Blood, Thunder and Politics at Harlem's Canaan Baptist Church
Harlem church tours have become a New York Sunday morning tourist attraction. They can have an uncomfortable voyeuristic feeling, but they deliver on music and solidarity
“President Donald Trump is a liar and a racist. We pray for the Lord to empower Nancy Pelosi to unleash the House of Representatives and impeach this man.”
The Canaan Baptist Church service in Harlem has taken a political turn, and up on the balcony, a restive mood takes the spectators. When the plate goes around for a collection shortly, some, perhaps of a MAGA frame of mind, will be passing it right along without troubling it with cash. Others are energized and whooping with the congregation below.
Spectators is what we are, today, at the Canaan Baptist Church. We are attending a black gospel service, one of Harlem’s classic Sunday morning tourist draws. The church we are at used to be a Lowy’s cinema – a movie theatre, as the Americans say – and its balcony has lent itself well to a forced separation between the almost entirely black congregation below, who we can hear but can’t see, and the largely white tourist force above. All we have in common is that we can see the service.
This displeases some who want to participate more actively with the congregation, or at least see them, but to me it feels right. There’s an awkwardness about this whole situation anyway, coming to watch other people at worship, and you don’t want it to feel any more like a zoo than it already does. So the flock get their privacy, not that they seem a shy bunch, all A-mensand Uh-huhsand That’s rights; we get our fix above.
The service is exactly what you expect and want it to be. A woman’s choir assembles, of all shapes and sizes and ages but tending towards the elder and the larger, immaculately dressed in white. Everyone we can see is impeccably turned out, some men in bow ties, and the older they are the more crisp and mannered the dress seems to be. There is a woman of about 70 who will mirror the whole service in sign language, dancing as she does so in heels and an elegant floral frock.
At the start, a man takes to the lectern with a microphone and, without accompaniment, sings a single line: “Come on and praise the Lord with me.” He has a strong voice – everyone in this place, whether presenting the service or responding to it, has a strong voice – and before long the rest of the congregation is with him. It couldn’t be any simpler: only that line and Hallelujah, but in this setting it lends itself to infinite variety.
Beneath us, a woman aged at least in her 60s is sitting by a keyboard, first rounding out the arrangement in major chords and then, within about a minute, turning into Fats Domino, giving life to the simple melody by bolstering it with elaborate bass progressions with her left hand, all sorts of minor variations and pentatonic and blues scales with her right. Soon she is joined by drum, bass and guitar, and the musicianship is outstanding.
But it’s the room, the congregation, that helps it all levitate. “Come on and praise the Lord with me,” sings the man again, accompanied by a young girl, perhaps his daughter, dancing and swinging next to him with a microphone of her own. The choir and congregation ad-libs, harmonizes, embellishes, shouts; before long we have been going for about eight minutes and we have already gone from a cold standing start to the adulation of an encore at a rock gig.
But eventually it is time for some of the practical business of church to unfold. A thick-set, stern-looking man has been standing in a bath at the back of the hall throughout, dressed in a flowing white robe, and now a microphone is passed to him. “Take me to the water,” he sings, voice powerful, confident and skilled: the sort of mastery where you can get eight separate notes into “water” without it seeming showy. This is actually the pastor; the other man has been a warm-up to get things going.
In between singing, the pastor explains what he is doing, the importance of baptism, and he does so in something like a soul cadence, the keyboard – now switched to an organ mode – swelling and helping in the background.
He baptizes three people, the second of them a big adult woman so overwhelmed by the experience she holds on to the pastor for some time before being helped out of the bath.
Up in the balcony it feels a little voyeuristic, watching something so personal, but the whole tone of the presentation is about inclusion and community. When it is done, we all applaud, as do the congregation below.
“Sure, you can clap.”
A new man has the microphone, the assistant pastor, and his tone is sarcastic. “Or…” and with that he powers and shouts into a blood-and-thunder spoken hymn about the strength of Jesus to embrace new people in this uncertain and troubled world. He is almost crying, grimacing and punching the air, rapt and seeking to bring the fold into his state of rapture.
This, to him, is what baptism is about, he says. No matter how much hate, no matter how much sorrow and division, Jesus will still welcome you, and we should THANK him, we should give THANKS and PRAISE.
“Or. You can just… clap.”
There are times when the whole thing can seem a little comically overwrought. “Praise the Lord, can somebody move a Toyota Camry from the front of the church,” comes one announcement. “7CH… the last three digits are indecipherable, praise Jesus.”
But there is no doubt about the honesty of it all, and this brings us back to where we started our story: with the pastor, now dried off and changed into a handsome suit, big hands either side of the lectern and telling it LIKE. IT. IS.
Having demolished Trump in short order (and still against the supportive swells of a Hammond organ), the pastor calls up someone to talk about a service planned for Tuesday. She is the daughter of Eric Garner, a man who was held in a choke hold by police officers five years ago and subsequently died, a case that went viral in America as it was recorded on a phone; she speaks about the support she has had from the church and, urged by a congregation shouting her on – “That’s right”, “A-men” – she talks with great passion about the continuing fight.
And this, ultimately, is what the church prides itself upon: social justice and community. As church business is discussed various initiatives are updated upon, from books being given to underprivileged children, to support for local schools. The pastor openly refers to Garner’s death as “a murder”, and there is a sense, as clear as day, that he wants his community to feel not only strengthened but also fighting, resilient in adversity, bolder collectively than its people could ever be individually. I’m an atheist, nothing more than a tourist here with a great interest in how faith shapes other people’s lives. But I like this idea of religion: looking after your own, trying to improve things together, looking out for the people who’ve been left behind.
Generally the tourists up the top last about an hour before being ushered out for a tour of Harlem; the service itself will go for hours (some who have visited on tours like this moan about the time they spend listening to church business, but then again, this is supposed to be a functioning church, not just a show).
It’s hard to know what they must think of us up here. Clearly, our visit supports their church; we have all paid to be on the tour, and are encouraged to put in $5 per person when the plate goes around, and there must be about 300 people on this upper tier. So it’s in the church’s interest to tolerate this rubber-necked inclusion. Plus, of course, a church always wants to spread the word; maybe they attract some believers this way.
In any event, my family and I come out of the whole thing enlivened. That was a privilege, we say: a window into somebody else’s world, and one filled with music and dancing and passion. When you look at the outside of the church you’d never notice it, far less striking than the mosque on the corner of the same street that supports the Senegalese Muslim population in this neighbourhood. But at the Canaan Baptist Church, people are stepping out of it in a better frame of mind than they stepped in. And that’s not just for show.