One Sunday of my Religious Worlds of New York Summer Program took us to a black Harlem house of worship, Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Although a Christian venue, I actually felt more “out of my senses” at this church than at the mosque, Bronx Lourdes, or even the Hindu Temple. I think it’s because Catholicism actually has closer ritualistic roots with other religious tradition than with some strains of Protestant and/or Baptist roots. However, I always think it’s a great thing to put ourselves in “uncomfortable” settings – it’s the only way to experience new things!
So first off, we were told the service could last 2 hours…or more. This surprised me because I am used to “getting in and out” in an hour flat. I had no idea what we were going to do for 2 HOURS. But I was about to find out!
As we were walking in the choir and church members already started their singing, and boy can they sing! If you’ve seen Sister Act, you have an idea of the type of singing I encountered. It was incredibly lively and made you want to move your feet. As I understand, this is a standard in predominately black Harlem churches.
As the service was about to begin the choir members filed in and went to the second-story choir with the organ player (seen in the photo below). They remained an important part of the service for the next few hours.
This aspect was certainly different from what I was used to! There were multiple people preaching and their sermons were passionate to say the least. It’s easy to see how the audience could get wrapped up in the lively messages of the pastor and elders. Most of the sermons aligned with my personal Christian beliefs but there are two I want to point out:
- During the pastor’s sermon he veered off into the realm of politics, specifically talking about Trump. I personally agreed with everything he said but it does bring up the question of how much (if at all) should religious houses bring politics in such an obvious way to their worship. A few of the parishioners, made their disapproval vocally known with some audible “Why’d you have to bring that man up here!?”
- Then one of the elders stood up to proselytized about the reason for giving more money to the church. We all know houses of worships rely on donations to keep their doors open but her sermon felt really over the top and I certainly had disagreements with aspects of it. I specifically had issues with the part when she said “G-d always provides for your needs. Don’t worry about the financial aspects.” Now that just feels wrong to me but I understand where she was taking it.
Another part of the sermon that was new to me was the altar call in which the preacher made a passionate call for someone who wanted to convert to come up to “get saved by Jesus.” He kept calling, and calling and I was wondering what would happen if no one came up. And then of course 3 people did walk up to the altar and the whole congregation put their hands up to pray for their conversion. In my tradition, we are not so communal about conversion until someone makes the final step during the Easter Vigil. But maybe we should celebrate the decision to step up to start the journey!
I know Convent Avenue Baptist Church is one of hundreds (if not thousands) of Protestant Christian churches in America and it has made me want to research how different churches, both large and small, deal with issues of politics, donations, and conversions.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute. For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org