On a Sunday morning in September 2011, Eloise Louis stood on a street corner in Harlem, looking for a church. She was just hours off a plane from her native France, jet-lagged and buzzy with anticipation. An aspiring jazz singer with spiritual yearnings and a self-taught knowledge of civil rights history, she had finally set foot on black America’s hallowed ground.
Just across 116th Street, Ms. Louis noticed worshipers lining up to enter First Corinthian Baptist Church, and she joined the procession. An usher, seeing her white skin and hearing her French accent, directed Ms. Louis into the portion of the balcony set aside for spectators.
“I’m not a tourist,” Ms. Louis pleaded. “I’m here for Jesus.” The usher must have sensed something genuine and desperate in her tone, because he moved her to the front rows of the balcony among the regular congregants. From there, she heard the gospel songs and the preaching, and even with her spotty English, as she recalled, “something touched my heart.”