In college I volunteered at a soup kitchen near campus, in the basement of the church with the big red doors on 114th and Broadway. I did it independently of the student groups that organized students to interact with the community beyond Columbia, but I volunteered more regularly than anyone else, so they invited me to the annual August retreat for the student organizers.
On the way back from upstate we decided to get off at the Metro-North stop at 125th Street and walk: a half-dozen white and Asian Ivy League undergraduates who volunteered in college walking through Harlem on a Sunday morning — make of us what you will. Walking along 125th Street, passing by some apparently boarded up storefront, I heard music. I opened the doors and poked my head in to find a storefront church — gospel music, bass, drums, and keyboards, clapping, “amens” and “praise the lords”, … the works. Uplifting sights and sounds.
As I took in the sights and sounds, two things happened: my friends had circled back and poked their heads in too. A guy in the back (nearest the entrance, where we were) saw us and beckoned us in. What a dilemma — what an amazing experience, but how awkward and self-conscious we would feel. What am I saying? There was no dilemma. The awkwardness was worth it.
In we went, as best we could trying not to feel self-conscious joining in the singing, clapping, and dancing to music we’d mostly only heard through recordings or on TV. Afterward, they invited us for lunch upstairs — fried chicken, collard greens with ham, and salad!
Now fast forward to October 2010. A friend and I were taking the M60 back from LaGuardia. He’s a drinking buddy, but we were coming back from giving a presentation. We weren’t looking for a life experience, just to go home. The bus was going slowly on 125th Street so we decided to walk. I told him that story from twenty years before. In the intervening years I remember seeing the church on occasion, but never on a Sunday morning, so I didn’t know if it was still operating. And I couldn’t remember the last time I had been on 125th Street. So we looked in storefronts as we walked along because, who knows what you might find.
Lo and behold! Ahead I saw a sign (not that kind of sign) with the name of the church and its white bird symbol refreshing my memory that this place was the same one from before. I hadn’t thought of it while telling my friend the story, but it turns out the time was Sunday morning.
The church was still going and in service just then. We popped our heads in, they invited us in, and in we went, suitcases rolling behind us. They led us to sit in the front instead of the back where we wanted, I guess to motivate participation. Actually, everything they did motivated participating and made leaving difficult: giving us bibles, showing us the sections to follow along with, inviting us to participate in being saved, and so on.
In fact, the church was holding its fortieth or forty-ninth year anniversary service. We sang and danced and clapped and joined in the uplifting experience. Everybody seemed to enjoy our participation — they kept inviting us to stay after the service ended. We politely declined (well, I did, my friend found it difficult to decline as much as they persisted in inviting), they had given us so much already we couldn’t accept more.
On the way out, though, I told one of the organizers of my experience twenty years earlier, drawing a small crowd to hear the story. They seemed to love hearing it. I look forward to visiting the church again — it was welcoming, uplifting, friendly, and not too persistent and insistent on keeping us.
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