The tourists started lining up two hours before morning worship service on West 116th Street in Harlem. Most were dressed in everyday clothes, contrasting with the dark suits and prim dresses of the largely African-American congregation in the historic sanctuary of Canaan Baptist Church of Christ.
The Rev. Roger Harris, an associate pastor, made his way from the back of the line in his pinstripe suit. “Good to see you, glad you came,” he said, offering grins and handshakes on a recent Sunday. The tourists were herded to the balcony until, as in several churches in Harlem, they packed the seats there. Down below, where the congregation has dwindled over the years, there were plenty of empty seats.
The tourists often put offerings in the collection basket. But then they are gone. And so despite the draw, churches like Canaan are struggling. And at the heart of the struggle is a contradiction: As Harlem’s fortunes rise, tithing — the traditional source of the churches’ money — is fading away.
Harlem’s historical base of African-Americans has been dwindling. Those who remain have regularly tithed, setting apart 10 percent of their incomes for their church, in times good and bad. But now that has changed, too.
“Your tithers are your people who really keep your church going as a whole,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles A. Curtis, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Baptist Church and the chairman of Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement.
“With the drop in population,” he said, “you have less people to tithe.”
The Rev. Jesse T. Williams Jr., senior pastor at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, said, “Giving is a form of worship, and an expression of thanking God for what God has given us.” At his church, he said, tithes in recent years were down about 12 percent.
Canaan, now with 1,000 members, has lost 500 since 2000, which increased the amount of room available for tourists. Without the tourists, Mr. Harris said, the senior pastor would be “preaching to an empty balcony.”
And tithes are down 20 percent, though other offerings at Canaan have been stable. It is not clear how much of that money comes from tourists.
Some churches have experienced drops in tithing of as much as 50 percent, said Deborah C. Wright, the chief executive of Carver Federal Savings Bank, leading them to seek loans from her bank.
“Clearly this is a transitional period,” said Canaan’s senior pastor, the Rev. Thomas D. Johnson Sr., who celebrated his seventh year at the church last month. “I believe that Canaan and all of our strong churches in Harlem are determined not to become extinct. This institution must survive, not only for the congregation, but because of who we represent.”
The story of Canaan, and its current struggle, is shared by many of Harlem’s churches. It was founded in 1932 in the spirit of what elders call a country church. Many early congregants were migrants from the South, sharecroppers under Jim Crow, steeped in a worship tradition. As more families came, the church grew.
The previous pastor, the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, led the church for almost 40 years, until he retired in 2004; he was an architect of the civil rights movement and an aide to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He was a fighter,” said Mr. Harris, who has a goal of increasing church membership by at least 50 within the next year.
In 1970, Mr. Walker once stood on the trunk of a car near the church and, through a bullhorn, preached a sermon about drug-dealing in the neighborhood. “We’ve been living dangerously for a long time,” he told his curbside congregation of 300, and whoever else was within earshot, “and we’re not afraid to name names.”
The black church, he often said, was the primary resource for the black community. “It is where black people have the ultimate decision-making power,” he said in a 1979 newspaper interview. “Black folks will pay church dues before they pay their rent.”
Under Mr. Walker, whose black-and-white portrait hangs in Canaan’s lobby, membership swelled to the point where ushers had to put chairs in the halls. The Canaan that Mr. Johnson inherited, however, looks remarkably different. So does the neighborhood. Where African-Americans once made up the bulk of Central Harlem’s population, they are now less than half. Economically, million-dollar homes and trendy restaurants glimmer amid stubborn pockets of blight.
By KIA GREGORY