A little before 9 a.m. Sunday morning, the wind chill was 11 degrees and the line to get into the Abyssinian Baptist Church already stretched down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, and was beginning to turn down 136th Street. And still they came. Out of the subway they marched, in purple puffy jackets, blood orange sneakers, blindingly yellow scarves, in two and threes, like a rainbow coming unspun on the streets of Harlem, exotic cigarettes in one hand, foreign language guidebooks in the other, all pointing them the same direction: Abyssinian.
“In here, it says about the blacks in America and the community here,” said Nadine, 26, gamely translating from German her guidebook. “It says it is very different from the mass in Germany. There it is very quiet, you know. Here you can wear blue jeans and T-shirt. And it talks about the singing and the dancing. And it says it is the most lovely thing in Harlem.”
Was she a fan of gospel music? Were the records of Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and the Staple Singers on constant repeat at her home in Germany?
No, she said, pointing at her mother standing next to her.
“But we loved Sister Act.”
They are not alone. As the tourists descend on New York for the holiday season this week, in addition to the usual sights—the Statue of Liberty, the Broadway shows, Ground Zero—is another must-see that few below 125th Street know much about: old-time religion, uptown style.
It has been like this, Harlemites and church-goers say, for well over a decade, when tour buses first started depositing eager Europeans (and to a lesser degree, Asians) on the doorsteps of the neighborhood’s houses of worship. Then, at least it was manageable, and the churches benefited by a getting a little cut of whatever their purveyors of the “Harlem Gospel Tours” could provide.
Now, the guided tours aren’t as much of a problem as the tour books and the accrued word-of-mouth over the past 10 years, which sends the hordes mostly to stand around and wait for hours at Abyssinian, Harlem’s most storied church and the one listed as a must-see in seemingly every guidebook on the planet.
This past Sunday, close to 400 people showed up. Some days it can be several times that. Typically, only 200 or so get into a sanctuary that seats around 1,200.
And so at Abyssinian, the ushers, decked out in their Sunday finery, double as bouncers, keeping the line straight and deciding who receives entry into what has apparently become Sunday morning’s hippest nightclub.
“Ladies and gentlemen, monsieurs and mademoiselles, señors y señoras,” said one usher in the flat tone of someone who has had to make the same speech hour after hour, week after week. “During the course of my announcement you might see some people approach me and say, ‘Mister I have a question.’ If anyone does that I am going to ask them to go to the back of the line and they will lose their place in line. You may be tempted to call me rude or impolite or terse. I am willing to address everyone on this line, but I must do so in a way that minimizes chaos, disorder or anarchy from arising. Next thing you know the sidewalk is flocked and we have all sorts of problems.”
The line began murmuring, trying to make sense of what they’d just been told.
The windup finished, the lecture continued.
“It is now 9:36. Some of you are asking when you will be allowed in. This is the best answer I can give you. The 9 a.m. service is scheduled to end at 11 a.m. The key word in that sentence is ‘scheduled.’ We will try to accommodate as many of you as possible.
“Thank you for your attention, and enjoy your stay in New York,” he added.
The usher went on to describe the rules of the service—no cell phones, no pictures, no video, no getting up and leaving early. It is not like the churches in Europe, he says, where visitors can peer in while services are going on.
And it is not, he notes, 42nd Street. There is no discount ticket booth. It is not a show. It is a church, and the people are there to worship God.
After the lecture the feeling on the line was mostly confusion. One man who had a video camera out was told to put it away.
“What are you filming me for?” one of the ushers growled. “I don’t want to wind up on no YouTube. Who puts somebody they don’t even know on YouTube?”
The videographer, a tourist from Finland, meekly put away his camera.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked what happened. “I think I upset him.”
Despite the warning from the ushers that they were hours away from letting anyone in, and that no one was guaranteed entry, not a single tourist left.
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