By Emine Yücel
The Rev. Randall Harris is vacuuming the Faith Community Church floors before his weekly Wednesday night Bible study for the East Garfield Park and North Lawndale communities. After a minute or two, the 70-year-old slowly lowers himself into one of the 60 red chairs facing the pulpit. The tiny church is empty and quiet — even in February, before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order.
“We want to share the love of God,” Harris said, as he waited for the regulars of the Bible study session. “That calls us to act in a way that serves the needs of the community. And right now, this community needs resources.” COVID-19, the stay-at-home order and the closure of all nonessential businesses are hurting Harris and the West Side community. Harris and his congregation, who are mostly elderly and are at a higher risk of getting infected, are no longer able to hold Sunday services or provide food and clothing to those in need. For now, he is staying connected through virtual check-ins.
In January, Harris started a ministry to provide housing, healthcare and services like voter registration to homeless people in his community. “I’ve always had a heart for the homeless,” he said. “I don’t know how you can live in this kind of weather, but they have to. So, I have to do what I can to help them.”
In North Lawndale, around 42% live in poverty. Harris’s ministry serves an eight-block radius around the church that includes a part of North Lawndale, where dozens of homeless people reside in tents and cars parked in alleys. Whenever the ministry has enough donations from the 100 African Americans in its congregation, Harris and other volunteers will visit these spots with bags of food and clothes. When Harris gets there, he blows a whistle and people come out to get what they need from the bags.
About two weeks ago, however, Harris discontinued his homeless ministry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s very disheartening, but at times like this you need to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Although Harris feels that he is unable to do God’s work and serve his community the way he wishes to due to the Illinois lockdown, he understands it is important to prioritize health and safety — particularly in the African American community, with its higher death rate. “You can go and put yourself at risk but I can’t advise my people to do that. I just can’t,” he said.
Harris started building the foundations of the nondenominational Faith Community Church in December 1990 in a small room in the Community Care Center, a nursing home in Bronzeville. “We started out with nobody,” Harris said. “We had no real congregation.”
Harris preached in that small room in the Community Care Center for six years. As his congregation grew to around 30 people, running a church out of a nursing home became unsustainable. That’s when Harris, his wife and their two kids, Renata and Randall, moved the church to the corner of South Albany and West Polk, where it is today.
“I grew up in this neighborhood, so it was like coming back home,” Harris said. Born in a small town just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, Harris moved to the West Side of Chicago in February 1955 and never left.
But he was not always a preacher.
In April 1968, Harris, then 19, was returning from a basketball game when he heard that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. People in his neighborhood were rioting, so he joined in.
Harris and a large group of people, furious, were going around Roosevelt looting building after building and setting items left behind on fire, causing buildings to burn down. He said the black community was acting out of pain and hopelessness. “Dr. King gave his life so we could have civil rights,” he said. “That’s a great sacrifice, so it was devastating to the black community. The hurt of him being killed led us to react.”
The assassination fueled his passion to serve his community. “What happened is very much a part of who I am and my commitment to the struggles of our people,” Harris said.
In 2011, Harris was one of the community leaders who turned the smoking ruins of the riot into affordable housing for the Lawndale community. They rebuilt some of the apartments that were destroyed in the fire and created Dr. King Legacy Apartments on 1550 S. Hamlin Ave.
More than a decade after the assassination, in a sermon at Friendship Baptist Church, Harris’s pastor read Matthew 6:24. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,” he said.
Inspired, Harris decided to quit his job and become a pastor. After attending the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lisle, Illinois and getting a master’s in divinity, he re-dedicated his life to Christ. “I wasn’t planning on becoming a minister,” Harris said. “I got a calling from God, and I accepted my calling. Coming to the ministry changed me fully. 180 degrees reverse.”
Helping people in need and showing them God’s love trumps everything else, Harris said. “This community is made up of people who don’t have resources. But they’re here. With them and the lack of resources comes all the negative elements that come into communities like drugs, guns, alcohol, abuse. We’re here to show that there’s something else available for them. We hope to give them a different option and make them realize that this is not the life they have to live.”