Robert E. Harrison (1928-2012) wrote a provocative book about his life, his ministry, and his fight against racism within white evangelical Christianity titled, When God Was Black (1978). He passionately takes us on a journey of his life and challenges the reader to become agents of change. Harrison looks at white evangelical Christianity through the lens of an African-American youth, and later as an urban minister growing up in the Fillmore District in San Francisco, California during various periods between 1943 through 1978. He overcomes racism, prejudice, and his own pain, mistreatment, rejection and acceptance 11 years later by the Assemblies of God (a denominational Pentecostal church) through the wisdom and strength of a caring and devoted Christian mother, grandmother, the Black Church, and community.
After Harrison’s graduation from Bethany College in 1951 and subsequent rejection of his application to become an ordain minister of AOG, his mother speaks into his life, and says, “The very ones who are putting you down will someday be the ones who will honor you” (91). God had a plan for his life, which ultimately open doors for him to minister on nearly every continent of the face of the earth. In February 1962, he became an associate of Billy Graham. Harrison writes, “The tide had completely turned. In 1951, I couldn’t become a minister because I was black. In 1961, I was sent to Africa because I was black, and in 1962, I was invited to join the Billy Graham team because, among other things, I was black” (74-75).
“God is black” is a metaphorical expression to the way Harrison theologically sees Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit expressed in the Black Church and through the lived experiences of African Americans. Harrison prophetically speaks to the way African-Americans are often perceived by white evangelical Christians and gives voice to the Black Church and Black preacher through his own experiences. One may argue that Harrison’s writing may have been influenced in part by the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, Black theology (later developed into “liberation theology), and the Black power movements of the 1960’s. Although he never states this directly, one cannot dismiss his analysis and perspective of the Black Church, liberal theology, and his views on social justice in chapters fourteen and fifteen as sheer coincidence. Does this mean that Harrison embraced a liberal or black theology? Certainly not. At the end of his book, he states,
“When Christians everywhere finally realize that we are one body, we won’t have to talk anymore about what happens when God is black. All of us will coordinate together as one beautiful body, each having the opportunity and accepting the responsibility for going into all the world and preaching the Gospel to every creature” (159).
Unfortunately, in my view, the Church is still a long ways from realizing what Harrison envisioned.
One cannot help but to be moved by his love and passion for the Church and his hope for change. He states the purpose for writing his autobiography is, “So I hope and pray that this encounter with my own crushing defeats and ultimate victories—and the account of my own struggles to let God live through me—will wake us all up” (14). Harrison writes with a powerful prophetic voice that challenges the traditional views of Christians and the Pentecostal Church, which largely remained silent during the Civil Rights era, and passive in the discussion of race, racism, and social justice, which he also discusses in his work.
When I learned of his death, my thoughts and memory of him raced back to the many times I heard him preach and sing at our church and at conventions where he was invited as a guest speaker. His rich and strong baritone singing voice, his musical gift as a pianist, and his powerful classical Black Pentecostal preaching style made him what he called a “triple threat” (12) to white evangelical Christians who didn’t see him as the norm. Another purpose for writing his autobiography he writes, “. . . is not to promote integration in our churches but to awaken black and white Christians to the real need of the hour” (55). Harrison saw that need as “a great evangelistic awakening” in the Church in America; an awakening that reaches “tens of thousands” of African-Americans for Christ.
It was well-known by those who knew Bob Harrison that he was an anointed musician, singer, preacher, teacher, pastor, evangelist, author—and missionary. But out of all of his special gifts and talents missions were his heart and calling. He was so passionate about missions that it was difficult for him to accept excuses from churches that didn’t have missions at the heart of their ministry. As a matter of fact I can still hear his deep baritone voice exhorting the congregation, “Missions is the heartbeat of God.”
I personally came to know Bob Harrison through my father, the late Bishop Ulysses S. King, Sr., who often spoke of his grandmother, the late Rev. Cornelia Jones Robertson, who was the pastor of Emmanuel Gospel Mission in San Francisco during the late 1930’s and 1940’s. He spoke often about those exciting times and golden years of church planting, evangelism, and fellowship. My grandparents, the late Bishop Judge and Mother Sarah King, who were the founders of Christ Holy Sanctified Church in Oakland (also known as “Seventh Street Mission”), had a deep and rich fellowship with “Mother Jones,” as she was known. On our church’s website, a photograph of the early saints is posted as a reminder of those pioneer years at Emmanuel Gospel Mission (www.mtchurch.org).
It is interesting to note that during the period after Prohibition (circa 1933) many churches in the inner city were known as “missions” before they were called tabernacles, temples, worship centers, cathedrals, and the like. These mission churches were located mostly in what was called the “red-light” districts in large cities where alcoholics, prostitution, drug addicts, gamblers, the poor and needy, and the homeless were found. Christ Holy Sanctified Church from 1925 until 1960 was located on Seventh Street, also known as “Satan’s Seven Last Acres.” It was the Black Mecca and cultural center of the Black community and Bay Area. The street was lined with blues and jazz clubs, which attracted popular singers, musicians, and performers from around the world. Harrison writes about becoming the pastor of Emmanuel Gospel Mission (where he served from 1955-1960) that, “We were the only evangelical church trying to meet the needs of this ghetto and the growth of the congregation would have to come from the dregs of this black community” (53). Very few churches today are located in the heart of urban communities. Most are found in suburbs far out of reach of those who are truly in need of hearing the message of salvation.
To the early saints, missions meant truly serving and meeting the needs of people in a holistic way, that is, body, soul, and spirit. They reached out to the people on the streets—alcoholics, prostitutes, drug addicts, gamblers, the poor and needy, and to anyone who would listen to their message about Jesus Christ. It is no surprise then that Bob Harrison would be called to serve in the missions’ field for all of his ministerial life. It was simply the way he was brought up.
Space will not permit me to write about all that I learned from this anointed, spiritual, dedicated, and exemplary church leader. I sincerely hope that the Assemblies of God, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, or a Christian publishing house will reprint and publish his book. His life’s work is worth studying in any institution of higher learning, especially Christian universities.
I was highly blessed and had the fortunate opportunity to briefly work closely and personally with him from 1993-2000, but I’ve known him much longer. I can recall during a time of personal crisis in my life when he stood by me as a pastor, friend, and counselor. I hadn’t been a pastor very long. My father passed away and left me with the care of the church. My marriage had failed, and those I trusted abandoned and forsook me. He stood by me, prayed with me, and asked me to work on a few evangelism projects editing and typing some of his manuscripts to be presented at seminars and workshops. He was a beautiful brother and friend who loved God, his family, the Church, and the Black Church in particular. I will sorely miss his friendship, counsel, and advice.
Because of visionaries like Bob Harrison I have been blessed to preached in South Africa, Nigeria, Haiti, and places I never thought I would have an opportunity to preach. Yes, I am black because my God is black, too.
 Harrison, Bob. When God Was Black. Canoga Park: Bob Harrison Ministries International, Inc., 1978.