The stern warning issued from the pulpit was directed at the tourists — most of whom had arrived late — a sea of white faces with guidebooks in hand. They outnumbered the congregation itself: a handful of elderly black men and women wearing suits and dresses and old-fashioned pillbox hats.
"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 want to listen to soulful gospel music at a black church service. With a record number of tourists descending upon New York City last year, the crowds of foreigners are becoming a source of irritation among faithful churchgoers.
To preserve the sanctity of the service, pastors struggle to enforce strict rules of conduct. But the reality is that these visitors are often filling church pews that would otherwise remain empty — and filling the collection basket with precious dollar bills.
"Our building is in need of repair," church member Paul Henderson said after the service. "We need assistance. They're helping to sustain us." ...