Seeking connection in a big city

November 24, 2013

Image source: Belinda Donald, The Lab.

I first went to New York City in 1999, and back then it was all bright lights, big city and the sights to be seen. Going back this time, I sought to experience it more like a local, with no ‘tick-box’ itinerary; a more meaningful experience to remember.

I got off the beaten track by exploring the backstreets of Brooklyn, and ventured up to Harlem where I caught a Sunday Gospel church service. I’d heard about Harlem Gospel Tours from a friend, and was genuinely surprised by the sheer volume of tourists lining up to get into church on a Sunday.

We seek a deeper level of experience in our travels

This scene jars with the decline of religion in the Western world, but what these folk are here for is not so much a religious service as an authentic experience of something they may have seen in the movies, and don’t always have access to at home.

This reflects a wider travel trend that we have been looking into recently here at The Lab; that of seeking a deeper level of experience and a sense of connection with a place, either as a form of social status (I’m a real traveller!) or to make up for a lack of connection in other areas of life. The Harlem Gospel service arguably plays to both desires.

The Harlem shake-up

There is also an interesting tension playing out between the various churches in Harlem. Some churches, like the popular and very slick Abyssinian, are packed full of busloads of tourists, with even more being turned away every Sunday. They are seemingly commercialising the experience, the church apparently gets a cut of tour bus profits and, well…the pastor drives a Lexus. Others, like the well-worn Mother AME Zion around the corner, refuse to work with tour operators but don’t turn anyone away, referring to tourists as their ‘International congregation’. The Rev. Gregory Robeson Smith, Mother AME Zion's pastor, says:

"I refuse to commercialise the church worship experience…you don't pay people to experience the Lord, to come and pray. I think that's unconscionable." (source: Harlem Churches See A Boom Of Tourists Seeking Gospel Music, But Congregants Bristle At Rudeness,

However, they do acknowledge that the tourist donations help sustain their church, which is in need of repair.

There is a sense that the Mother AME Zion regards its slick neighbour as a sell out. However, by turning their Sunday service into a tourist entertainment spectacle - the highlight of which is a world class Gospel Choir – are they just taking a leaf out of the big brand books and making themselves more relevant for today? If their website and Facebook presence is anything to go by, I’d say yessir!