The sound of a trumpet awoke Huey Harris on April 5, 2001, his last night as a drug dealer. Harris says he looked out of his bedroom window in Montgomery, Ala., and saw people of all races running without direction, screaming and crying.
The sound of a trumpet awoke Huey Harris on April 5,
2001, his last night as a drug dealer. Harris says he looked out
of his bedroom window in Montgomery, Ala., and saw people of all races
running without direction, screaming and crying.
Fire appeared to be streaming down from the heavens.
Harris felt himself lifted out of his body. “I’m getting ready to
destroy this world full of sin,” Harris heard the voice of God telling
Few believed “Shockey” – as he was known on the
street – had truly changed his life, and Harris would have to ignore
the taunts of even family and friends as he preached on the same
streets he once ruled by intimidation. He would start his own church in
Montgomery, and his persistence and testimony would gain national
attention, with articles in church publications and appearances on
television and at a Billy Graham crusade.
On a 90-degree night, the 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound
preacher wipes sweat from his face as he leads Bible study on an
asphalt driveway in the back of a modest home. His kingdom once
included several crack houses and a stable of cars and women. Now, it
consists of a dozen people ignoring the heat and the roar of a
“Are you ready? Somebody say, ‘I’m ready,’” a smiling Harris urges them. “I’m going to bless your socks off.”
In the second vision on the night that changed his
life in 2001, Harris says he was walking atop coals smoldering over a
blackened Earth. Harris felt himself crunching the bones of skeletons
in the vision he interpreted as showing God’s judgment on those who
turn from his Word.
The predominantly young group gathered in the back
yard in Maple Heights hears an urgency in Harris’ voice. The theme of
the Bible study this night is vision, and it is a vision that cuts hard
both ways. “If they reject it, they damned,” Harris says of those who
will turn away from the message. “They gonna bust hell wide open.”
God does not leave Harris in the burning embers of
an ashen Earth. In the final part of the vision four years ago, Harris
says he was surrounded by beautiful flowers and water bluer than he had
ever seen. He says God told him – “Go and tell the whole city of
Montgomery and all the world that Jesus Christ is Lord and savior …
Go back to the drug dealers, the prostitutes and the gang members.”
On this June night, in the back yard of the parents
of a young man recently released from jail after a conviction for
selling drugs, Harris already is envisioning a future where the dozen
believers before him will be multiplied into thousands following a
worldwide ministry. “We’re not just going to be in a back yard
forever,” Harris tells them. “Somebody say ‘Amen.’ Somebody say ‘Amen!’”
Religious visions have guided the short, eventful
life of Huey Harris, 30. He began selling crack at age 12 and was
regularly expelled from school for carrying weapons. He would be shot
three times and involved in a murder before he transformed overnight
from drug dealer to evangelist after what he believes was a vision from
God on that morning in 2001.
However, there was one more vision to come. Harris
says God appeared to him again in the night and told him to give up all
that he had built in Alabama and go to Cleveland. This spring, he sold
his house, closed his church and moved to Lorain, Ohio.
Harris stretches out a powerful forearm and shows a
tattoo of a snake; on the other arm is a portrait of Jesus crucified on
Tattoos cover his body with conflicting messages. One biceps displays a
soldier under the logo “No limit.” On another part of his arm is an
open Bible with the words “wisdom” and “knowledge.”
All were bought with the proceeds from selling
cocaine. As a Christian, Harris now says he believes tattoos are
forbidden. But as someone who uses his past to reach out to others, he
also says he has no plans to remove them.
He interprets them all as foretelling parts of his
life. The snake and the crucifix show the battle between Satan and
Jesus in his own struggle with drugs and gang life. The soldier that
once signified his prominence in the drug culture now marks his change
to a soldier for Christ.
On a humid Monday night in mid-June, Harris stands
in front of a vacant store between a lingerie shop and a Wendy’s on
Warrensville Center Road in Maple Heights. Beside him are Robert and
Derek Whatley, ages 18 and 19, two brothers who have joined his
The three men are getting ready to clean and
refurbish the back of the empty store to convert it into a church.
The brothers and other members of the church say
Harris is different from other pastors. He knows what life on the
street is like and is ready with helpful words of love and forgiveness
instead of a message of condemnation they associate with other pastors.
“He more real to the young people, …” Robert Whatley says. “He don’t lie. And you need the truth.”
If a guy like Harris can be saved, so can he and his friends, Whatley notes.
A large black banner with gold lettering proclaiming
“Jesus Christ – The Son of God” dominates one side of the Harrises’
living room, which on this summer morning is home to the first Sunday
service of their new Fresh Waters Christian Church International.
On the other wall hangs a large portrait of Harris
showing his bullet wounds. Not far away are pictures of guns and crack
pipes that members of his Montgomery congregation gave up after
attending his church. These are the two worlds in the life of Huey
Harris, and one is inseparable from the other.
He spent his first days in the Cleveland area, in
large part, talking to kids in schools, visiting the projects and rehab
centers and preaching in front of liquor stores.
“Being a Christian is not an easy job,” Harris tells
the people. “It’s a fight. The only way you’re going to overcome this
wicked world is to put God first.”
The day after his conversion in 2001, Harris
returned to the streets of Montgomery, preaching for 10 hours a day to
anyone who would listen. At first, few would.
Slowly, people realized he was serious, and his
story started to come out in local media. He wrote letters to 200
churches about his desire to minister the gospel. One answered – First
Baptist Church of Montgomery, a prominent, predominantly white
Harris became a member of the missions team and
started his own church among the prostitutes, drug dealers and others
God told him to reach. He eventually was invited to speak at a Billy
Graham crusade in South Carolina and at mission conferences.
In Montgomery, his church grew to 200 people. Judges
were asking him to speak in jails and to community groups. He began to
lead city crusades. “He was reaching people the church couldn’t reach,”
says Jane Ferguson, community missions minister at First Baptist Church.
Harris’ wife, Andrea, remembers when he spoke at her
Montgomery church in July 2002. “Everybody was just drawn to him, …”
she says. “It was so mind-boggling.”
Less than six months after she first heard him preach, they were married. Life kept getting better.
“We had a house, … a big church,” Andrea Harris recalls. “Everything was going well.”
Then, her husband said he had received another call from God. He was to go to Cleveland.
Harris says he and his wife were stunned. “I’d never heard of Cleveland, Ohio,” he says.
Slowly, the apartment fills up for the Sunday
morning service. There are the mother and four of her teenage children,
a family reached through one son at a high school assembly, a woman
with her son and another young man.
A lone woman, an upstairs neighbor, joins the
gathering. Harris has been telling her about the church, and she is
curious. Last to arrive is the pastor, who brings a woman from a
This is the way a new church starts, picking
up people here and there from the pastor’s hard work of evangelizing.
His job now is to build them into a church.
During the service, he calls over the woman from
rehab and hugs her. Then, he has one of the young men come up and hugs
him. Harris calls up a third person, and the four of them grasp each
other in a group hug. “We have a circle of love,” Harris says. “Go
now, and love someone.”
On this Sunday, with 20 people crowded into a living
room, Harris and his wife are beginning to see the foundations of their
Later in the week, church members gather in the back
of the vacant store, which is gradually taking shape as a church. They
nearly are finished painting the walls and are building a wooden pallet
for an altar.
If his wife’s first reaction about going to Cleveland was “God said what?” she now has embraced the move.
“This is our promised land,” Andrea Harris says.
“This is a big city. We can do a lot of different things here.”
But the focus is not just Cleveland, her husband
insists. Harris says God has plans for the ministry to branch out
worldwide, with thousands coming to the Northeast Ohio church and
others reached in international crusades.
He assures his congregation – “Vision tells me God got something better for me.” (RNS)