Tourists pack the pews of Harlem's churches

“The service was beautiful and uplifting,” writes a British tourist rating the experience at five stars. Her 16-year-old son commented if all churches were like that, "more people would go." Maybe that explains the long lines around the block.

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Writing in a personal blog, a British Columbia university student who didn’t quite understand that evangelical churches don’t celebrate mass wrote: “The churches in Harlem take Sunday mass very seriously, so plan ahead if you want to attend a service. I have been to two gospel services and have been absolutely blown away both times. Call ahead

to ensure they welcome visitors, dress up, bring money for the collection, and be prepared to clap your hands! Believe me, it will be everything you imagine a Gospel service would be.

What tourists hear is heart-felt and genuine (Photo by HS NYV Tours)

“If you’re hesitant to attend a service alone, there are a lot of tours that will take you, although they might not be able to get you into some of the more exclusive churches. My favourite church so far is definitely the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Odell Clark Place.”

On a recent Sunday morning, more than 200 tourists outnumbered the nearby Mother African Methodist Episcopal Church’s congregation 5-1. Pastor Gregory Robeson Smith said he refuses to work with tour operators – and thus forfeits the percentage that some churches collect.

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Smith “doesn’t even like to use the word ‘tourist,’” he told a reporter from the British newspaper the Daily Mail, “preferring instead to call them part of his ‘international congregation.’  And he won’t turn anyone away.”

“’I refuse to commercialize the church worship experience,’ he said. “‘You don’t charge people to experience the Lord, to come and pray. I think that’s unconscionable.’”

A recent visitor to the church, Celeste Lejeune, 16, from Paris, didn’t know anything about the congregation’s history. Mother AME Church is the oldest black church in New York, was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and its congregants have included Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Mother AME Zion Church (Photo by HS NYV Tours)

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