Why are you rating black churches on Yelp?
There are Yelp reviews for black churches — and that is so much to wrap my head around. I’m not opposed to consumer reviews at all. I have 122 on my own Yelp page, and I don’t hold back when I review companies on Medium. But what I heard on WBEZ’s 91.5 “This American Life*” just sounded cringeworthy. Tourists are apparently visiting African-American churches for the very first time and using selfie sticks inside. Backpackers are stepping out before the sermons start, and others apparently “gawk” at the scene on the main-level pews “like anthropologists.”
B.A. Parker — a contributor for “This American Life,” which is hosted by Ira Glass* — ended up at the church described above after a bumpy year. She explained that she told her roommate she needed an outlet, and her roommate suggested attending a nearby church. That’s where she encountered “hundreds” of tourists mostly wearing Cargo shorts, waiting outside “half a block” to enter.
According to her: “The balcony is for large groups of tourists, and they just happen to be European. [The pastor] insists the largest number of tourists in the church aren’t white, they’re black. They blend in, sitting down on the main floor with all of us. So he puts it back to me: Is my problem with tourists, or with white tourists? It’s white tourists.”
Now initially I thought, “What’s the big deal with white people in black churches? With social activists like Father Michael Louis Pfleger, that’s not particularly a big deal to me as a Chicagoan.” While I, personally, didn’t see it much in predominantly black churches — courtesy of Chicago’s South Side segregation — it’s not completely unheard of. But the people coming to Parker’s church weren’t a bunch of Pflegers nor the white members you may commonly see at your own black church. Still though, I tried to keep an open mind initially.
What started to change my opinion were Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews with critiques like, “The music was loud, repetitive and vacuous,” “Don’t choose this place if you’re expecting the gospel style of ‘Sister Act’” and “This is a scam. The children singing are circus animals.” I gripped my steering wheel a little tighter. And that’s when I understood where Parker was coming from.
Here’s the oddest part of me having an issue with someone writing a church review. I have not been to church in years. I’m also agnostic. But I grew up in a church with both grandmothers and a great great aunt who were heavily religious. My father is currently a deacon and has been for well over a decade. At one point, I even dated a Christian rapper for awhile. Regardless of my own views on religion as a whole — and no, I don’t plan to change them so please don’t try to “save” me in the comment section — there’s a protectiveness I have of black churches. I still respect churches; I just don’t want to go to one. I like the idea of anyone finding a place of peace and joyfulness, and I’ve watched many people have more productive and positive outlooks once they found a church home.
But for people who do attend a church for the first time, isn’t there supposed to be a general attitude of open minds and being less judgmental? These reviews and the motives for going certainly don’t sound like it.
I will always have more fond memories of church than the handful I wasn’t impressed with. I distinctly remember my paternal grandmother being sent home because she wore pants to my maternal grandmother’s church. At the time, women had to wear skirts and/or dresses, but me and my mother never knew this because we always wore our favorite dresses and skirts voluntarily. Learning pants were frowned upon would’ve sent me home permanently. (One star!)
But like a champ, my paternal grandmother changed clothes and we came right back. She enjoyed herself and probably would’ve given my childhood church at least a four-star review in spite of being turned away at the door. I’ve been to her church a few times, too. Also predominantly black, it was noticeably different — less extremely long singing for one-syllable words, shorter sermon time frames, pants allowed on women and a smaller congregation. But sistas were still wearing the kind of church hats that Ray Billingsley has been slyly complaining about since 1988 (via “Curtis”). I didn’t see anybody getting the Holy Ghost, which almost always happened at my childhood church. However, the vibe was mostly the same.
My father’s massive church — which became nationally known for both political and religious reasons during the 44th president’s campaign (hint, hint) — is a happy medium between the two. And even though I like his church more than anybody else’s, I could never see myself logging in to review any of the three churches or several other family members’ churches. While black churches (specifically Christian/Baptist) tend to share a distinct vibe, unless I’m a member, I just don’t know the ins and outs. Therefore, I wouldn’t feel I have the right to just walk in, sit in a pew and judge everybody.
Sure, you’re paying a tithe while you’re there, but that’s not nearly the same as reviewing a for-profit business that creates a business-to-consumer relationship. And if your complaints are comments like “the music is too loud” and it’s not like church in a movie released in 1992, you definitely don’t have any business trying to be an expert on black churches.
However, Freedom of Speech is just that. You have the right to speak on anything you so choose. If you paid your tithes (money) to be there (please don’t be judgmental and cheap), then your feedback is probably welcome. And if it’s off topic, Yelp reviewers like me are now flagging your petty rants.
But maybe, just maybe, consider pulling the pastor, bishop or one of the church choir members to the side to ask a few questions before you publish your review. You may find that your criticism of a church may be that you’re just unfamiliar with the culture of the church, not that there’s anything wrong at all.
* You can listen to the entire episode on WBEZ. (Start at the 11:08 mark to hear Parker on the noon episode, Sat., Feb. 29, 2020.)
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