Black Churches: The Next Times Square?

Praise the Lord?

Any native (or long-time) New Yorker will tell you—avoid Times Square like the plague. For those of us that ever worked in Times Square, lunchtime is a literal rat-race, dodging tourists who stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures of buildings, etc. It’s disruptive, it’s aggravating and you just want them to go home and so you can eat your salad in peace. A few blocks north of Times Square lies Harlem, the iconic neighborhood that is no stranger to tourists visiting historic African-American institutions like The Lenox Lounge, Sylvia’s, The Studio Museum and The Apollo Theatre—and churches. According to a recent Daily Mail article, the hottest attraction uptown is your local Black Church:

“They want to see what they’ve seen on television,” said Larcelia Kebe, president of Harlem Your Way! Tours Unlimited. “They want to see what they’ve seen in the movies.”

The gospel tour industry has exploded since it was born in the early 1980s. On a busy summer Sunday, Harlem Spirituals, one of the oldest and largest tour operators, might run 15 full buses, said Erika Elisabeth, a company vice president.

But what happens when tourists only want to hear “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” but have no interest in the sermon or church news? They leave. Often times, in the middle of the sermon, also know as the walk of shame in most congregations because you traditionally do.not.leave.while.the.word.is.delivered:

“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.”

Depending on your view of faith, this is both a good and bad thing. It’s heartening to see an international interest in something many Black Americans hold dear. But when does this become more of a zoo show—ie. ‘Look at what the Blacks do on Sundays!’—than a truly cultural experience. Sort of like the ‘urban safari’ trips given in West Indian countries that involve bus loads of tourists driving through black neighborhoods. Could this mean that Harlem, Atlanta, Oakland, Washington, D.C. and more cities with large black church congregations will bud into mini Time Square’s? And for a marketing maven like myself—I want to know where the money is going. According to the article, tour operators charge an average of $55 per person and only ‘encourage’ participants to drop money in the collection plate. What is the participating church’s cut? Is this spiritually ethical? Is a congregation “selling out” by participating?

Read the article and speak your mind below.

PS. This ambiguous church cut would NOT fly at Creflo Dollar’s mega-church, just sayin’ …

pps. This was one of the reasons I couldn’t join my cousin at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. People were literally talking pictures of us while we were trying to worship. Not to mention, the church’s Pastor Calvin Butts, III is the guy from Bone Thugs N Harmony “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” intro, he definitely wasn’t getting my little tithes from my Source magazine pay check.- Hills

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