Sunday Service

I’m not quite sure how I feel about this.

It’s a Tripadvisor review. For a church service in Harlem.

The concept of religious icons as tourist attractions is not new. Open any guidebook for any country in Europe and you are likely to be directed to one or two or twenty churches. What bothers me is that this review is for a regular Sunday service – an ostensibly sacred place where people pour their hearts out in proclamation of their connection with a higher being, and where they should feel free to proudly sing off-key in the company of friends. All the while, targeted tourism is now opening it up to highly publicized judgment.

And some of the reviews are harsh and disrespectful. As a tourist destination, the Abyssinian Church has been criticized for not offering enough gospel music. There is also a “thanks for ruining our day” comment from a disgruntled tourist who wasn’t one of the 300 that were allowed in one Sunday. A very recent reviewer took his frustration out on the street usher: “came close to decking the jumped up little c**t“.

Such are the lumps that must be taken when opening up to tourism, I suppose. Heck, there are even “gospel tours” that one can pay for which include church services (and assumably, the church gets a cut).

I accept all charges of hypocrisy for my decision to go to a service and write about it. Not personally subscribing to any one religion, I have attended several church services around the globe, drawn by the customs, beliefs, and communities surrounding them. I believe knowledge of all religions should be actively pursued to even begin to understand our world, as differences in them are the basis for so much commotion.

Steering clear of the most popular churches in the area, my friend Leah and I went to one just around the corner from our housesit. We expected to slip unnoticed into the back and enjoy a much smaller affair then those reviewed.

A more intimate setting is exactly what we got. But In the first few minutes, I couldn’t help feeling like one giant intruder.

We stumbled on which door to enter, immediately producing ourselves as irregulars. Not that that particular blunder mattered, for as soon as we entered the correct door, we blatantly stood out. An usher directed us to the second last row that contained all the other obvious tourists. As Leah shuffled into her seat on the outside of the pew, the usher whispered to her: “no pictures“.

Yeah, there we were. Big, obvious outsiders. (With zero intention to take pictures, by the way).

We had arrived over a half an hour early, scared by the comments written in the other church’s reviews, but our extra time on the hard wooden benches was not idle. We were at once lured into the clapping and chanting that went along with the congregation’s continuous roll of songs. I couldn’t help but notice that so many of them included repetitive use of the word happy, and they were all joyous, uplifting tunes. People were swaying in their seats, others were on their feet, clapping, pumping fists. In between songs, random participants stood and shouted out their praise to the Lord, giving specific reasons for how they were once lost but found their way. The choir nodded and clapped in approval, encouraging others to do the same.

If we felt we were intruding, no one else seemed to be bothered by it. The joyous proclamations in front of strangers continued; we cheered along with our neighbors and we soon felt a part of the larger group. And even moreso when the entire church turned to face us.

All new visitors (almost our entire row) had been prompted to stand by the pastor. All regular patrons (every other row), turned to stare at us. I was at once embarrassed, confused, and bewildered. Then the singing began.

So glad you’re here…we’re so glad you’re here…” We clapped along, and I had to wonder if everyone’s cheeks were as red as mine. But there it was, a giant group hug, and we were family.

It didn’t stop there. I stood again to receive more singing directed at those with birthdays in February. All women were also invited to rise, shake hands and proclaim love for each other in honor of Rosa Parks’ birthday just two days prior. We shook hands with everyone for everything. There were also plenty of affectionate hugs.

(Leah and I even received special affection when, part way through the service, the other tourists beside us rose to leave. The ushers, ladies adorned in stunning, matching white suits and sitting right behind us, shook their heads at the rudeness. As we were the only ones left who stayed for the long haul, we were suddenly in their very good favor. They prompted us when to stand, when to sit, and offered their hand sanitizer when the basket of bread was passed through the rows.)

I was enraptured, and eagerly sat on the edge of the pew as the pastor (in his second of three garment changes, I believe), began his sermon. It contained no less than three props and an abundance of football references (we were there on Superbowl Sunday). The grand finale had the Devil scoring a touchdown in the final seconds, thinking that the game was entirely in hand, but then Jesus fooled him and rose to the heavens. Game over. The congregation roared in approval.

Music underlay the entire service. There were few moments that passed where there wasn’t a tune serenely tinkling out from the piano while voices boomed over top. It fostered a perpetual dance party, a wonderful array of Sunday hats bobbing along to the lively music, always clapping and swaying.

We left almost three hours after we had arrived. On the way out, a petite usher in her brilliant white dress shook my hand and said, “I hope you come back again.”

Even though I was positively buzzing from the experience and would have a couple of more Sundays in which I could return, I knew I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to risk going again, lest it be even the slightest bit different and change my appreciation for what a special experience it was. Instead, those three hours will remain elevated to an unforgettable moment in time that I shared with one of my closest friends.

(Yes, I guess that makes me a true tourist. But I haven’t disclosed the name of the church nor am I posting a review on TripAdvisor. Does that make it better? I’m not sure.)

Leah and I made the quick walk back to our place with the largest of smiles plastered on our faces, gushing over what we had just experienced. Our palms were red and swollen from the steady clapping, our souls were warmed against the bitter wind outside.

31 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own

  • February 29 2012

    Just finished reading your Sunday Service posting.
    I have not read anything so well worded in a long time.
    It was beautiful if one can call it that.

    • March 1 2012

      Thanks Gord! I agonized over writing this one for awhile and wasn’t sure if anyone would read it because it’s so long! I’m glad at least one person enjoyed it! :)

  • March 1 2012

    I find that going to church in different place has been a way to access the culture in a different, and maybe more authentic way. Because I’m Catholic, for example, I really enjoy attending mass in Latin American countries, because I love sharing such a different expression of faith. But going as a tourist does have a voyeuristic feel. And going to services in unfamiliar religions is always a little uncomfortable cuz you don’t know the “rules.”

    That said, I think I’d really enjoy going to that church. What was it called?

    Hope your trip to Turkey is going well.

    • March 1 2012

      I think you would enjoy it Kate (it’s called Shiloh, and was just around the corner from where we met). We went to services in Latin America for the exact same reason.

      We just go to Istanbul and are getting over our jet lag! :)

  • March 1 2012

    I really enjoyed this post. I’ve gone to services in French speaking Belgium and those were the most beautiful and inspirational services I’ve ever attended. There was just such a strong sense of culture, community, and even serenity in those services. Thanks for your post.

    • March 1 2012

      I grew up going to Catholic mass and 99% of the time they were so incredibly boring. I know that the point of mass is not to entertain, but it might have been less of a struggle for Mom to drag me out of bed if they had even half the inspiration this one did! It was such a beautiful display.

  • First off, I love long wordy posts (obviously), so kudos on that!

    Secondly, I grew up in a 98% black community, and we used to have a Holy Roller church right next to the grocery store my family used to frequent. They would open the doors in summer (hellacious heat down here in Georgia) and the music would spill out onto the sidewalk, where those who’d gotten the spirit would often go to catch their breath.

    I’m not a big believer, but seeing their passion and enthusiasm made me want to be. Thanks for the memories!
    Bret @ Green Global Travel recently posted..PIC OF THE DAY: Sunset In Kruger National Park, South Africa

    • March 3 2012

      Thanks for your comment Bret! What memories you must have from those days in Georgia! This was such a new experience for me, having grown up enduring rather “stuffy” Catholic ceremonies. I wish there had been as much singing and dancing!

      • What’s funny is, I grew up in stuffy Episcopalian services (I was an acolyte), so it seemed pretty foreign to me as well. But I think there was always part of me that was more Holy Roller than Episcopal, which is probably why I wound up fronting a hip-hop/rock band in my early 20s…

  • March 1 2012

    What a lovely experience! I love that the pastor had three wardrobe changes!

    • March 3 2012

      I know, right? It was a huge spectacle. Loved it.

  • March 1 2012

    Beautiful, thoughtful and uplifting post. Thanks for sharing with us!! Forget about whether it makes you a tourist or not and take the experience as it is/was, which is what you seem to be doing anyway :)
    Phil recently posted..Proof of Cote d’Ivoire’s Progress

    • March 3 2012

      I hate standing out in places, which is funny I guess, as we’ve been on the road so long, I should be used to it by now! A lot of places go out of their way to NOT make you feel welcome, but this church sure did. It was such a lovely experience!

  • March 1 2012

    This is a great piece of writing. Thanks for sharing.
    rashmi recently posted..Cheap Hotels in Downtown Chicago

  • March 2 2012

    going to any type of service someplace new is going to be a wonderful experience! i really enjoyed this post.

    • March 3 2012

      Glad you enjoyed it Maria. I really love to do this as much as I can around the world. You can learn so much about the people this way.

  • March 2 2012

    I really enjoyed this post Dalene, you put across a great story of a clearly moving experience :) Thanks for sharing!
    Laurence recently posted..In photos: My life in France (so far!)

  • March 2 2012

    Great post. I agree that understanding one’s religion is important to know more about how our world works. I’m glad you had a meaningful experience!
    Alexa Meisler recently posted..Guidelines

  • March 18 2012

    My sister & I did a trip to England a couple of years ago and went to a church in a tiny little town where our ancestors came from (a few headstones with our family name spatter around the graves to confirm this).. we were welcomed like we had been going every Sunday. I don’t see anything wrong with going to a service if you are so inclined

  • March 25 2012

    I think that it’s lovely that you went to the church service and even more that you had a great time! I’d love to attend a service like this and am not all that religious either.

    • March 26 2012

      It was a little awkward at first but I was so glad to go. It was magical!

  • Great read. I was instantly reminded of the time I went to a Sunday service in downtown Oakland. Wow, the singing, the passion, the hats! it was as culturally different as anything I had seen.

  • May 24 2012

    Loved this post! I live in Harlem and was looking for a place to go to service that wouldn’t be like attending a show at Disneyworld and this sounds great! I saw that you replied to another reader that the church was called Shiloh, which I googled, but I came up with Shiloh Baptist and Shiloh Church of Christ (both in Harlem). Do you, by chance remember which one it was or maybe just the cross streets? Thanks again for posting!!!

    • May 25 2012

      Hi Erin! I can’t quite remember for sure, but I *think* it was the baptist church. It is right near the corner of 130th and 7th (in West Harlem). Enjoy!

  • December 20 2013

    Dalene, I truly enjoyed reading your post. It let me see through a neutral person’s eyes, how others view a service in a spirit-filled church. I can’t limit it to just Baptist because you’ll see similar experiences in Pentecostal, Apostolic, & Methodist churches. I’m glad it was an enjoyable experience. I grew up in the Baptist church so I’m used to those events, but I understand now the purpose of why going is important. As an adult and a believer in Jesus Christ, I’m learning daily how to live the way God wants me to and the Sunday morning worship service is coming together in the “House of God” to give Him praise for the great things He has done & worship Him just because He is God. I pray Dalene that you would go again to any place of worship that was filled with the Holy Spirit. Trust me, the next encounter would be magnified from the 1st. It only grows & gets better & better. If it doesn’t, you weren’t in the right place. That’s how God moves. It’s not the people. We’re all just beings moved by the Holy Spirit of God. Come worship with us the next time you’re in NY. I’ll email you the info. God bless you!

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