My Brother's Keeper of Greater Richmond

"Encouraging Brothers Through the Storms of Life"

May 2014

Journey to Manhood

James Harris, III, Father & EMS Firefighter

by Monica Haynes

When James E. Harris III moved his family into the Richmond suburb of Brandermill in 2001, he thought he had achieved the American Dream.

How could he not think it? He had a beautiful home, a devoted and loving wife, Wendy, four wonderful children, Brittany, Chad, Siedah and Taylore, and a great job! Still, there was an emptiness, a void in his life that cast a pall over the entire Harris clan. “Even the dog was unhappy,” Harris quipped.  It was void that Harris admitted he had tried for many years to fill with drinking, carousing and the adrenaline-rush of being a firefighter/EMT. None of those things worked.  One Saturday evening in October 2003, Harris recalls, his family went to the mall leaving him alone with his thoughts and an overwhelming sense of dread.

It wasn’t like I wanted to take my life,” he explained. “It was just like a deep sorrow. I just cried out for Jesus to take that sorrow, that grief away from me. I was balled up in a fetal position just bawling.” Harris began to think about friends he had grown up with who had been lost to the streets via substance abuse or crime. He thought about how he’d been able to avoid that fate because of being covered by the prayers of his parents, older sister and wife. “I was not honoring that covering and that covering was Christ,” he said. “That’s the only reason I survived.”

When his family returned several hours later, he was still curled up, bawling his eyes out. “When my mom passed in ’84 I didn’t cry like I cried that day,” Harris recalled. “It was all that release of trying to be a man according to the world instead of trying to be a man according to the Word.

From that day forward, Harris, now a licensed minister, began to build upon the Christian foundation that had been laid for him at an early age by his parents, both pillars of Cedar Street Baptist Church. His father was a deacon and his mother was a seminary instructor.

The youngest and the only boy, he enjoyed a stable home life with two loving parents and a doting older sister, Rosemary. “But even with that strong foundation, I still tried to destroy myself and get off that foundation,” Harris said. As youngster of nine, he recalls falling prey to pitfalls. “I didn’t have brothers, but I was easily influenced by the fellows in the hood, ‘man come on drink this beer, come on try this joint,’” he recalled them saying. “I knew it was wrong but I just wanted to have that brotherhood, that fellowship with the guys, I went along with it. Then you find yourself getting into that cycle, what they say goes.”

It was the gospel according to the street. Even though, he knew he had a loving home and parents with Christian values, he was lured in by the siren call of “boys will be boys”. “By 12 or 13, I was sneaking beer and buying a whole box of Lifesavers to stuff in my mouth so when I got home they couldn’t smell it. My mother would always say, ‘you need to allow Christ in your life.’ While she was a soft-spoken woman, she did not spare the belt, he said.

After graduating from Armstrong High School in 1979, Harris attended Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, where he encountered Wendy, the woman who would eventually be his wife. The two had often crossed paths in Richmond during their high school years. But Wendy was now a year ahead of him at Hampton and told him she didn’t visit freshman dorms. However, his persistence paid off and the two married September 20, 1986.

In 1989, several months after the birth of his second child, Harris got the opportunity to join the Richmond Fire Department. He had learned about the openings via his sister-in-law who was a friend of the retiring fire chief. “I said, ‘man I better hold onto to this job’. I calmed down so I saved all my foolery for the weekends or when I was off,” he explained.

Just as he did as a youngster, Harris said he fell in with a group of guys, who were not a good influence. “I started hanging out with guys who said ‘you gotta have a girl on the side.” These were guys he could go out drinking and carousing with. All the while, Wendy continued to pray for him and encourage him to attend church, as did his son, Chad.

“He would say ‘Daddy come on and go to church with us,’ “ Harris recounted. But Harris, with his beer mugs in the freezer and beer at the ready, would tell his son that he had to get ready for the football game. He recalls his wife often placing her hands on his forehead to pray for him as he nursed a hangover. “Her thing was, she wanted her marriage to work, but she didn’t want her marriage to work with the lifestyle I was living. One thing she told me was she was more concerned about my eternity than saving our marriage. She did not want the father of her children ending up in hell,” he said.

But after his spiritual rebirth in 2003, Harris was a changed man. He stopped drinking. He began attending Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, his wife’s childhood church and immersed himself in the newly-started manhood series. “Bishop [Darryl] Husband saw the change in me and said, ‘be my armor bearer.’ “ Bishop Husband and others began praying for Harris and laying hands on him, watering the seed that had been planted all those years ago. In 2005, he became a licensed minister. Eventually, he left Mt. Olivet and began searching for a new church home before God led him back to Cedar Street Baptist. “It was bittersweet. I was glad that I got to go back to the church I grew up in, but I was going to miss the leadership I got from Bishop Husband,” Harris said.

At Cedar Street, he works with the men’s ministry and the evangelism ministry. “I try to let these young brothers and older brothers know that you are a man made in God’s image and he has a plan and opportunity for you to do something in the Kingdom,” Harris said. “I thank God that he’s raising up other watchmen that are going to stand on the doctrines and precepts of God from Genesis all the way through the end, and are not going to waiver no matter what eh cultural society is saying or doing. We’re standing on what God’s word says.”