“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.
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 are becoming a source of irritation among faithful churchgoers.
Just around the corner is the thriving Abyssinian Baptist Church, arguably the neighborhood's most popular tourist magnet, where visitors are often turned away because the pews are too full.
Celeste Lejeune, 16, from Paris, didn't know anything about Mother AME Zion's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, or that its congregants once included Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
“I would like to just hear voices of people who live in Harlem, and see the atmosphere,” she said. “We don't have music like this in France.”
That is precisely the sort of outlook that disheartens the congregation, who would like to believe the tourists have come to listen to the word of God, to be transformed by the power of Scripture.
Photo: Courtesy OF Nycago.org
Every Sunday: Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church