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.
The lecture, and the line that stretches not from the door of Abyssinian but from around the corner, is an improvement. In years past, the atmosphere outside the church had dissolved into a circus. Tourists would crowd around the entrance and try to edge their way past the ushers. They would say how far away they had come, try to bargain for just a little peek inside. Groups would gather across the street, staring longingly at the church, or perhaps plotting how to storm its walls.
In response, the church has tried to make the early 9 a.m. service for members only. They have added a Wednesday service and tired to encourage the tourists to go to that one if they can’t make it in during prime time.
“We are happy to see men and women come from other places,” said Rev. Calvin Butts, the longtime pastor of Abyssinian. “And we want them to get a flavor of who we are, to hear the gospel, the fellowship, and to take the good news back home.
“Our ushers are extremely polite, very well behaved. What they face are often tourists who are not so,” he added. “The tourists who come do not contribute significantly. I want to accommodate the tourists. I want them to have a wonderful worship experience but in order to make sure they are handled politely and wonderfully and warmly I have to have people there on an almost-full-time basis. We have wonderful volunteers but it becomes more like a job and it costs us money. The tourists come and the plate goes by, and they put a dollar in, but that doesn’t help much.”
An hour or so later, the line had stretched to nearly 300 people. A little makeshift global village developed. A woman opened up a tea and coffee stand. An older man in a red felt hat was blaring the blues gospel CDs he is selling. They looked as if they were preparing for war—hopping up and down, stamping their feet to stay warm.
Three teenagers from Australia were among them. They said they had never been to America before. Got in last night, went to Broadway, did Times Square and Rockefeller Center, then got up at dawn to come here.
“We really wanted to see the kind of church you see in the movies. So we looked it up on Google and found this one. There were crazy mixed reviews. Some said it’s terrible, you are not going to get in, they favor all the black people and they were just standing for 50 minutes and saw nothing. And other people said it was amazing.”
“Yeah,” added her friend, “the ones that got in.”
Out in front of the church, a family of five—an overly tanned mother and father, three bright blond kids—stepped out of a chauffeured Mercedes SUV. They were all wearing Yankees caps and said they are from New Jersey. The ushers lined them up in front of the door, explaining that they try to make accommodations for domestic visitors. Out back, another lecture began.
“Ladies and gentlemen, monsieurs and mademoiselles, señors y señoras,” the ushers yelled in the same tone. “I submit that the church will be full before we get to your place in line. If you choose to stand here after I am done speaking you will be doing so purely on a stand-by basis. And you cannot or will not be guaranteed entry into the church. There are other churches in the neighborhood. If you take a left down this avenue you are sure to find some. Some of you may ask if you will be able to get into those churches. The best answer I can give you is I am a member of this church. Therefore I do not know about the policy of other churches.”
The foreign influx, though, is mostly an issue at Abyssinian. “We don’t have problems like that,” said Bobbie McDaniel, the pastor of nearby Metropolitan Baptist Church. Other churches have been known to send out an emissary in a van to try to pick up those tired of waiting in line at Abyssinian. On Sunday, a man named Ivan Hickman walked up and down the line trying to convince those shivering in place to turn and head to Mother AME Zion around the corner.
“Gospel music is gospel music. It don’t matter where it comes from,” he reasoned.
A vet who pulled out his i.d. to prove that it was his 53rd birthday, he said he hoped the tourists would throw him a few dollars for directing them to the right place.
“Just hoping to make a few dollars before football starts,” he said. “Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Mostly, the locals and the church attendees didn’t seem to mind all that much. A few came up to the line and apologized.
“It can be disruptive to the churches,” said Michael Henry Adams, a Harlem historian and tour guide. “The visitors are dressed inappropriately. They felt like they were being in a zoo. But once people recognize how much money there was to be made by being on display, they found it less objectionable.”
In the line, three hours after many had first arrived, the bad news at last had begun to settle in. Another usher came out for the eulogy.
“We have reached our seating capacity. The best thing you can do is come back on Wednesday. We don’t have any more room. That is it for today, ladies and gentlemen. I am very sorry. The church is now closed for the day. I don’t have the room. There is no more room.”
No one moved.
“You guys aren’t listening! We don’t have any more room. There are other churches in the area. It is finished! It is finished!”
The few dozen remaining tourists looked up confused, asked each other what just happened and then, as if by instinct, settled back into line.