During a rare quiet moment of silence, late at night, Lori Harris re-energizes from her busy day.
She might reflect on what the day revealed to her and her family, but she also might grab a book.
If she does, it won’t be fiction. Instead, she’ll soak in the words from a memoir; she’ll read something tried and true, a story of life dotted with hardship and grit. There’s no room for make believe in Harris’ world. Every day, she focuses on the real life happening around her – at times, perhaps a little too real.
But Harris and her husband, Thad, along with their six children, are mainstays in a hardscrabble Rocky Mount neighborhood where they find common ground with people they otherwise might never have met, and work to share their message of salvation and peace.
The Harris family chose to put down roots in Rocky Mount, and it all began with a calling they couldn’t ignore: to plant a church in the city in which Lori Harris grew up.
An Undeniable Force
The Harris yard on Avent Street is known as a “safe place.”
Children flock to the premises on any given day. If it’s hot, Lori Harris offers a slew of popsicles to eager hands; if it’s cold, she passes out cookies or other snacks. At night, there might be nearly 20 children gathered around watching a movie projected onto the side of the Harris house.
Lori Harris home-schools her children and babysits several more, so her constant presence at the house is a drawing comfort for children whose parents are still at work when they come home from school, or those who for other reasons seek out a place of haven.
“I love my street,” Harris says. “We just like to be a presence there. I just try to be a good neighbor. These kids need a place to land.”
She has come to love her neighborhood, and all it brings. She even has grown accustomed to pieces of litter that dot her yard; it means kids have been there, passing time with other children before moving along toward home.
A predominantly African American neighborhood, the Avent Street community breathes and settles, offering home to families who may soon move on or settle down for years. To Harris, her family is just another among the familiar faces who come and go and use the days in the best ways they know how.
It wasn’t always as simple as it seems on the surface.
Harris, a Rocky Mount native, graduated from Northern Nash High School and met her husband at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.
From the start, they were a spiritual couple, and her husband was following a path of a career in ministry. They found themselves in Dallas, Texas, where Thad Harris was in seminary. They had their first child and thrived amidst the congregation of Fellowship Bible Church – Dallas. They explored the idea of church-planting: starting new churches to reach more people to share the word. More children were born. Dallas was home.
“I knew Dallas,” Lori Harris says. “It was my people and my place, and I was never going to move. Now I’m thankful for the heartache of leaving there and coming here.”
But Rocky Mount was calling, in a way Harris didn’t want to hear.
She was happy where she lived, and she had heard about Rocky Mount’s racial and economic struggles over the years. She didn’t picture moving her family back home. But with graduation gift money after her husband completed seminary, the couple drove to Rocky Mount to spend two weeks praying and contemplating the idea of planting a church.
The couple realized they, too, would bloom where they were planted; in December 2011, Lori Harris came home.
A Dose of Reality
Lori and Thad Harris chose their home on Avent Street carefully. They wanted to see firsthand some of the issues the City on the Rise faced.
They wanted to minister to people dealing with poverty, unemployment, domestic issues, drugs and prostitution. Eviction here is commonplace, and familiar faces won’t be seen from one day to the next.
While those issues are widespread in other cities and in other parts of Rocky Mount, Avent Street seemed a good place to become a part of the community, to meet people and earn trust.
Now, in addition to the kids who stop on their way to and from the store or home, neighbors will drop by to sit on the Harris porch and talk to Lori about whatever they are dealing with that day.
“They just want someone to listen and be available,” Harris says. “While I can’t solve their problems, I can know them and be the love of Jesus to them. I can walk with them while they learn how to cope.”
Then there’s Fellowship Bible Church – Rocky Mount.
The church the Harrises planted might at any given time have around 30 adults and 20 children and teens. The congregation changes; families leave and new families join.
Someone who is drawn to the church for weeks or months as they struggle with addiction might return to old habits and stop attending services.
“It’s hard not seeing those people,” Harris says.
Planting the church has been a challenge in itself. The Harrises had to establish their own home, get to know their neighbors and figure out how they could attract a congregation in line with their mission to nurture disciples and serve the community.
They want to touch a city that has seen its share of hurt, and find ways to erase the lines of race and economic status to find common threads among the city’s residents.
“One of my biggest hopes is that Christians here will be able to come together and forget about what individual church they’re from,” Harris says, “and learn how to reach our city through humanitarian efforts.”
Along with the church, the family is nurturing their home and the people living around them, just by being there.
She wants people to know what poverty looks like, but at the same time, people from all walks of life are the same. When she sees an Avent Street neighbor at Walmart, she says, she is reminded that “we all count pennies.”
Even with the acceptance by her neighbors, there are still challenges to deal with.
The family awoke one morning to find their porch covered in broken glass and urine; Harris says she knows the culprits, but it doesn’t change her mind about loving where she lives.
This demonstrates “her deep humility and love for her neighbors,” says Paula Hardy, friend and member of Fellowship Bible Church – Rocky Mount. “(The Harrises) live out the Biblical message to love their neighbors, and they do that without coming across as judgmental or holier-than-thou.”
An Inner Peace
Those around her, whether family or friends in Dallas or neighbors across the street, have in a sense encouraged Lori Harris to find out who she is beyond her identity as a pastor’s wife and mother of six.
She’s thought about her own path and those of her neighbors, wondering how they ended up with the lives they lead and how best she can love them.
“We have to be an active participant in the things that happen here,” she says.
Through a blog initially created to stay in touch with her church family and friends in Dallas, Harris documents specific happenings on her street, as well as her hopes and fears for the future. She also marvels at how her life has turned out differently than she imagined it, but that returning to Rocky Mount has uncovered new layers of herself.
The blog can be found at www.loriharris.me.
“I’m learning about myself and my own prejudices,” she says. “I’m prejudiced against poverty.”
She’s also emerging as a community leader, a role that both excites and surprises her.
She’s organizing a chapter of Mothers of Preschoolers, and the enthusiasm has spread to women from other churches. The group offers mothers the support of other moms in their neighborhoods and communities as they learn and grow as parents and as women. The group is scheduled to start meeting in September, at First Baptist Church. Harris encourages anyone wanting to volunteer with the group or become a member to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
She also brought women from across the city together in February to watch a simulcast of an IF:Gathering event in Austin, Texas, that encouraged women to live out their purposes. The turnout for the event was beyond Harris’ dreams.
“We started out as strangers,” Hardy said of the planning committee for the local event, “but we worked together really well, and I have a whole new set of friends that I would never have known otherwise.”
Harris has a knack for being the catalyst for that kind of chance encounter that changes lives, but she also needs time for reflecting with her husband on the passing days, their children and their church.
She also needs silence, a chunk of time carved off and placed aside, when she can think about her purpose in a city she couldn’t picture herself returning to in the first place.
That time alone refreshes her and prepares her to return to the world the next day, to return to people and their plights.
Memoirs are being created on Avent Street, but not necessarily written down on paper.
“I love seeing stories about people unfold,” she says of the published memoirs that fascinate her, “how the threads connect them together. I love people, all kinds of different people.”
“I didn’t pick this life,” she says,” and I didn’t orchestrate it, but it’s unfolding.”
Fellowship Bible Church – Rocky Mount meets at 6 p.m. Sundays at the Harrison Family YMCA.