Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Abyssinian Baptist Church
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 May 2021, 10:00am

The building

Photo: © DennisInAmsterdam and used under license The congregation met in a number of different places before settling into the present building, which dates from 1922 and is in what is sometimes called the Collegiate Gothic style, a mixture of Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival. The building is noted for its marble fixtures and outstanding stained glass.

The church

The congregation was formed in 1808 when a group of sixteen African-Americans withdrew from the First Baptist Church, refusing to accept racially segregated seating. The parish was officially incorporated in 1859. Among its outstanding pastors over the years was Adam Clayton Powell Sr, founder of the National Urban League and champion of the Social Gospel, which seeks to apply Christian ethics to social problems such as poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labor, etc. The German theologian and outspoken foe of Nazism, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, worshipped and taught Sunday school here while studying at Union Theological Seminary. Today Abyssinian Baptist claims to be one of the largest Baptist congregations in the world. Their many ministries and advocacies are far too numerous to mention here; please refer to their website for a complete description.

The neighborhood

They are located in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, long a bastion of African-American culture, including dance halls, supper clubs, theaters and speakeasies popular in the early 20th century with the downtown white crowd, who called the practice of visiting Harlem ‘slumming.’ Most of Harlem fell victim to crime and urban decay as the 20th century waned, but in the 21st century Harlem has experienced a close-to-miraculous renaissance, although its past problems have not completely disappeared.

The cast

The senior pastor, wearing a purple academic gown over a white vest, dress shirt and tie. One of the assistant pastors, wearing a dark blue academic gown, read the scriptural passage for the day and preached the sermon.

What was the name of the service?

Mothers Day 2021 Sunday Worship Service.

How full was the building?

Due to the pandemic, in-person worship is not currently allowed, although there were a few people present (see below). The Sunday services are available for viewing on-line. When I tuned in to today’s service, the on-line counter showed that there had been 1088 views.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The on-line feed was prefaced by about 15 minutes worth of greetings, announcements, campaigns and music. I wouldn’t call any of it a personal welcome, although it certainly did seem heartfelt.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair suits me just fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

See above. The announcement period ended with an old clip of choir and congregation singing a bouncy, happy-clappy tune.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning, everybody. Truly this is the day that the Lord has made.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

The praise band calls themselves ‘The Celestials’ and consists of digital keyboard, electric organ, electric guitar and drums. They looked rather lonely sitting all by themselves in the music pit of an empty church. There were also eight vocalists, all smartly dressed, standing socially distanced in what appeared to be choir stalls.

Did anything distract you?

The video feed kept pausing for buffering. It was partially my fault, though, as I fast-forwarded through some parts of the service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A mixture of prayer, commentary, and upbeat get-happy gospel music. The pastor had an engaging conversational manner, and listening to his African-American dialect was, in a word, enthralling. There was a dedication to God of an infant candidate attended by several family members, all masked. (‘We don’t baptize children,’ the pastor said. ‘That’s a decision they make themselves.’) After the sermon there was the obligatory (seemingly so in Baptist churches) altar call.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes, more or less.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The associate pastor’s style was that of the old-time African-American preacher, complete with shouting, wild gestures, bobbing up and down, etc. – the only thing he didn’t do was thump the Bible! But I enjoyed his manner, and his points were well organized and well drawn.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We often celebrate the lives of famous men, but we seldom pause to celebrate the source from which they arose: their mothers, women of faith. Theirs are the shoulders that we stand on. Mothers enable their children to live out their God-given talents and faith. They provide us with our sense of purpose and freedom. These don’t come by way of osmosis – they are the products of mothers. Mothers’ faith actualizes our full potential. Some of us may not have mothers, or may suffer bruised relations with their mothers. But God is our mother also. Motherhood is the embodiment of the motherhood of God. Mothers are to be honored not just today, Mothers Day, but every day. We would be nothing without them. What kind of world are we mothering now? How do we mother a world of love and peace for all God’s children? Mothers of faith have the sense to know that they derive their influence not from themselves, but from God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The advantage of watching a service via pre-recorded video feed is that you can fast-forward through the parts you don’t want to look at. The entire video was one hour, thirty-four minutes and fifty-five seconds in length, but it didn’t take me that long to watch the parts I wanted to see.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Well, the associate pastor’s sermon was addressed specifically to African-American men and women and their mothers. He mentioned many famous people by name. I realize that Abyssinian Baptist Church ministers primarily to an African-American congregation – indeed, they are rooted in that – but I confess to beginning to feel like an outsider.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

‘Don’t get silly, now!’ the pastor said. ‘Don’t sit around here trying to fellowship with everybody and catch them in the corner. We’re going to go home and get our meal!’ He was clearly speaking to the musicians and the family of the dedicated infant, as there was no one else in the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had already had lunch (‘my meal,’ as the pastor said) and it was too early for my pre-dinner glass of wine.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 — This is a hard one. I liked what I saw, and I can imagine what an in-person service must be like at Abyssinian Baptist Church. But as a Caucasian, and based on the assistant pastor’s sermon, I really do wonder if I would feel welcome.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

‘Don’t get silly, now!’

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