the audience to sway along. One deacon shouted a stirring prayer.

"We are glad you could be with us today," the Rev. Sean P. Gardner, pastor of East Ward, told the visitors as they were leaving. "It lets us know we are doing something positive -- because you can see something good in us."

Ana Maria Cores, a stage actress from Argentina, did not want to leave. She was wearing round sunglasses, ruby-colored lipstick and a fussed-over hairdo, all of which gave her the look of a celebrity, and she clutched her chest and whispered, "It was so powerful."

"We don't have a black race in my country, but I have always admired and respected black people of the United States

because to me they are more talented than whites. And I think the biggest problem between whites and blacks is that we are afraid of each other and we do not try to understand the differences in our cultures."

Many people in Harlem are enthusiastic about the explosive growth of tourism, but some are skeptical about the church visits. The services, critics say, are becoming less about religion and more like stage productions.

The Rev. Edward Earl Johnson, pastor at the 95-year-old Mount Moriah Baptist Church, began three years ago to work with a tour company that brings in visitors from Brazil. Last year, his choir released a gospel music CD -- marketed in Brazil. So most Sundays, the audience has more people from South America than residents of Harlem.

He is still unsure whether he is doing the right thing.

"It is a question I wrestle with even now," Johnson says. "I resisted it for many years because I saw so many people changing their worship service. But I finally came to think it's a good idea. We tell our visitors that we want them to worship with us, not just be entertained by us."

Other pastors share his enthusiasm. Washington won't say how much money his church has generated from tourism. But black churches are a pillar of black culture and, he says, not much different from "living museums" that should be allowed to operate in the same way.

"Some of the people that visit our church would never otherwise find themselves shaking hands or even standing next to African-Americans," Washington says.

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