Over at Slate, a fascinating look at “the Bizarre Tourist Trade at Harlem’s Sunday Church Services”, which, as the author suggests, begs a few questions: 1. Is this phenomenon an encouraging one or not? That is, should we be excited that folks who never go to church are going (regardless of their reasons)? Or is it simply a(nother) depressing comment on the state of (post-, post-, post-) Christianity in Europe? 2. How authentic is the “authenticity” that’s attracting the tourists? Is that a merely codeword for squirmish racial curiosity? 3. To what extent is the Hawthorne effect at work here? Do they play to the crowd? 4. Does any of that matter? I.e. If it keeps the doors open, should we just leave it to the Spirit and accept that no one’s motivations for coming to church will ever be “pure”?
I’m inclined to think that it says a lot more about the tourists than the churches, a la the classic (and more than a little crass) Onion article “Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God B**S***“. Judge for yourself (ht BJ):
As the summer tourist season draws to a close in New York, so too winds down the high period for one of the more peculiar attractions the city has to offer: Sunday church services in Harlem, which bring in thousands of foreign travelers each week. While the practice has been the topic of debate for years, I discovered it only last spring, when two friends were visiting from France. In addition to a list of more traditional tourist destinations, the couple wanted to experience an old-fashioned gospel service. Though I was uncomfortable at the prospect of joining other underdressed white gawkers observing how “locals” pray, I reluctantly decided to go.
At Kelly Temple, we joined about 100 others in the church balcony, cordoned off by ropes. At the start of the morning service, the pastors and church leaders blessed us, giving a special welcome to “all the visitors today, especially those from France and Spain.” Some of the visitors stood up along with the parishioners during the more animated portions of the ceremony, even joining in the call-and-response. I have always considered prayer an intensely serious and personal act—even when conducted publicly—so witnessing the spectacle of 100-plus tourists watching over a religious ceremony from an observer’s gallery was disconcerting. But the bizarre sight made me wonder why tourists would include such stops on their itineraries and how some Harlem-based worshipers could have become so accustomed to large groups of white and Asian tourists gawking at them.
Tourists have flocked to the churches by the busloads, sometimes as part of guided tours and sometimes individually on the advice of guidebooks, hotel concierges, travel agents, and friends. Many of the churches have well-developed systems for welcoming visitors, with special greeters at the doors and prominently displayed house rules forbidding flash photography, eating, drinking, shorts, and flip-flops. Ceremonies usually start at 11 a.m., and most visitors take in the choir performance and announcement portions of the service before departing prior to the start of the sermon.
But the reason foreign visitors come to Abyssinian [Baptist Church]—sometimes by the thousands—and other churches like it is clearly to see a performance, and claims that they won’t get one ring hollow—even if services themselves are completely genuine. “Many of them come to see a church show,” said Dr. Obery Hendricks, a religion professor at the New York Theological Seminary and Columbia University. “And what is sad is that often they’re not disappointed.” Hendricks sees disturbing racial and religious implications in the church tourism circuit that ties into the “performance orientation” among both African-American churches and many evangelical churches.
Even if visitors are welcome at individual churches, there is a larger antipathy toward some of the tour buses. Williams said that, although the Chamber of Commerce works closely with some programs, tour guides are still too often filled with stereotypes and misinformation. “It’s like you’re going through a safari, and we’re the animals as you are on the bus riding by, pointing at the zebras.”