Easter in Harlem

April 10, 2007 | By Mario Tama | News

Hymns and Hats
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Although Easter is the most important festival in Christianity, it is celebrated with relatively little fanfare in the United States. In New York, the big event is the annual Easter Parade which runs up Fifth Avenue and is festive but not necessarily very spiritual. I decided instead this year to venture up to Harlem to photograph Easter service in the historic Mount Olivet Baptist Church. The neoclassical building was originally constructed as a synagogue in 1907 when German-Jewish residents moved to Harlem and the Star of David can still be seen in the ornate stained glass windows. Mount Olivet, a prominent African-American congregation in the city, later acquired the building and converted it into a church in 1925.

I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be allowed to photograph, but I showed up early and the pastor, Dr. Charles Curtis, was kind enough to acquiesce after I assured him I would be as unobtrusive as possible. The Mass began beautifully enough with hymns sung by the choir, who were seated above in the balcony, their voices gorgeously flowed down onto the assembled congregation below.

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A group of about forty tourists were packed into the back few rows of the church and Rev. Curtis eventually called out to ask where they were from. After they stated they were from Spain, Rev.Curtis said something along the lines of, “Welcome to the United States, may God bless you and keep you safe on your travels. Welcome to our church.” The Spaniards seemed genuinely moved by the hospitality and although this was no Semana Santa, I was glad to see they were able to experience something unique in the city for Easter.

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Many of the older women were decked out in fanciful Easter hats and dress, along with some of the children. As the service progressed well into its second hour, I made my way down to the front and, with a nod of approval from the pastor, was finally able to make some photographs of the women in hats singing in front. The service overall was a bit subdued compared with the more jubilant ones I’ve seen in African-American churches in the south, but it was memorable nevertheless. The church has a sacred vibe to it and the pastor’s sermon led one man to bury his head into his hands in prayer as others called out in divine joy.

Choir member
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The service eventually ended somewhere in the third hour and I lingered to photograph some of the congregants who stuck around to chat and greet old friends. There are about five churches located within a few blocks of Mount Olivet and I was lucky enough to encounter a few other groups of worshipers on the street whose services also were letting out around the same time. I made some final images on the of a group of African-American children playing in front of another church in their Sunday best, an unmistakable Harlem Easter tradition.

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  • Berry

    Wow, these photos are absolutely gorgeous. I hope you shared them with the minister and his congregation.