April 27, 2014

Going to church in Harlem

Some things seem like a good idea. At the time. Like going to Ellis Island seemed like a good idea at the time. Going to church in Harlem seemed a good idea too. It is Sunday after all, and people go to church on Sunday. Even in New York.

Our Sunday morning began with coffee at Oslo, our wonderful neighbourhood espresso bar, then the subway to 125th Street.

From the subway it was a brisk walk to a large evangelical church which we had read about. And they turned us away. "No room for you today!" and "There's no way we can get any more tourists in the church today. No sir!" and "There are other churches around the block. Maybe they can take you." Okay. No room. Hmm... this story sounds familiar.

A walk around the block provided the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Harlem. They seemed to have room and up we went to the balcony. The choir was singing and people were clapping and soon we were too.

The congregation consisted of what appeared to be about 45 regular members in the pews, a choir and band of about 20, and six clergy seated behind the pulpit. The rest of the congregation this day was made up of about 400 "international guests" from all over the world, all here for another tourist opportunity. Told to not take photos with cameras or phones during the service, many did anyway. Highly disrespectful.

As the pastor welcomed people he asked people to identify themselves as he called out the names of various countries. He never called out Canada. Not that there's anything wrong with that. After all, George W forgot about Canada too.

The singing and clapping continued along with four different collections for various things. We actually stopped after the third. Finally the guest preacher came to the pulpit and began his sermon. It was about the story of the disciples on the road out of Jerusalem after the crucifixion, and meeting a stranger who ultimately revealed himself to be their supposedly dead leader. The sermon started slowly enough, with some funny bits, and built to a wild frenzy of screaming and stomping. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Somehow I think sermons should engage and enlighten, offer as many questions as answers. Being preached to is not helpful. Yelling and jumping around doesn't make the message any clearer. At least not for me. In the end, slightly bewildered and confused, we left the church to search out the light of day.

We found a nice place down the street that served wonderful crab and cold beer, and at a certain point Joe turned up the music really loud and encouraged people to get up to sing and dance. Or sit if you want. And on a beautiful Sunday in Harlem, or anywhere else, that's reason enough to sing out: Hallelujah!

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.