A Sin And A Shame: Soul Voyeurism* And Harlem “Gospel Tours” [Racialigious]

By Guest Contributor Fiqah, originally published at Possum Stew

Some background:  for most of my adult life, I have been a fugitive from religion, the monotheistic “Big Three”, anyway. (Sorry, any faith doctrine that includes an interventionist, anthropomorphic, masculine god/godhead is prolly gonna earn some side-eye from me.)  Because my sociopolitical views and general life philosophy are widely regarded as “radical,” the decision to not participate in often conservative organized religion was a sensible and organic one.  The Bébé Fiqah trauma that led to my adult decision to be an unrepentant heathen/sinner/whateverthehell is all a very loooooong story that nobody wants to hear, so I’ll sum up by saying that until recently outside of weddings, baptisms, mitzvahs, and funerals, Grown-Up Fiqah rarely darkened the doorstep of any house of worship.

However, when one of my elderly neighbors, a  very dapper Georgia born-and-bred gentleman, invited me to come to his Southern Baptist church here in Harlem last fall, I accepted.  I was going through a particularly difficult time emotionally, and while the choir was sorta weak (sorry, I’m Southern, and we have standards for this kinda thing), I found the service overall to be very spiritually uplifting and healing. I was delighted by the sermon, as well as the inclusive spirit of the congregation. (”All are welcome”  is the credo of just about every Southern Baptist church, but in many places, certain”children of God” - non-Christians, LGBTIQ people - are most emphatically NOT welcomed.)  I decided that maybe dropping in to Church every now and again wouldn’t be so terrible.

This morning, I attended services at another Southern Baptist church here in Harlem with my buddy J. who never misses a Sunday.  In spite of the late summer swelter, I happily donned my Sunday best, pearls and good heels and headed  on over to Church.  In retrospect, I should have said some kinda prayer asking for patience and composure before I stepped out of the door. Because what awaited me at church would have tested even the most forgiving soul.

You see, J. and I were seated in one of the balcony pews, along with several Italian tourists. European and Asian tour groups and buses are a common sight on Sundays in Harlem.  As annoying and ubiquitous as they are, for the most part, church tourists are ignorable.  Well, this group must have been especially rude, because several members of the group spent much of the service talking. Talking. In spite of being shot admonishing looks by several parishioners and being approached by one of the ushers, the conversation, though lowered to murmuring, continued.  The only time it seemed to stop was when the choir led the church in a song, when the tourists watched the choir and the other attendees with that peculiar mixture of fascination, fear and envy that White people in spaces of color often seem to have. As they watched us, my friend and I watched them, swaying all wrong, clapping off beat and basically turning what was a joyful but sacred experience into a spectacle for their entertainment.

I did my very best to remain silent and non-responsive. And I was good. I really was.

Until devotional.

I had just bowed my head, closed my eyes, and was just about to connect one-on-One with the Lord…when the cell phone of the woman sitting behind me went off.

And she answered.

“Oh, I don’t even believe THIS shit!” I said. J.’s eyes flew open, and she covered her startled gasp with her hand.

“Fiqah. I know…but….God,” she whispered anxiously, waving her hand at the ceiling to indicate God’s presence. An elderly woman sitting right in front of me had turned around to glare at me for cussin’ in the Lord’s house. My friend’s a long-time member of her church, so embarrassing her (and myself) further was not an option, but I was pissed.

“Unless that is God on the line she needs an ass-whooping. Jesus be an electrified fence,” I grumbled, frowning and closing my eyes as J. stifled her laughter.

Later at brunch, we talked about what had gone down. Both of us had attended church in Harlem, so we both knew that the tour groups were common. It wasn’t the first time we noticed tourists – whose presence alone is disruptive – acting out in Church.  We had both also noticed that the groups seemed to be getting larger, testimony to the appeal of these tours for Asian and European tourists as well as to the drawing power of good gospel music.  J. feels ambivalent about the gospel tours because as annoying as they are, no tour group member ever neglects the collection plate.  My own feelings about them were firmly in the negative category. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I have such a visceral dislike of these gospel tours until today, when I decided to gather some information about them so that I could better understand their appeal. Here, an excerpt from an account by a  White tourist from London**  who went to a Harlem church specifically for the music:

I meet Tim Rawlins at the Memorial Baptist church choir practise. He’s rare proof of the fact that white men can sing gospel. He says I’ve got to surrender to the music – feel it – and forget I’m English.

That statement, which positively reeks of cultural fetishizing, gave me a headache. Forget you’re “English” (read: White and proper) and “surrender” (is it attacking you?) to the wild, untamed Black Black Blackity Blackness of the music. Hallelujah, let the Othering begin.

Tim: “What I like about gospel music, is that it breaks from that old European tradition which separates intellect and reason from feeling and really in Gospel music you feel with great thought and you think with great feeling…”

Ummmm…as much as I love traditional gospel music, it has never teased an elliptical statement outta me, so I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.  Luckily, the author knew just what to infer from it.

That probably means loosening up physically too. When the elderly women start to practice I find myself entranced watching the soloist, Lonnie Gray. She’s 77 years old but she’s out there, her face enraptured, her hips swaying, moving with the rhythm – feeling it.

At this point, I’d had quite enough, so I ventured off to other parts of the interwebs to sift around for tour information and possible articles. I discovered that this issue was one that Black churches in Harlem had been facing for almost two decades. The tours,  while often disruptive, are revenue generators, with prices ranging from $45-$99 dollars per person, and many including an “authentic” (sigh) soul food brunch. It’s for this reason that the general consensus amongst many of Harlem’s  Black church clergy seems to be that the gospel tours are a necessary evil. 

Church attendance has dropped significantly across all denominations in the past half century in the United States. Churches are financially reliant upon the generosity of their donor base, which has historically been their congregation.  As tax-exempt entities, religious organizations are able to (presumably) expend their funds on capital expenses, such as building renovations.   This piece from 1996 gives an excellent overview of the tension.  Meanwhile, this quote from it sums up just about everything that I find objectionable about these tours:

“It’s something exotic,” says Nelson Motta, a Brazilian journalist who promotes visits to Mount Moriah in his native country. “Seeing the black people in the church, the feeling is warm.”

In other words, it’s Church Time at the Apollo. Good grief. I repeat: Jesus, be a fence.

Churches have been recognized for centuries as both places of worship and sanctuary in countries with substantial Christian populations. This was also true of Black churches in the U.S.  The roots of Black Southern Baptist churches in the United States can be traced all the way back to the earliest days of the slave era. The first Black churches were organized by free blacks in the North and Southeastern United States.  Gospel music’s call-and-response style, which is common in many different styles of music throughout the African diaspora, was often employed openly during worship and clandestinely by slaves as resistance. 

Organizers of slave rebellions and escapes often sang  gospel “work” songs in the field with double entendre lyrics in earshot of slave masters and overseers, whose presence was constant. (Following Nat Turner’s Rebellion the state of Virginia passed a law that required that a White minister be present at Black congregations.) The gospel work songs often included instructions, directions, and even times of day.  The genius employed in this “hiding in plain sight” method was more often than not missed by slave owners, most of whom did not consider the intellect of the Negro to be sophisticated enough to grasp anything beyond the most basic concepts. (As Dave Chappelle once famously stated in one of his early comic specials: “It doesn’t happen often, but when racism works in black people’s favor . . . it’s fucking sweet.”)

Following slavery’s abolishment, the Black church remained a vital part of the social fabric of African-American communities.  In addition to worship and religious ceremonies, church “socials”, dances, bake sales and other  informal gatherings were common in the American South during the Jim Crow era. The connections between Black-led civil rights movements and the organizations that grew from them and Black churches is well-established.  Civil Rights era protesters often sang gospel songs during rallies and marches, and rallies, marches and sit-ins were frequently planned in churches on non-worship days.

Outside of the South, many congregations remained largely divided along racial lines.  White members of Protestant churches often expressed concern over what they viewed as improper exuberance found in Black churches.  The notion that the style of worship found in Black American churches was somehow vulgar and inauthentic persisted long after the abolishment of slavery, and was far from confined to any denomination. Mahalia Jackson, arguably one of the best gospel singers ever recorded, was regarded by many of her upper and upper-middle class Black contemporaries as an embarrassment. (Yes. Mahalia. Jackson. I know…)

“Negro spirituals” were rarely included in hymn books outside of Black churches, and have only recently been recognized as acceptable expressions of faith through song by many denominations. In spite of the rich faith diversity within Black Chrisitan communities, Black worship and Black gospel were widely regarded as odd at best and sacrilegeous at worst. The fact that the only exclusively American musical forms – blues, jazz and rock-and-roll – emerged from traditional Black gospel music has lent it a sort of global validity. (Although I will note here that even the  stunning Gospel at Colonus, a gospel play based on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus that was considered for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, opened to an initially chilly reception a mere twenty years ago on Broadway.) The beauty and singularity of gospel music is openly praised by the contemporary mainstream. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who’s asking) this acceptance has meant an increasingly secular appreciation (or appropriation…once again, depends on who’s asking) of traditional gospel music.  It has also helped transform places of worship into stages, where both resident gospel choirs and congregation members are put on display for  (oft-times) White tourists:

“This is not a buck-and-dance show,”says the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem’s most politically powerful ministers [whose]  church has resorted to passing out a flier to visitors, explaining how to behave during the service. Congregants complain that tourists annoyingly turn their cameras on the devout at prayer and snap away whenever a shout arises from the church’s “Amen” comer.

This manner of blatant disregard of church protocol and behavior evidences a lack of respect for the sacredness of the proceedings.  The offense here is multi-layered:  a.) the proceedings are not taken seriously, b.) the participants are regarded as exotic curiousities and c.) there is an underlying assumption that the presence of (often) White European tourists is “welcome.”  The unexamined sense of entitlement that accompanies the idea of White people being welcome in any space is the factor that makes these tours possible. (I’m fully convinced that if 100 casually-dressed and snap-happy Black Americans rolled up into a Lutheran church on a Sunday in Haarlem,  the ensuing outrage at their gall would cause an international incident…but I digress.)

Tourist groups in Black churches violate both outer (the church) and inner (the congregation members) spiritual space.  The concept of the church as a sanctuary, as a sweet, soul-sustaining  and necessary respite from earthly troubles and oppression, is blown to smithereens by the transgressive presence of these tourists, no matter how benignly they view themselves.  Never mind messy polemical discussions, ”Jesus and the money changers” versus “The Church is a business”   blah blah BLAHHH.  If the devout are prevented from fully connecting with the divine by disruptive interlopers,  then the spiritual imperatives must trump the financial ones.

*“Soul voyeurism” is a term I derived from the Newsweek article entitled “Soul Voyeurs Invade The House of God” by Gregory Beals and Kenneth L. Woodward.

** The author of this account first attended a Black Baptist church in Harlem as a “drop-in” – not a regular attendee – and then was invited to attend a choir rehearsal. Attending a rehearsal to enjoy the music, IMO, is fine. The tone of the piece is troubling nonetheless.