Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing minister. This week, we’re excited to introduce Kheresa Harmon
Kheresa, tell us about your ministry journey, the places and ways you have been serving and are serving.
My last week as a volunteer patient feeder at UNC Hospitals coincided with Vacation Bible School. I walked onto my assigned floor that Tuesday morning physically drained and with the patience of a toddler who had missed her nap and her snack! I was twenty-one-years-old at the time, and I poured every single drop of sleep-deprivation, poor nutrition, and too much time driving from county to county into focusing on what had to be done and how to do it. I had, what my son calls “the look,” plastered all over my face. I checked in at the nurses’ station, and my vision zeroed in on one name, Mr. Langley.
Mr. Langley was a new patient to me, and I noticed that his liquid diet had not been offered to him that morning. I noted and ignored a scribbled comment about his attitude. I grabbed some Ensure, marched to his door, and was stopped by a nurse. In no uncertain terms, she made it perfectly clear that it would be a waste of my time and energy to offer Mr. Langley anything, even a hello. She had little patience for Mr. Langley. I had little patience for her, and I politely informed the nurse that Mr. Langley was a person and he deserved to be treated like one. The nurse’s back turned towards me. My hand reached for the door.
I found Mr. Langley clad solely in Depends and reclining in his bed. The odor and the barrenness of the room slapped me in the face. There were no greeting cards. There were no flowers. There were no balloons. The chairs remained, untouched by family or friends. I may have been only twenty-one-years-old, but I knew what death looked and smelled like. Death was the visitor in the room. Mr. Langley was dying, alone. I greeted him as cheerfully as I could and offered a joke about my name. I was invisible to him. I slowly inserted a straw into the Ensure and leaned into Mr. Langley. He finally spoke, “I don’t want that. Leave.”
I left, but Mr. Langley remained with me. That night, after Vacation Bible School ended, I could not sleep. I cried and prayed for a man I did not know, but for a man whose life had transformed mine.
Two days later, I returned to the floor and was informed that Mr. Langley had died, alone. Mr. Langley was gone, yet his presence remained with me. Twenty-one years later, it still does.
The extraordinary often breaks into the ordinary to transform us. That final week as a volunteer patient feeder was one of those extraordinary moments for me. Two things happened. First, I saw the body of Christ in a very different way. I saw Jesus in the dying, diapered body of a lonely, bitter man. I left that suffocating, sterile, stench-filled room with a new image of the body of Christ and a new understanding of the suffering Christ. I also accepted a call to ministry that I had been running from for years. My early years of baptizing my cat and dressing up as a preacher flashed before my eyes. Moments at church flashed before my eyes. Moments as a volunteer in the surgical unit at UNC Hospitals flashed before my eyes. The words of Marjorie, another volunteer, “Why in the world are you not volunteering in the chaplain’s office?” echoed in my head. I knew that I wanted to be with and walk alongside people in this journey called life.
When I returned to Campbell that fall and told my church history professor, Dr. Donald Keyser, what happened to me that summer and that I wanted to go to divinity school, he smiled and said, “Good. I was beginning to wonder how long it would take you to figure that out.”
I entered divinity school with dreams of one day earning a Ph.D. and teaching. God had other plans, and I soon found myself serving in admissions at Campbell University Divinity School. Listening to the stories of God’s call upon the lives of God’s children and walking alongside persons who have been called by God to vocational Christian ministry is an invitation to stand on holy ground. I found my ministry place in the strangely, exciting world of enrollment management in theological education. Being with Mr. Langley taught me, and continues to teach me, how to do that.
So, here I am: A person who serves in ministry as a director of admissions for the divinity school at Gardner-Webb and as a part-time minister to children at First Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina.
I have the privilege of hearing the call stories of college students, chemists, teachers, retired physicians, and bankers. I have the privilege of walking alongside seasoned ministers who know that the time is now right for them to begin (or resume) a degree for which they longed a lifetime. I have the privilege of sharing the journey with women and men who thirst for more and enter doctoral studies. I have the privilege of sharing this journey called life with women and men called by God to be the presence of Christ in this world.
The time I share with these women and men is fragile, vulnerable, and sacred. Life happens to these ministers. Ministry happens to them. My phone rings. There is a knock on my door. The texts come in. The emails trickle in – twenty-four hours a day:
• I can’t manage the commute, the classes, church, and family. Should I just quit?
• I noticed one of your students is taking showers at the Wellness Center, Kheresa. He’s not in one of our dorms. Is he homeless?
• I have cancer. I have to withdraw.
• I failed another class, and my GPA is low. Does this mean I can’t go to divinity school ever?
• I have a three hour commute one way. Please help me find a place to spend one night each week this semester. Please!
• My child died. How do I live without my little girl?
• Denied? God called me! How can you deny admission to me?
• The deacons met. I lost my pastorate. I don’t know what to do. Didn’t God call me to this?
• My wife left me after church on Sunday. She took the kids with her. What do I do?
• I feel like I might hurt myself. Will you help?
• God called me to this, but I can’t find a ministry position.
• Did I misunderstand God?
• How do I get my drivers’ license in America?
• My father is dead, and I can’t go back home for the funeral.
• I don’t have enough money to pay my tuition, or my rent.
• Kheresa, I’m gay. Will the church still want me?
Moments like these happen. I remember Mr. Langley, and I remember that which I am called to do. I am called to be the presence of Christ to the ministers who pour out their lives for and to the body of Christ. I am called to see ministerial students as persons created by God, as persons in the image of God, and as persons who reflect the presence of God in the world. I am called to help ministerial students see that they are persons created by God, in the image of God, and that they do reflect the presence of God in the world. They are good, and they matter.
I also have the privilege and sheer joy of serving as Pastor Kheresa to the children and their families at First Baptist Church in Forest City, North Carolina. I walk alongside children and their families as they discover more about God, themselves, and the world around them through the sharing of stories of the faith and through nurturing relationships.
As Pastor Kheresa I am called to be the presence of Christ to the youngest members of our church family. I am called to see children as persons created by God, as persons in the image of God, and as persons who reflect the presence of God in the world around them. I am called to help children discover this about themselves, too! I am called to help them see that they are children created by God, in the image of God, and they do reflect the presence of God in the world around them. I am called to walk with these children as they understand that they are not the future of the church, but they are the church – right now! I am called to walk alongside of them as they learn how they are participating in the Kingdom of God – right now!
My ministry as a director of admissions and as a minister to children seems ordinary, but it is far from it. It is far from ordinary, because I have the privilege of seeing the extraordinary break into the ordinary, and that is something that only God can do.
God called me, and all of us, to make those safe, sacred spaces where all of God’s children, from diapered adults to ministers to children, can come to the table and be welcomed as family.
When I see the faces of ministerial students, I see the face of God. I see the body of Christ. I am asked to offer them the grace gift of remembering who they are, whose they are, and that God’s love for them runs deeper and wider than they can ever imagine. When I see the faces of Huntley, Marley, Pacey, SaiGe, and Mack, I see the face of God. I see the body of Christ. I am asked to offer them the grace gift of remembering who they are, whose they are, and that God’s love for them runs deeper and wider than they can ever imagine. When I close my eyes, I see the face of Mr. Langley. I see the body of Christ, and I remember the beauty of it.
What are your greatest sources of joy in ministry?
• Watching a ministerial student fall in love with congregational ministry.
• Watching the transformation of a ministerial student as she becomes the minister God called her to be.
• Watching God provide financial resources for a ministerial student with no financial support to be able to come to America and fulfill a lifelong dream.
• Watching children discover their voices as worship leaders.
• That moment when a child gets the she is created in God’s image and that she is good and loved.
• That moment when a child understands that he is the church and that he makes a difference in the world around him.
• When children invite me to play tag, to eat dinner with them, and when they teach me how to make their favorite slime.
• When a child who has not felt loved and accepted finally does.
• When a child sees another child on the outside of the community and embraces them as one of the community.
What advice would you give to a teenage girl discerning a call to ministry?
The God who created you has called you. The God who called Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam and Ruth, Mary and Lydia called you. God called you. Go and do what God called you to do. You are enough.
Finally, surround yourself with strong and wise seasoned women ministers.