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Front Page - Friday, March 2, 2018

‘It’s like coming home’

Harris happy she finally decided to become part of the ‘family business’

From the age of 16, Evelyn Harris knew she was called to be a minister. Her mother, Laura Trent, was a Methodist pastor, and so were members of the three previous generations.

“It’s kind of the family business,” says Harris, 39, pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Hixson. “But I didn’t want to do it. I saw the sacrifices that she made and the challenges of being a clergywoman, the sexism and gender discrimination that she faced. And I thought, ‘Why would I ever want to do that?’”

Then one day three female friends – her pastor, a hospital chaplain and an engineer who had ditched her career to go to seminary – cornered Harris in a coffee shop near Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was working as a horticulturist, and collectively said, “Your call is all over you. You are wearing it every day. You can either answer God’s call or you can keep running, but God’s going to catch you at some point.”

Known for her outspoken comments on social justice and her over-the-top personality – in lieu of a photo on her LinkedIn page is an illustration of a female Captain Marvel – Harris grew up in Chattanooga, helping her father, an Army colonel, manage his retail shop. In her first semester at Randolph-Macon, a private liberal arts college near Richmond, Virginia, a soccer injury and a bout with mononucleosis forced her to miss so many classes that she had to abandon her demanding chemistry major.

She transferred to the more affordable University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

“I had the realization that I could spend $30,000 on one year of education or a quarter of that at the time in state tuition for all four years,” she explains. Harris earned a B.S. in ornamental horticulture and landscape design, with a minor in urban studies.

“There was something about growing things that spoke to me,” Harris adds. “I got to be outside. I wasn’t stuck in a lab. I got to really be productive and have something that I had accomplished. I like to achieve goals.

“It’s really funny,” she continues. “People think of horticulture and pastoring as very different, but really they’re very similar. I’m tending and nurturing plants and designing and constructing environments in horticulture. But in pastoring, I’m tending and nurturing people and crafting and designing the church environment and community.”

After graduating in 2001, she worked in retail greenhouse management and floriculture in the Raleigh-Durham area while immersing herself in volunteer activities, from teaching Sunday school to helping with worship design, at a redeveloping church. Despite the coffee shop encounter with the three clergywomen, it wasn’t until 2004, when her mom began preaching in Vienna, Austria, that Harris gave in to her calling. The English-speaking, international congregation was made up of 200 people from 35 countries and 14 different mother tongues.

“It felt like a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here on Earth,” notes Harris, who traveled there several times during her mom’s tenure. “There was the freedom within that community to express one’s own ethnicity and worship God in an indigenous way.”

In 2006, Harris began the arduous, seven-year process of becoming a minister. She moved back to Chattanooga, where she sold jewelry after being unable to find a horticultural job. In 2010, she began studying for the ministry at Sewanee: The University of the South, and the following year completed a six-week internship in Vienna, shadowing her mom.

In her first ministerial role in 2013, Harris was assigned to Middlebrook Pike United Methodist Church on the border between two very different neighborhoods ­– urban and suburban – in Knoxville.

“When you’re young and you come out of seminary, you’re real green and you think you know everything. I didn’t know hardly anything at all,” she admits. “Within the first few weeks on the job, I started burying people. My first funeral was for a 34-week-old infant who was stillborn. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life.”

Two years ago, Harris learned from her mom, who had served at St. Luke two decades before that the church was struggling to stay afloat. The northward shift of the Hixson population near the downtown end had triggered a membership decline since the late 1960s, when the average service drew about 325 people. Attendance had slowly trickled to about 30, and there was talk of closing the church.

“I just felt compelled by the Holy Spirit, if you will, to put a proposal together because I couldn’t let that happen,” Harris says. “I just knew that I was supposed to be here.”

In her five-year plan, she offered to work part-time to revive St. Luke. The Holston Conference, which oversees Methodist churches in east Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and north Georgia near Chattanooga, instead hired her fulltime and assigned her to also supervise at St. Marks United Methodist Church, another house of worship grappling with attrition. Since Harris came on board as associate pastor in 2015, attendance at St. Luke has doubled.

From the outset, her strategy has been to reconnect the 65-year-old church to the community. A longtime parent’s day out was still thriving, “but that was about it,” she points out. “They were doing really great things when I got here, but they just weren’t promoting themselves. And they weren’t necessarily connected to the community in very strong ways.”

She began by volunteering at Rivermont Elementary, where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. “I learned that I cannot work a laminator to save my life,” Harris says with a laugh.

“God, please forgive me for destroying those second-graders’ art projects. I’ve never felt so guilty.”

Recruiting volunteers came more easily. First, she mobilized her congregation to provide snack packs for the Rivermont kids once a month to keep them from going hungry over the weekend. She wrote and received a grant, and took up a collection, to purchase uniform t-shirts for every student. Harris also worked with new principal Nikki Bailey to rebrand the school through social media.

Teachers and students at Rivermont now call her “Rev. Ev.”

But Harris’s proudest accomplishment so far may be the program in which volunteers at St. Luke to look after children with special needs and their siblings while their parents enjoy a much-needed break. The free service is open to the community. “We try to be a really inclusive church,” Harris says. “I think that’s critical.”

A proud feminist, Harris makes no apologies for bold sermons that often explore social justice and women’s rights issues. On a recent Sunday morning, the straightforward, no-nonsense minister recounted statistics from the state of Tennessee, where the murder rate for women, predominately by intimate male partners, has doubled in the last five years. “Women’s issues are church issues, first of all because women are the majority of the church,” she explains.

After the Charlottesville, Virginia, tragedy in August in which a speeding motorist killed one person and injured 19 others when he drove into a group of protestors at a scheduled nationalist rally, Harris spoke out against white supremacy.

“I do feel like the church has benefitted from systems of patriarchy and colonization,” she says, noting that Christianity as a whole has been “hijacked by evangelicalism.”

“So, what does Christianity look like for the rest of us and what can we do differently?” she asks. “I think part of that is understanding that we have been complacent in letting our faith be conflated by the secular world so that the only Christianity that exists is evangelical Christianity, which we know for a fact is not true.

“We want to be a school of love here,” Harris says of St. Luke. “This church has always had a community of doers and people who are social justice-oriented. So, for this church to be able to talk openly about social justice issues is right up its alley. It’s a really beautiful thing.”

From time to time, Harris still gardens. Other hobbies include playing the viola and violin, and doing beadwork. She admits to being an “extreme extrovert.”

“I get my energy from talking to people,” she adds. “I love big parties. I’ll go make sure that I meet everybody in the room. Some people have described me as a social butterfly.”

A natural “driver” who is tempted to jump in and fix a problem rather than delegate, Harris is training herself to be more of an “influencer” who steps back and lets others take charge.

“I’m a team player, so I think collaboration is a fantastic idea that we don’t use enough,” she says. “For me as a leader, it means surrendering the outcomes and equipping and empowering people to get things done but not dictating how they do it. That’s been a really great growth experience for me, and I’m still working on it. I’m still letting go of the control.”