Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church Seeks to Accommodate Visitors While Serving the Needs of Its Congregation

Choir members at Abyssinian Baptist Church greet tourists attending services on a recent Sunday. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal
Choir members at Abyssinian Baptist Church greet tourists attending services on a recent Sunday. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

Every Sunday, rain or shine, tourists line up in front of a derelict building around the block from Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. On a summer Sunday, there can be 1,000 of them.

“They come looking for gospel music,” said Rev. Calvin Butts, the church’s leader. “They come looking for a show.”

For more than a decade, Abyssinian Baptist Church has drawn curious travelers. It is not alone—gospel tourism is a full-fledged industry in Harlem, with 9,000 tourists attending church on an average Sunday and a 25% increase around religious holidays, according to the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce.

But the church is unique in the strict policies and uneasy compromises it has developed to balance its steady stream of visitors with the needs of its congregation.

It has no desire to ban tourists altogether. For Abyssinian, a church where sermons are infused with politics, and the first offering goes to the church and the second to causes like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, there is value in spreading a message that is not only religious but cultural.

“It’s important for them to come,” said Mr. Butts, “because they need to get an experience of the African-American community that is not the stereotypical presentation.”

But it’s not easy, especially because tourists can be ill-behaved and notoriously stingy: According to Mr. Butts, the average tourist gives $3 to the church.

“It’s taken us a while to get it to where it is now,” he said, of the church’s policies. “We’ve had to figure out how we receive so many tourists, and at the same time not violate our worship experience as a congregation.”

The church’s policy requires tourists to line up outdoors, regardless of weather, and bans backpacks, photography and clothing such as leggings, tank tops, flip-flops and shorts. According to the policy, they aren’t admitted in the 9 a.m. service or on holidays.

On a recent Sunday, about 150 of them, many clad in jeans and holding guidebooks, stood in line.

A church volunteer lectured continuously, informing tourists they couldn’t leave during the 2½-hour service. “We don’t pray by time, we pray by spirit,” he said.

Tourists marveled at the proceedings. “It’s too much, very strict,” Laura Calles, a 29-year-old doctor from Zamora, Spain, said in Spanish. “And very organized.”

“I read it in a travel advisory,” said Rei Mikkelsen, 54, a psychiatrist from Denmark who, by arriving two hours early, was at the front of the line. “The atmosphere you won’t find anywhere else.”

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Source: Wall Street Journal | CORINNE RAMEY

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