Harlem’s Gospel experience and invitation

The Apollo theater, Harlem’s famous landmark was initially home to Yiddish theater before launching the career of musical giants including Michael Jackson!

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

138th Street, Strivers Row was where the wealthy lived in Harlem 100 years ago

Shorewalker’s, we looped through Harlem’s Striver’s Row on 138th St. on our way

Striver’s Row @138th Street in Harlem, NYC.

to a large square building more reminiscent of a government building or bank than of a church.

Fitting I suppose for a religious institution.

Mount Olivet Baptist Church, at 120th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard), was built  in 1907 as Temple Israel for German Jews. Its four trunk like Corinthian columns could be mistaken for something out of imperial Rome were it not for the Stars of David nestled in their leafy capitals – and the Stars of David in the balcony section and the Ten Commandments and Hebrew inscription above the baptismal pool that was once the Ark. The synagogue was designed by Arnold W. Brunner, architect of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, at Central Park West and 70th Street.

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.

Stars of David atop the pillars of Ephases Baptist Church. Respectful of the service, I didn’t take any pictures inside.

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

Manhattan Grace Tabernacle in Harlem with its Magen David. The writing in the arch is Hebrew

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!

Former Allen St. Synagogue in the once Jewish Lower East Side and now Chinatown is a  Buddhist Temple and 99 cent store

‘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!


4 responses to “Harlem’s Gospel experience and invitation

  1. As a Christian, I have had the opportunity to worship in a variety of houses of worship, tho until 2012, they were all arms of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Nazerene). Last December I had the honor of worshiping at Kabbalat Shabbat. . I realized that connection to God and joy in His love is not restricted to one religion or type of worship. I wished that rousing singing and dancing I experienced at Kabbalat Shabbat could be a part of my Presbyterian church experience. We humans have put too many restrictions around religions. Isn’t the goal in worship always pretty much the same…worshiping the God who made us?

    • It was so much fun having you attend services with me! I love having your perspective here. Next time in Chicago I want to go to your church – it’ll be interesting for us to talk and compare thoughts of worship and spirituality

  2. Linda, I hope you will do such a story one day about B’nai Israel in our hometown Pittsburgh which, when there was no longer a congregation to support it, went through a variety of incarnations. Such an interesting transformation – thanks!

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