Music minister’s swan song

Aug. 16, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

On this day, Leonard Harris Jr. is working in his office choosing hymns for his last service as minister of music. He says he tries to get the order of music set at least six weeks in advance in order to help out his musicians, but, with a chuckle, he admits he's been a little slack the last couple weeks.

However, he's still getting it done. Books on music sit on the bookshelf. What used to be an organ rests against the wall of his office, with a keyboard laid on top of it where the keys used to be. A combination record player/CD player is placed atop his desk.

Harris leans over a hymnal, pencil in hand, marking certain hymns on a sheet of paper, laying out the service. The passion is clear. It looks like he's been doing this for a long, long time.

Well, he has. His life began with music, and in all likelihood, will end with music. And it's all for God.

Harris will retire as the minister of music at Flat Springs Baptist Church on Aug. 31 after nearly 36 years of service. The church will have a “Leonard Harris Appreciation Day” this Sunday to celebrate his time at the church.

He grew up studying music at and then running the business side of the Harris Conservatory of Music, founded by his father in the 1950s, with his two brothers as teachers. But he says he wasn't really too fond of it at first.

“I grew up in a music school, kind of a reluctant musician,” he says. “[I] didn't have a choice.”

So he joined the Air Force to try to get away from music, but he says he could never really escape it. He began serving Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Fuquay-Varina in 1973 in the music department.

“Finally one day I just figured that that's where the Lord wants me to be,” Harris says. “I had fought the Lord long enough. So I decided that I couldn't run fast enough; this is where I needed to be.”

He was at Pleasant Grove for five years until August 1978, when he got a call from church member Tommy Bridges to see if he wanted to be the minister of music at Flat Springs. At the time, Harris, who had by then married his wife of now 40 years, Elaine, was considering leaving the ministry side of music but figured he could give another five years.

“I thought, ‘OK, I think we can give another five years. Haven't run out of money yet. Yeah, I'll give another five years,’” he says. “So we moved down to Sanford, bought a house I thought I could sell in five years.”

They stayed there 28 years.

When Harris began working at Flat Springs, he was in charge of two children's choirs, a youth choir, the chancel choir and several other groups in addition to heading up the youth ministry — something he gradually gave up when he turned 50 in 1994.

Dr. Gary McCullough, the senior pastor at Flat Springs since December 2005, was most impressed with Harris’s organization and talents when he first met him.

“He had all of his ducks in a row,” McCullough says. “Very early in the conversation, I became very impressed with his understanding of a team and a church staff and his role in that. We're mourning this day and him retiring because he's a tremendous asset for our church.”

Throughout a conversation with Harris, it becomes clear what his goal is, the purpose of serving at the same church for 36 years. It's that worship, particularly in the music sphere in his case, is for the Lord.

“Sometimes we're too busy doing church stuff to let the object of our worship into our heart,” he says. “There's only one in the worship service. There may be 3,000 in the congregation, but the only audience we have is the Lord, and we are to give praise to him, not the congregation.”

McCullough says Harris's dedication to the divine is noticeable and one of the most important things Harris brought to the minister of music role.

“He wants the music done to the glory of God, to the best of the abilities,” he says. “His commitment to the Lord is probably the greatest asset that any of us can bring to ministry. When stuff flows out of that love for God, it usually flows well, and it does flow well with Leonard.”

Even though he's leaving his post at Flat Springs, Harris won't quit participating in music. He'll spend some time traveling with his wife — “driving Miss Daisy,” he calls it — but he'll stay active, playing with the North Carolina Baptist Orchestra and doing weddings and funerals at different places.

It's something he doubts will ever leave him.

“If the Lord leads me into something else, I'll go,” he says. “But it looks like I'll be steeped in it. When you've got a talent, the Lord uses it. Not that mine’s that great, but he uses it in spite of myself.”

McCullough also says that Harris was skilled at using those who may not have had the talent to sing and working them into the choir or other singing groups. That derives from a conversation Harris had with a woman back when he was the youth minister. She told him, “Mr. Harris, sometimes you have to love the unlovely.”

“You can take a risk to love people, and I have been unlovely in my time," he said. "And thankfully people have loved me through it."

"Sometimes you need to be someone that goes after the unlovely, the ones that have fallen by the wayside or that people have rejected. It may be that your calling in life is to go get that one person and bring them in.”