On a hot August morning, buses line Harlem’s 125th Street as hundreds of people snake single-file past street vendors and residents before dodging down side streets in search of spirituality. Spirituality in Gospel music.
Soaking up the cultural and spiritual Gospel experience is a must-do for NYC tourists and residents. A to-do that took this New Yorker 11 years to accomplish! Along with fifty members of NYC’s
Shorewalker’s, we looped through Harlem’s Striver’s Row on 138th St. on our way
to a large square building more reminiscent of a government building or bank than of a church.
Fitting I suppose for a religious institution.
Hundreds of us – literally – are crowded into the back of the sanctuary of this exotic venue. We’re sweaty and makeshift fans courtesy of the programs are both relieving and mildly distracting.
It takes only minutes for us to sink into the warm ambience and spiritual energy that makes Gospel a full experience. Four women singing around the piano in the front left, belt out songs, challenging us to participate.
The question is, how do we participate?
Do we sing? Clap? Stand and sway?
Is there a protocol and how do we learn it?
Congregants rise to shake hands in welcome to each other while slowly making their way to us visitors. This is the easy part: it takes little enticement for us to eagerly reach out for connection, touch.
Many of Harlem’s churches, like Mount Olivet reveal rich reminders of its Jewish past, brief as it was. In the balcony, emerald-green Stars of David are centered in the stain glass windows of this former synagogue. Front and center, the Ten Commandments atop the ark, held the
Torah’s and now houses the Baptismal pool. Hebrew lettering arched above reminds all of the German and Eastern European Jews who called this sanctuary and neighborhood home from the late 1800’s to the 1920’s.
This Gospel Church’s Jewish past surprised many in my group. Yet, human ‘migrations’ are the universal story of cities large and small, for better or worse.
Neighborhoods change, seemingly in a NY minute here in the Big Apple. Subtle reminders remain, requiring focused attention and observation. In Harlem alone about a dozen churches began their spiritual life as synagogues!
‘In the name of G-d has sparked so many wars, yet sanctuaries fluidly change religious affiliation. Both from year to year, and more often, from day-to-day. My Kabbalat Shabbat, (Friday night services welcoming the Sabbath) are spent in a Presbyterian church.
There’s peace in those pews. If we can pray in the same space, can’t we play nice?
As I sway and clap back in Harlem on that hot Sunday, letting my body blend with the music, my mind wonders and wanders: why don’t tourists include Jewish services, or other religious services to their cultural experience?
Here in 2013, post-apocolyptic-Mayan-miss, there’s a perfect opportunity to understand and connect with others. To develop and grow our empathy.
If we can’t literally walk in someone else’s shoes to grow and develop empathy, it’s possible to pray in someone else’s pews.
Have you had the opportunity to pray in another house of worship?
What did you learn about your own religion and sense of spirituality?
Here’s to a year of peace, empathy, and, connection!