When Rev. Dr. Kenneth Harris first came to the Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS) in 1992 as a doctoral student, he didn’t quite know what to make of the place.
He came from a conservative Bible college, even “quasi-fundamentalist,” he says, and ETS with its “liberals, Catholics and modernists running around” was for him “another world.”
“It was so different,” Rev. Harris says with a laugh. “I wrote about ‘alien prayer forms.’”
But Rev. Harris also admits that enrolling at ETS and later joining the faculty became “life changing” for him.
“The thing about one’s religious viewpoint is that you can get caught in a narrow hallway,” he says. “You don’t see the world as it really is. It’s a distorted view.”
On April 14, Rev. Harris will be inaugurated as the sixth president of ETS, a place he credits with giving him a broader world view, and with it, significant changes to come.
Rev. Harris was born in the African-American enclave of Royal Oak Township. His father was a self-taught plant engineer and his mother sold real estate and cosmetics. Both were devout Christians, serving as a Sunday School Superintendent, deacon and deaconess at New Mount Vernon Baptist Church.
“We were the family that opened the church in the morning and closed it at night,” Rev. Harris says.
One brother of Rev. Harris is a pastor in Flint while another is minister of music at a Detroit church. His sister is married to a minister. His daughters are seminary-trained ministers, and he has nieces and a nephew who are also ministers.
Not surprisingly, Rev. Harris says he had a “natural inclination” towards the church and was influenced by it. His father also noticed his son’s abilities and conducted a weekly Bible study with the family at home. Rev. Harris says it was during these study sessions that he learned to read with greater comprehension.
As a young boy, he says church elders took a special interest in him. Perhaps, he says, it was because he had a stammering problem when he spoke. Regardless, they told him he was special, that he would “be something.”
“In black churches, this was common,” Rev. Harris says. “They spoke what they saw. It was buried in my psyche or my spirit. It made me feel good; it made me feel like people cared about me. They were focused on the future and they saw something in this kid.”
Rev. Harris attended Detroit’s High School of Commerce for three years and attended Cass Tech for his senior year after Commerce was torn down for the I-375 project. He went to Highland Park Junior College to study business but after his first year he “received a call to the ministry.” He was 19.
“The call in my spirit was so strong that I started looking for another school, a school of ministry,” he says.
He enrolled at a local Bible college, which Rev. Harris says was conservative, “almost fundamentalist” and strong on Scripture. There Rev. Harris found his love for the New Testament and New Testament Greek. “I was a Greek geek,” Rev. Harris jokes.
While in Bible College, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The college president intimated that King’s liberal theological positions were responsible for his own death. Rev. Harris says the president’s comments shattered his idyllic world and gave him the “first shock in my life.”
“I was highly offended by someone I highly respected,” he says.
Rev. Harris, without much thought about the consequences, started an aggressive campaign to rebuke the president’s words. It took off, getting the support of students, alumni and some faculty. Eventually, the president acknowledged his mistake and asked what he could do.
“I was allowed to address the faculty and student body,” he says. “I talked about unity, why we are one body in Christ, why we ought to love and respect each other.”
Though pleased with himself, a faculty member scolded Rev. Harris for not being harder on the president. Rev. Harris now knows the professor was right, but as a young student “I didn’t have the requisite worldview to do that.”
But the lasting impact was Rev. Harris realizing the power of his words, his actions and his writing to bring about change in the world. And people back in his community applauded his actions as well, telling him “that’s what Dr. King would have done.”
“I learned the power of the pen, and I learned how to use it in a responsible way,” he says. “That you can challenge and tear down strangleholds without destroying people.”
After graduating from Bible college, Rev. Harris began work at General Motors’ Pontiac
Truck and Bus plant as a purchasing agent. He also was a pastor at a church in Port Huron, a position he took while still a student. He later pastored the Twelfth Street Baptist Church.
He says he lived in both worlds and learned a lot about life from both. He remembers getting off a private plane at Pontiac airport and driving to Twelfth Street for an evening meeting or Bible study.
“Both informed the other,” Rev. Harris says. “My life of faith informed my work at GM. My life at GM informed the reality of life in my preaching.”
He spent 12 years at GM, negotiating with Fortune 500 companies and touring coal mines in Kentucky – often as the only African-American. One mine owner was so fond of him, he gave Rev. Harris a black miner’s helmet with “Big Ken” written in white letters. Other mine visitors had white helmets with black letters. The helmet sits on a windowsill in Rev. Harris’ office.
After GM, he went into the ministry full-time. He had founded a small Bible study that turned into Detroit Baptist Temple, now Detroit Bible Tabernacle. He also went back to school, receiving master’s degrees from Ashland Theological Seminary and Western Theological Seminary, and a doctorate at ETS.
While a student at ETS, he was asked to help launch the Urban Ministry Diploma program for non-traditional seminary students. It was the first of many roles he had at ETS, including five years as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean.
It wasn’t long before this “alien” place of ETS grew on him and changed him. Where before he wrote a paper questioning the usefulness of meditation, chanting or sitting quiet in a room for 20 minutes – “Who does that?!” Rev. Harris asks with a laugh – he was now trying it at ETS.
Or, in his previous church world he says “we didn’t talk to Catholics,” but now one of his many Catholic friends was ETS faculty member Anneliese Sinnott, a Dominican nun.
“The wall I had built up began to crumble,” Rev. Harris says. “I didn’t change in terms of my conservative roots with regard to the centrality of the Scripture. I now better understood how my theological conservatism and my liberal social-economic-political viewpoint intersected in a very complex world. Regardless of the variety of views and positions, we were still the church.”
His 1996 doctoral dissertation was titled, A Community Divided: Reframing Biblical Metaphors to Rediscover Ways to Celebrate Unity, Diversity and Equality Within the Body of Christ. His 1998 Master of Theology thesis was entitled, Racism and Agape: A Scriptural Response to the Sin of Racism. Family and friends are pushing him to publish the works as they are more relevant today as they were twenty years ago.
In 2016, Rev. Harris announced his retirement from ETS. But he wouldn’t be gone long.
Last year, the seminary’s board of directors asked him to return as president. ETS Board Chairman Ron Wagner said the board was looking for someone with integrity, someone to create a dynamic atmosphere and someone who represents the values, qualities and traditions of ETS. In short, “an individual who lives the mission,” Wagner says. “We believe that we have found that leader in Rev. Harris.”
For his part, Rev. Harris says he was “quickly adapting to retirement,” enjoying more golf and 10 a.m. breakfasts. But he viewed the chance to once again serve ETS as an “opportunity of service.”
“This seminary is a very special place,” he says. “I think about the lives it has changed, including mine. And I think about the fact that in this 21st century we need good schools in underserved communities like Detroit that have not always had seminaries.”
Rev. Harris says he is a proud Detroiter who celebrates the city’s comeback downtown and in Midtown. But he also fears “the establishment of ‘gated communities’ without gates that might exclude longtime residents from housing and business opportunities.
“There also is the matter of disappearing Detroit communities that seem to be stored up for future development,” Harris says. “As rivers and streams of billions of dollars flow into the city, other parts are becoming deserts where untouchable pensions are co-opted and water shut-offs are used to evict residents from homes.”
He also bemoans the decision by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to cut off free bottled water for Flint residents because some areas show lower lead readings, and the exorbitant and unfair auto insurance rates Detroiters, including him, have to pay due to the redlining of Detroit neighborhoods.
“As a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination that speaks out against injustice and racial inequalities, I wonder what ‘evangelical’ means in light of current affairs,” he says.
Yet despite all of this, Dr. Harris remains hopeful that ETS will prepare leaders who know the difference between “prophets and profits” in the
Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition.