Like many Harlem-based churches and houses of worship, Elmendorf Reformed Church has a loyal local congregation. It also has a global congregation; each Sunday its sanctuary is filled with dozens of international visitors from Europe and beyond.
“We might be the religious ambassadors,” said Reverend Patricia A. Singletary. “All over Europe they are trying to come to church here. We have a lively service.”
Established by the Dutch in the village of Harlaam in the 1600s, Elmendorf, located on East 121st Street, has evolved from a church with international roots to an international destination. Elmendorf is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year with special services and events, most of which have included a large group of curious foreigners.
The international visitors, mostly tourists from France, Italy and Germany, have been stopping by Sunday services ever since the church launched its HYPERLINK “http://churches.rca.org/elmendorf/index.html” blog a couple years ago, said Singletary.
“I wanted to see an evangelist church celebration and pray with the community,” said Gauthier Rousselet, a tourist from Paris who heard about Elmendorf from a friend.
Rousselet, who recently attended his second Elmendorf service, said he goes to church in France but prefers the Harlem experience, particularly the interactive factor — the congregation is encouraged to hold hands during prayer — as well as the donation process.
“Here you can go make a donation,” he said, contrasting it with his French church that instructs ushers to solicit donations directly from congregants. Rousselet said he was happy to support Elmendorf (he pitched in $2).
The tourist donations help, but they haven’t had a significant impact on the church’s finances, said Singletary. She added that Elmendorf does not seek monetary gain from visitors and is not listed in travel guides. (Several Harlem churches do receive money from tour operators and/or charge a tourist admission fee.)
The church’s international presence can also be seen in the varying attire of its congregants; local women wearing floral dresses and wide-brimmed hats sit beside Europeans in scarves and brightly colored glasses.
Dennis Toele, one of several scarf-wrapped visitors from the Netherlands, stumbled upon Elmendorf after unsuccessfully looking for another Harlem church he saw in a visitor’s brochure.
“It was faith,” said Toele, who added that he most enjoyed the music, the energy of the congregation, and the overall “soul” of the experience.
Toele was staying in a hotel a couple blocks away with his girlfriend, Naomi Banjaktoetoer,
“We’ve seen a lot of movies with gospel music,” said Banjaktoetoer, who added that churches in the Netherlands do not allow clapping. “Now we are actually in the middle of Harlem, so we thought, ‘let us experience it for ourselves’.”
On a recent Sunday, about a third of the church’s 70 congregants were tourists, many of whom didn’t understand English.
Some of the tourists didn’t understand etiquette, either. At least six snapped photos or videotaped the service, despite an elder’s instructions that photos be taken after the service. And some, despite requests from the reverend, opted to watch rather than join the congregation in singing selections from the African American Heritage Hymnal.
Pizzolato Roland, an Italian now living in Nice, France, was one of those shooting video.
“We came because in France we have heard about this ceremony and its originality,” said Roland, who attended Elmendorf’s service with his family after finding it while searching for Harlem churches on the internet.
“It’s great,” said Roland. “The singing, the ambiance, the participation. We don’t get those things at church in France.”
While the tourists appear to be zoo-like onlookers at times, Elmendorf’s congregants don’t mind the distraction.
“It’s so nice,” said Olga Bennett, who, at 86, is the church’s oldest member. “The tourists meet other types of people they have never met before.”
The worship experience for tourists often continues beyond their visit, said Singletary. She said some have moved to New York and are part of the local congregation, and others have asked for a way to stay connected from overseas.
“They want us to set up a global web site showing our service.”
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