A new day is dawning in Harlem. The place is hot. Especially with Europeans. However, most out-of-towners don’t get there on the famous A train. Instead, thousands of tourists--mostly Europeans--head uptown each week on organized tours. Because I am interested in attending a Gospel church service, I choose the "Harlem on Sunday" tour.
The chaos of boarding behind us, our bus heads up the West Side into the high street numbers beyond 110th Street, where Harlem officially begins. The border is obvious--the green of Central Park stops and the graffiti starts. Though this is the English-speaking tour, everyone except me and my companion are foreigners. They hail from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland (home of the original Haarlem), and Japan. Our charming guide, Mahalia, a young Haitian woman with a dry sense of humor, fills us in on Harlem’s history, telling us that until the 1830s it was a little village buried deep in the north country of Manhattan. Then, speculation turned it from an extension of Central Park into a concrete jungle.
In Harlem Heights we get off the bus to view Alexander Hamilton’s meticulously kept house, and we run into some notorious local color--an African-American panhandler who is not happy that our tour guide has brought us into the ‘hood and hurls expletives her way. He is obviously on something, and she handles the situation well. With our attention drawn to his ill behavior, we almost miss the reality beneath this cliche--the many other peaceful people strolling the neighborhood, most decked out in their Sunday best.
We get back on the bus and travel through the attractive, well maintained neighborhoods of Sugar Hill and Morningside Heights, passing the beautiful gothic City College campus (it is second only to U.C. Berkeley in number of faculty members who are Nobel Prize winners).
Our destination among the approximately 400 churches in Harlem is the Paradise Baptist Church, a small church with lots of heart. We file into the modest assembly hall furnished with movie theatre-style folding seats spattered with dried paint. A bulletin board tells about the church’s progress in paying off its mortgage, and I assume hosting groups like ours helps toward that goal. Most of the women are dressed in white, which is traditional for church officials and ushers on Sundays when they are being honored, and the men are spiffily dressed in black suits. After a rousing song, everyone in the congregation circulates to greet the other worshipers, including us. The hugs and handshakes are so sincerely warm that I feel they are truly glad we are here. The only awkwardness seems to be with the French in our group, who naturally want to do a second air-kiss on the cheek.
There is more singing, and we sway to the rhythm, making offerings in the basket passed around as the choir sings "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands." (I notice that some of the choir members have positively angelic faces.) This is followed by a long, drawn-out rendition of "I’ll Be All Right" that just about brings down the roof. Several teens in our group jump up to the beat only to be pulled back down by their parents. Anyone who was dozing is awake now. A member of the congregation is overcome and collapses. One of those women in white, this one with a nurse’s cap, comes to her aid along with other members of the congregation. (Two nurses are always in attendance at these emotional services.) Due to time restraints, we are ushered out before the sermon starts, as sermons here can go on for several hours.
After stops to stroll through a leafy neighborhood, walk along wide 125th Street in front of the world-famous Apollo theater (which is open selling t-shirts and other souvenirs from the lobby), and make a pit stop in an ever-reliable McDonald’s, the tour is over and we are returned to mid-town.