Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Cultural Tourism and The Black Church

As a staunch advocate of the social and spiritual significance of the black church, I am willing to admit that one need not look any further than our blog to get some idea of the issues that can be taken with the institution. That said, I devote this brief thread to the issue of the black church as a center of cultural exploration -- not spiritual. Note the distinction.

Since moving to Manhattan I’ve embarked upon the search for a new spiritual house to cast my prayers at least once a week. Raised in the tradition of the black church, the institution holds a very special place in my heart and has been the foundation for a number of personal decisions that I would like to think have made me a more considerate and tolerate individual. While church once existed as the bane of my adolescent existence, it has now come to signify a place of healing, reflection and spiritual connection. Simply, finding space to sit in a pew on Sunday has become that restorative exercise that helps me keep my perspective. All things considered, in the last few weeks I have noticed that this perspective has increasingly come into question.

Interestingly enough, this hasn’t been the case for the typical reasons critics of the church might expect (i.e. incessant requests for charitable donations to the endless “building fund” or personal indiscretions of the highly trusted clergy) but has found root in the visitors of the church -- more pointedly, tourists.

Specifically, my worship the last few Sundays has been hindered by the large population of European tourists I’ve found myself sitting within close proximity to in church. Equipped with their digital camcorders, dressed in their chic Euro threads and partaking of communion even when they don’t speak the language, I’m clearly the last to have received the memo that Lonely Planet is in the middle of a promotional deal with Harlem houses of historically black worship. The caption in the tour book can be found in the cultural entertainment section under the header: Why, what better way to spend the Sunday morning of your Gotham City vacation than among a bunch of hootin' and hollerin' Negroes.

Do you see the problem?

To be clear, I don’t raise this personally troubling and recurring example to take issue with the visitors of the church -- after all, anyone is welcome in the Lord’s house -- rather, I take issue with the intentions of the visitors.

When not sensitively engaged in, cultural tourism is eerily akin to a trip to the zoo.

No matter how hard I try, the idea of European tourists coming to watch the Negro way or worship troubles me to no end. It’s the type of material Chappelle skits are composed of and eerily reminiscent of Vaudeville. The distinction between visitors and tourists has never been more apparent to me and with every additional Sunday spent sitting besides tourists I question just how supportive the congregation is of these "visitors" who offer their recently exchanged currency as a form of payment (see: offering) for the religious entertainment received.

There is certainly a place for cultural tourism. Church just isn’t that place.


Brother Spotless said...

I can only imagine trying to find peace and one's spiritual self in an environment where onlookers oogle at the parishoners like animals at a zoo...

Anonymous said...

I actually disagree with you. It sounds like you think that Europeans are visiting these black churches is something purely entertaining. Yes it is. BUT it's not like black people don't do the same thing when we go to Rome, and Paris. Yes, you will be doing the same thing...all up in somebody's church on a Sunday morning. The only difference is that black churches ARE more entertaining. While if you go to the Notre Dame or Sacre de Couer, you go more for the impeccable architecture. All I have to say is GET OVER IT. Hopefully these people have the common sense to give a donation when the plate comes around.