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Chants Authentique De L’Eglise Afro-Americaine

September 22, 2010

Slate’s Jeremy Stahl reports on the Harlem church tourism trade. Apparently, many European tourists pay to visit African-American churches in New York City. And the churches, in dire need of funds to sustain their dwindling congregations, are willing to be gawked at while worshiping in exchange for some money.

Every week, Greater Highway Deliverance Temple hosts between one and four busloads of visitors from Harlem Spirituals, the first company to have started taking tourists to Sunday services more than 20 years ago. Co-pastor Hazel Page said Greater Highway receives $3 per visitor from Harlem Spirituals, which charges $55 to $99 per ticket for Sunday tours. In July, I visited Greater Highway Deliverance with a group of 42 tourists from Belgium, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, and Japan, on a Harlem Spirituals tour.

…The first five pews were taken up by about 50 well-dressed black parishioners and one exuberant white worshiper in a Derek Jeter jersey. The middle and back rows were packed with tourists, mostly from Europe…

When the music started, the usher who had greeted us began dancing up and down the aisle. The congregation stood up and started to clap and sway. One tourist pantomimed the drumming and imitated the dancing in what looked like an attempt to impress two female friends. The choir performed “I Came To Praise the Lord,” and the lyrics—”I don’t know what you came to do, I came to kneel and pray”—stung almost like a collective rebuke. At one point, a church leader declared the “visitor” count for the day’s service at 147, listed the represented countries, and told us “thank God for each and every one of you”—even, I suppose, the dozing Japanese woman to my left.

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