In times of uncertainty, many people look to the church for supportive resources and hope. Under the direction of Pastor Chris Harris Sr, Bright Star Church is continually working to answer that call for their community. Pastor Chris Harris, Sr. a native of the Bronzeville community in Chicago, IL, is the Senior Pastor of Bright Star C.O.G.I.C. (www.BrightStarChurchChicago.com) and founder and C.E.O. of Bright Star Community Outreach (www.BrightStarCommunityOutreach.com). This organization is committed to creating collaborative partnership program models designed to provide educational enrichment programs, anti-violence prevention, intervention activities, and good student incentives. B.S.C.O. also employs more than 450+ people in the Greater Bronzeville Community. Pastor Chris Harris travels the country, building relationships between African-American and Jewish Clergy. We sat down with Pastor Harris to discuss his method for bringing healing and hope in Chicago.
Chante’ Gamby (C.G.): Tell us a bit about yourself and Bright Star Church.
Pastor Chris Harris (P.C.H.): I was born and raised in Bronzeville, in the Dearborn Homes. I am what I like to call the son of the soil of Bronzeville. I am a lifelong member of Bright Star Church. The church is 63 years old, and I have been pastoring for 20 years.
C.G.: Based on the website, it looks like Bright Star has many community outreach programs, could you speak more about those programs? What program does your church have for those needing mental health support?
P.C.H.: We focus on five core competencies in our outreach: counseling, mentorship, parenting, workforce development, and advocacy. We have been doing After school programming and Safe Passage. About seven years ago, we added our flagship program, Trauma counseling. In December 2012, I discovered a place in Tel-Aviv, called NATAL-trauma counseling center. Those who live under the constant threat of violence and trauma go there to address their trauma concerns. While I was in Israel, I realize that we are counting body bags and toe tags daily at home. I asked the question of who does that trauma counseling for the victim’s family or the perpetrator’s family. Many black and brown people don’t go to counseling because they don’t know, trust, and think they can afford counseling. But they still come and talk to me, the spiritual leader. So, the Lord told me to identify, train, and certify faith and community leaders to provide trauma counseling based on the Israeli model of NATAL. I reached out to Mayor Emmanuel, who loved that idea and connected me to others. I was then connected to Dean Harrison, C.E.O. of Northwestern Hospital, who then gave financial capital and human capital to get this idea off the ground. Our friends from the University of Chicago partnered and matched what Northwestern did. Later, United Way came on board for fiscal management. All these organizations and more, have been partnering with us to develop the TURN model (The Urban Resilience Network).NATAL then came over to assess and tailor the program to the needs of our community.
Through that, we have developed advocates through the helpline Monday-Friday 9 am-6 pm. We also have ambassadors who go throughout the community to help the community become trauma-informed. We are now going on three years in July, we have had about 600 callers, and our ambassadors have touched more than 42,000 people.
We have also built the Greater Bronzeville Community Action Council, which focuses on making all schools better in Greater Bronzeville. We have been able to get together 92 organizations together as Brighter Star Outreach is the convener and not the competitor for resources. Because of that collaboration, the MacArthur Foundation gave over 1 million dollars to us to work with additional organizations as long as they are aligned with our Action plan in some capacity.
C.G.: Mental health and church have often been seen as separate issues. What is your perspective on the intersection of mental health and spirituality?
P.C.H.: The church has done a terrible job when it comes to mental health. Because we try to pray for people, before listening to them, some people are in their situation because we have not taken the time to have a conversation. Dig in, find out what is going on with that person. Find that place where that trauma is. People do tend to trust the church, and we need to use that influence to make sure that we go to them and make sure that they are getting that support. Prayer is essential, but it is not the only thing. We need to make sure that the church is on the frontlines. The church is not just supposed to make people shout; it is supposed to help people shift to another paradigm of thinking, livelihood, and hope.
C.G.: What would you say to those who have experienced “church hurt”?
P.C.H.: That’s emotional and mental health as well. There are a lot of people who turned away from the church. The beauty of what we are doing with this helpline is even though it has faith leaders, this not a faith-based helpline. If you call for prayer, we will pray for you if that is what you want. If you are not careful, you can; if you don’t have proper training, you can use the right words at the wrong time with the wrong person and say the wrong thing and add more trauma to the existing trauma. Here is the reality, keep going to church. You had hurt at your job; you didn’t quit. You had hurt in your family and still went to the reunion, you had hurt in the relationship, and you were still laying with boo or bae, so keep going to church.
C.G.: How has COVID-19 impacted your church, and what is your church doing to support the community at this time?
P.C.H.: We have experienced three deaths connected to our congregation and had countless members who had C.O.V.I.D. and were able to recover. We have members and staff who have lost family members and friends. For the past three weeks, we have been giving 25-pound boxes of food to senior homes and Dearborn homes. We have also been passing out masks, P.P.E. tools, gloves, trauma information, and grocery cards while also helping people pay their bills. As people give to us, we give to the community. We have updated our virtual church experience for folks to stay home and stay safe as I am fully cooperating with the stay at home mandate. Because people cannot go to funerals, we are also offering virtual homegoing services for people to have the funeral at our church. We have been able to have up to 20,000 viewers via the church website, Facebook, and Youtube.
C.G.: How might folks be able to support the work of Bright Star Church?
P.C.H.: They can donate on either of our websites or text to give as well.
C.G.: What message would you like to send to those who may be going through a difficult time right now?
P.C.H.: Know that you are not alone. God is with us, even in this. You will survive, and Bright Star Church, along with Bright Star Community Outreach, stands ready, willing, and able to support you in any way we can during and after this COVID-19 pandemic.
For those who don’t need help, please join us and help. We could use all of the financial support. Please donate because the impact of C.O.V.I.D. will be long-lasting, especially in our communities.
C.G.: If folks do need resources, how can they get connected?
P.C.H.: They can check out our website at www.brightstarchurchchicago.com, or www.brightstarcommunityoutreach.com. They can also contact our office at 773.373.5220, or they can email firstname.lastname@example.org.