May 2007. Looking for a different, some might even say peculiar New York experience to sink your teeth into? I’ve always been fascinated by the mythical world of the gospel church, thanks in large to movies like Sister Act, Bruce Almighty and The Great Debaters. Imagine experiencing this kind of full-blooded “praise the looooord” joyousness in person in an authentic setting. The good news is you easily can and it doesn’t get much more authentic than Harlem where over sixty churches welcome visitors to their Sunday gatherings.
May 2007. Harlem isn’t the safest New York neighborhood, so you might want to consider a tour that takes you around the key spots before dropping you at a choice gospel church. Having swung by hallowed landmarks such the Apollo Theater and Levain Bakery, we were finally delivered at The Greater Highway Deliverance Temple where a booming, passionate sermon was already underway as we jumped out of our bus.
May 2007. Our visit that day was with Harlem Spiritual Tours, the first NYC company to start doing gospel church trips and a trusted operator in what is now a crowded and sometimes unreliable scene. Ushered inside by a friendly, middle-aged gentleman in a white suit and silver tie, we took our places in the back rows, a full set of pews separating us from the fifty or so worshippers already engaged in the famous call-and-response chatter I was very much hoping to witness. “Does god you love you?” “Oh, yeah!!!” “Can you feel it?” “Yes, I can!!!”
May 2007. The congregation was entirely African American, with a female minister who took time to greet us curious visitors by encouraging her flock to “show it to our brothers and sisters from around the world!!!” I’d been hugely anticipating the singing and dancing of course, but when that first hymn kicked in I was entirely unprepared for the explosive mayhem that followed. Little old ladies in amazing dresses and lavish hats began flailing about wildly, heads tilted to the ceiling, eyes rolled back. To my right a uniformed usher pushed a donation basket in front of me, while to my left t a teenage girl lost it completely as her increasingly epileptic dancing gave way to repeated head butts against the wall!!! A fellow worshipper eventually scurried over to restrain her from seriously injuring herself.
May 2007. My visit to Harlem’s Greater Highway Deliverance Temple is definitely one of the weirdest tours I’ve taken over the last twenty years of world travel. I really enjoyed the songs and the outfits of the predominantly female congregation. But the sight of that girl’s violent dancing was quite a shock and part of me couldn’t help wondering if this was a choreographed element of the show to attract visitors. After all, the income such tours generate for the church must be crucial to its upkeep. There’s also a moral question if it’s right to intrude on what is essentially a very personal and spiritual event. All I can say is that nobody that day came across as awkward, resentful or embarrassed in the slightest. If you’re interested in taking this tour, have a look at Harlem Spiritual Tours for the latest info.
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