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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I Must Confess


I grew up as a Roman Catholic (no longer practicing). One of the most painful things to go through as a young person was the process of confession.

For those unfamiliar or not experienced with the Sacrament of Penance, let me assure you that spilling all your sins in detail to a priest (and having him ask questions) was an extremely unpleasant experience, riddled with shame, guilt, anxiety and embarrassment. Sins were to be listed from mortal to venial. In retrospect, I am sure that the sins of a young child pale to those committed by adults, but nonetheless, it was excruciating.
At the time I grew up, at least confession was private and anonymous. I understand that at one time confessions were public - ouch.

Recently, on a brutally hot Sunday, I decided to attend a Gospel service in Harlem. I did this with trepidation, knowing full well that going to a religious service with the intent of enjoying gospel music is problematic and controversial. Tour groups have been frequenting these churches for some time. In 1996, Newsweek ran an article called Soul Voyeurs Invade the House of God. On March 3, 2010, I wrote about this in With All Due Respect - read it here.
However, curiosity still got the better of me and overruled my better senses. I intended to be as respectful as possible and, reading that shorts, T-Shirts, etc sported by many visitors were frowned upon, I dressed in my Sunday best, in spite of near 100 degree temperature.

In selecting a church, articles all pointed to the Abyssinian Baptist Church as having one of the most renowned choirs and a history of well known preachers. However, it apparently has been overrun with tourists, and experienced Harlem churchgoers recommended staying away. If this was true, my presence would only make things worse. So I chose Mt. Neboh Baptist Church, which I featured in With All Due Respect.

Entering the church, I knew I had already made a big mistake, as a man stationed inside immediately made eye contact and barked, "Upstairs." My companion and I hastily made our way upstairs to the balcony, along with other "tourists." The place was dreadfully hot and oppressive, there were no seats to be had, and waves of embarrassment and guilt began to pass over me as I realized that coming here was one colossal mistake. Hordes of tourists gawking (and marveling) at spectacular architecture such as St John the Divine or St. Patrick's Cathedral is expected and well tolerated, but gawking at parishioners trying to participate in a religious rite is another thing.
We left the balcony hastily and lingered in the church vestibule, observing the service through the glass of closed doors. The same gatekeeper we met previously had followed us down and commanded us to go back upstairs or leave. In this environment, it was too clear that we were not part of the congregation, and although the very spirit of the Christian church is one that welcomes all, under the current circumstances, it is perhaps best that non-participants just avoid the whole thing.

Before leaving the neighborhood, I did pass by the Abyssinian Baptist Church (bottom two photos). Evidence of the crowding I had read about was everywhere to be found - there were mobs, traffic jams and general mayhem. We did, however, finally stop into the Mount Moriah Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in Harlem. There, we were greeted very cordially and given hand fans. There was a plethora of available seating, and we quickly and quietly took our places in the pews. The singing was superb as to be expected, but the heat and a nagging guilt drove me away, I must confess...

6 comments:

Steffe said...

Sounds tough. I am very non-religious and have never understood the whole God thing.

Jack said...

There was an old light beer ad in which Billy Martin and someone else went back and forth on whether the beer's advantage was that it had more taste or was less filling. A third person said "I feel strongly both ways." That's where I am on the problem of your wanting (respectfully) to hear the gospel music and the congregation's right to be free to worship without the distraction of gawkers. I think this is a debate that I don't have to resolve . . .

NYfan said...

Well, well, Brian, I´m Roman Catholic too and I must admit: the world is an astonishing small place! I do remember my awfull feelings in these wooden "cell" (in Germany the Catholic churches usually do have small wooden "boxes" with a curtain instead of a door) in which the "sinners" are sitting, sweating and confessing their sins ... lol - wow, you reminded me a "very dark part of my childhood"...

About 8 years I was a member in a Gospel choir. Last year I visited a Gospel service in Harlem. It was great! The atmosphere, the voices, the people in generally - I was deeply impressed.

Anonymous said...

I understand completely but you went to the wrong church - just next to this tourist church there is a real Gospel church with full band and female pastor that tears it up every Sunday - it is the one on the corner and the services are in the basement. I love to listen to that service and the band they are great

Emanuele Cauda said...

Make me want to visit NY and Harlem again and again.

Web Design Portfolio said...

You are an intrepid soul indeed! I admire your curiosity and willingness to explore all things that are New York City.

I personally extend you an invitation to take a tour of the Watchtower complex in Brooklyn Heights, the world headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses. Free tours are provided every weekday. I guarantee that you will come away impressed!