Soul Voyeurs Invade The House Of God

EVERY SUNDAY AT HARlem's Mount Moriah Baptist Church, the huge old sanctuary is Jammed to the doors. But 80 percent of the folks inside aren't there to pray. As at dozens of other Harlem churches, most of these visitors are dressed down in T shirts, V-neck sweaters, blue jeans and sneakers-a sure sign that they're not from the churchgoing Harlem community. Few, in fact, are African-Americans. They're tourists from Brazil, Germany, France, Italy, bused in from New York City's midtown hotels to sample the rhythmic gospel music of Harlem's fabled choirs. And they rarely stay around to hear the sermon. At Mount Moriah, pastor Edward-Earl Johnson Sr. stops to thank Jesus "for our friends who have come from afar just to praise your name." But the tourists' whirring camcorders and popping camera flashes suggest that they've really come to watch a show. "It's something exotic," says Nelson Motta, a Brazillian journalist who promotes visits to Mount Moriah in his native country. "Seeing the black people in the church, the feeling is warm."

In Harlem, the Lord's Day is increasingly becoming the community's .biggest business day as well. Faced with dwindling congregations, dozens of black pastors are relying on tourism to fill their pews -and the collection plate. "Church is a business," says the Rev. John A. Smith of Metropolitan Baptist Church. "The biggest business in the world is the church business." But as Harlem's churches gain in tourist popularity, many congregants think that the foreigners are ruining their chance to worship in peace. And some pastors fear that Sunday services are in danger of degenerating into modem minstrel shows, promoting black stereotypes and undermining authentic real faith.

"This is not a buck-and-dance show,"says the Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem's most politically powerful ministers. Butts complains that tourists plant their feet on the pews and the balcony railings. Once, he says, a group of 70 European tourists had to be told to remain seated when they started to leave the service just before the collection plates were to be passed. His church has resorted to passing out a flier to visitors, explaining how to behave during the service. Congregants complain that tourists annoyingly turn their cameras on the devout at prayer and snap away whenever a shout arises from the church's "Amen" comer. "They don't understand that this is God's house," says Marcus Morris, 38, who attends Kelly Temple, another church on the Harlem tourist trail. "It's just a part of their schedule."

The Rev. James Forbes, the world-renowned preacher at Riverside Church, argues that too much attention to tourists' needs destroys the very thing-authentic religious expression-that brings foreigners to Harlem on Sundays. "When people begin to perform for spectators, that brings an erosion of authenticity," Forbes says. "If commercialization is the path to survival, then we are in trouble."

But other pastors regard the tourist trade as a blessing. Wealthy white megachurches, they note, appeal to outsiders by televising their services. "We are heard around the world because people come to our church on Sunday morning," Smith says of his Metropolitan Baptist Church choir. ,,They go back and they tell it to their people that there are good things happening in Harlem." The stream of outsiders to Mount Moriah has brought the church choir several unexpected rewards. Its CD of gospel music has sold 30,000 copies in Brazil and earned the choir three concert tours in that country, including one performance before the nation's president. After French tourists heard the choir at Mount Nebo Baptist Church, a performance was arranged in Paris. Mount Moriah's Johnson says tourist money has helped to pay for a soup kitchen, an after-school program and clothing for the poor. "Every preacher would love to have his church packed with his own community," says Johnson. "On the other hand are we suppose hold back what God has gifted to us?"

Jesus was ruthless to the money-changers who worked the temple precincts: he threw them out. But many longtime members of Harlem churches are uncomfortable with the idea of excluding anyone from religious services. They think it smacks of discrimination. Some younger congregants, like Joseph Ferdinand, 26, enjoy the sense of "racial harmony" that the tourists bring. if the tourists left their camcorders behind and wore dress clothes instead of jeans and sneakers, perhaps they might take home the Gospel and not just gospel music.