SPRING HILL — The Rev. Mel Harris' work as a minister of the Gospel over the years has garnered him high praise from his peers. About 400 of them joined the small congregation of Destiny Baptist Church at an installation ceremony last month to officially welcome Harris as the church's new pastor and his wife, Mary, as their new "first lady."
"It just absolutely blew all of us out of the water," Bill Thompson, chairman of the church's board of trustees, said about the large turnout. "People were calling and asking about it. He's so well known and so well respected in and around the Tampa Bay area."
The 5-year-old congregation made the unanimous decision to offer a call to Harris after he had manned the pulpit for the retiring pastor, the Rev. Benjamin Myers, in May.
Prior to accepting the call, Harris was the assistant pastor at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church in Tampa. He is also an active participant in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, where he serves as the regional director for missions for eight Southern states; he serves on the convention's national executive board for missions and is the assistant dean of its congress for Christian education, Southern region. He has held several pastoral positions, including being the interim pastor at St. Mary's Missionary Baptist Church in Plant City.
Attending the installation ceremony were the Rev. W. James Favorite, pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, who delivered the installation sermon, and the Rev. Clinton Brantley, pastor of St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, S.C., who gave the installation prayer and whom Harris considers his "father in the ministry."
Harris said the show of support was meaningful to him and his wife.
"All of these people came together and made this a wonderful experience for the Harrises," he said.
Until last spring, Harris, 66, was content with his role at Beulah Baptist.
"I was so comfortable at Beulah that I had resigned in my own thinking that I would spend the rest of my days in ministry supporting the senior pastor," he said. "Beulah is a very historical church that has been in the community for 147 years and has been on the cutting edge of just about every civil rights or community action program over the last century."
Harris liked that his church devoted a lot of time to education, a part of the ministry both he and his wife enjoyed as tutors and mentors.
"It was a place to remain active," the pastor said. "It would have taken God to move me from that position."
When Harris preached for several weeks at Destiny, he had no idea the congregation was considering him to replace its departing pastor. Learning that a unanimous decision had been made to call him made Harris think that God had to be involved.
"I immediately consulted with Mary, and it got her attention as well," he said. "So we went into prayer for about a week or so, and I accepted."
Since the call, Harris said, his vision is clear.
"I continue to embrace the current theme that we hold dear at Beulah, because it's really part of a national theme for the Progressive National Baptist Convention," he said. "That is 'Empowering the Pew for the Work of Redemption.' I brought that same theme to Destiny, but we call it 'Empowering the Pew to Save the Lost.' "
His goal is to equip the young, 50-member church to do the work of spreading the Gospel.
"We are in a spiritual battle every day that we live as Christians, and in order to wage that battle we really need to be empowered," he explained. "So the main goal is to make sure every member is equipped with correct biblical teaching, doctrinal understanding of the Trinity and the power that our belief and faith in God brings to each member."
Thompson believes Harris is the right man for the job.
"He is probably one of the best teaching preachers that I have encountered, and I don't come across a lot of those," Thompson said. "You're looking forward to what the next topic is that he will be preaching. He's such a warm and engaging person with a pleasant spirit."
Bible study participation has increased 70 percent at the church since Harris came.
"Just about everyone who comes to church comes to Bible study on Wednesday night," Thompson said. "He lives what he's preaching. He's all about that."
Harris has a lot of experience on which to draw. He retired as a senior master sergeant with 26 years of honorable service in the Air Force, receiving two Meritorious Service medals, the Humanitarian Service medal, two Presidential Unit Citations and several Outstanding Unit citations.
He is the former deputy director of services at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and the former director of administrative services for the Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office of Tampa. He continues to serve as vice chairman of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS of Tampa Bay and heads the group's ecumenical committee. He has been a member of Pastors on Patrol and serves as its corporate secretary. He was recently appointed to the Children Services Advisory Board by the Hillsborough County Commission.
Harris has served under numerous pastors, including when he was stationed in Turkey and Portugal. He has a bachelor of divinity degree from the Andersonville Theological Seminary.
Having had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul while he was stationed in Turkey in 1985, and serving as the spiritual leader of the Protestant service at Erach Air Base, gave Harris an experience to remember.
"I was able to go to Ephesus, Tarsus, Antalya and traveled up and down the main corridor over there and got to see a lot of things," Harris said. "I drank out of a 5,000-year-old well that Paul probably used, and I stood in the amphitheater there."
Harris had memorized some Scripture from the book of Ephesians, written by Paul to the church in Ephesus.
"I just sort of yelled out the first few verses of the first chapter," he said. "I just wanted to hear my voice come back to me and get a feel for what it felt like to stand in the amphitheater and proclaim the word of God. I didn't associate that I would one day use this as a pastor."