While preaching from the pulpit, Bishop Hessie Lee Harris kept close watch on the spiritual well-being of his parishioners, though never at the expense of neglecting their physical health.
As founder and senior pastor of the Born Again Evangelistic Outreach Ministry in Mattapan, he became concerned more than a quarter century ago with the toll smoking was taking on African-Americans in Greater Boston. In the early 1990s, he founded and served as pastoral director of Churches Organized to Stop Tobacco, or COST. The state Department of Public Health funded the initiative as part of its smoking-cessation programs.
“Bringing the message to them over the pulpit, we make them more conscious of what tobacco is doing to their lives,” he told the Globe in 1994. “We don’t tell the smokers that they’re sinners, because that’s not fair. But we pray that if anyone has a habit, God will give them the strength to kick the habit.”
Bishop Harris, who was pastor of his church since founding it as the Born Again Church of God in Christ in his Boston home in 1979, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 5. He was 73 and lived in Plymouth.
Churches Organized to Stop Tobacco drew support from ministers in about a dozen churches, who joined Bishop Harris in holding an intervention Sunday at least four times a year. On those days, pastors and parishioners focused as much on their hearts and lungs as they did on their souls.
“I always thought that drugs or drive-by shootings were the No. 1 killers in our community,” Bishop Harris said in the 1994 interview. “But then I found out it was tobacco.”
He and other pastors used church publications to highlight anti-smoking workshops and health fairs, and they recruited volunteers to help run smoking-cessation efforts. They also engaged in outreach to youths in their neighborhoods and pregnant women who smoked. The organization is now called Churches Organized to Save Tomorrow.
Bishop Harris also focused attention on the need to dissuade advertisers from using billboards in African-American neighborhoods to promote menthol cigarettes, a popular choice among smokers. “All the mom and pop shops have these ads for menthols,” he told the Globe in 1997. “They have all these ads showing beautiful people on a fancy boat or on some beautiful island. So the idea is maybe you aren’t beautiful or rich, but at least you can smoke a menthol cigarette. And that’s the kind of messages we want to keep out.”
In 1998, Bishop Harris attended a White House ceremony with then-President Bill Clinton, who was pushing anti-smoking legislation. The following year, Bishop Harris joined Dr. David Satcher, who was then the US surgeon general, and others at a Roxbury Community College symposium. They discussed how a multibillion-dollar settlement between states and tobacco companies could be used to address the impact of smoking on African-Americans.
In a report, Satcher had noted that smoking and tobacco use contributed to the three leading causes of death for blacks — heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Satcher’s report also chronicled the surge in smoking among African-American youths, who far outpaced any rate increase for other youths. “Tobacco is more dangerous than crack,” Bishop Harris told the Globe in 1999. “You can take them off drugs, but you can’t easily get them off tobacco.”
The second of seven siblings, Hessie Lee Harris was born and grew up in Memphis, a son of the Rev. David Lee Harris, a Pentecostal minister, and the former Linnie Hubbard.
There were many ministers in Bishop Harris’s family, including his brother, the Rev. Bernard Harris of Whitman, and three of Bishop Harris’s sons, the Rev. Tommie Harris Sr. of Braintree, the Rev. Kenneth Harris of Groton, Conn., and the Rev. Rodney Harris of Randolph.
“He always knew his calling was to be a pastor,” his son Tommie said.
Bishop Harris graduated from Geeter High School in Memphis and attended Christian Brothers University. On Nov. 24, 1963, he married Ora Jean Taylor, with whom he had five children. In 1971, Bishop Harris and his family moved to Boston, where they attended Little Zion Church of God in Christ until he founded Born Again Church of God in Christ in his home. He also graduated with an associate’s degree in liberal arts from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy.
In 1980, his congregation was large enough that the church moved to a Mattapan location. The church was renamed Born Again Evangelistic Outreach Ministry in 1988, and Bishop Harris’s wife was ordained as co-pastor in 1991.
He also helped oversee ministries in Groton, Conn., and Picayune, Miss., and recorded cassette tapes and CDs that he mailed to followers throughout the United States and around the world. “He was a people’s pastor,” his son Tommie said. “He was very vibrant and energetic. People gravitated to him.”
Over the years, Bishop Harris was a member of many ministerial and public health organizations, and he frequently was honored for his work for advocating for health and wellness, promoting smoking cessation and working on behalf of those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. For National HIV Testing Day in 2000, he set an example by announcing to his congregation that he planned to get tested.
“I think a lot of our churches have stuck their heads in the sand,” he told the Globe that June. “There has been homophobia. … I think the church has to take a different role and a different approach, but I think the church is changing its mindset.”
A service has been held for Bishop Harris, who in addition to his wife, Ora, his three sons, Tommie, Kenneth, and Rodney, and his brother Bernard leaves his son Karl of Plymouth; his daughter, Karla Valentin of Hyde Park; two sisters, Shirley Randolph of Memphis and Patricia Seldon of Brockton; two brothers, Linwood of Brockton and Lionel of Chelsea; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
During his lifetime of pastoral care, Bishop Harris also was called on to minister to the emotional wounds of his community, including at Christmastime in 2006 when a 14-year-old boy was fatally shot in his church’s neighborhood.
Just as he had encouraged parishioners to confront life-threatening health issues such as smoking and AIDS, he told them they had the power to address shootings in their neighborhood, though it would require more than just a posture of prayer.
“I believe this is going to be the end of things,” he said from the pulpit, speaking of his congregation’s potential to stem the tide of violence. As worshipers raised their hands with calls of amen and hallelujah, he added: “But to be the end of things, it’s not enough to pray. You’re still going to have to get off your knees to do something.”Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.