Narseary Harris, 61, was born in Detroit but spent much of her life in Rochester. In the spring of 2005, she and her husband, Vernal L. Harris Jr., moved here to lead the Prince of Peace Temple Church of God in Christ at 669 Kensington Ave. The Church of God in Christ is a Pentecostal denomination church with a global membership of 6 million.
As the church’s first lady, Narseary Harris leads the women’s ministry, where her focus is on health. The Witness Project, for example, is a national effort to increase public awareness about breast and cervical cancer among African-American women. Harris is currently planning her fifth women’s unity health conference that will run from April 17 to 21 at the church. For more information, call the church at 832-7566.
Harris is a devoted first lady of the church who has been married 44 years. The Harrises, who suffered the loss of two of their three adult sons from sickle cell anemia, have grown together through their ministries.
This Easter Sunday is a cause for celebration for the Harrises and their 250-member congregation. Narseary Harris described today’s service as “a day to come and present to God our best. The ladies will wear their hats because hair is the glory of the woman and we want to crown that beauty with a hat.”
People Talk: As first lady, what do you do best?
Narseary Harris: Support my husband. He deals with so much that my priority has to be him, to try and help keep him focused and calm, to try and give him something that pulls him away from here. My passion right now is the women’s health ministry. We need to be healthy mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally in every aspect of our lives. If we’re not healthy, we won’t have the impact we want to have in our communities.
PT: Define the role of women in your church.
NH: Women are the movers and the shakers in the church, because in most of our churches women outnumber men by 2 to 1. We are the Sunday school teachers, nursery providers. We’re the ones who head the health ministries in our churches. We oversee the tutorial program and vacation Bible school.
PT: Which health project do you hold close?
NH: Breast health. African-American women get breast cancer less frequently than our Caucasian sisters, but we have the highest mortality rate because by the time we find out about it, it’s too late. We have to change that. I am a cervical cancer survivor. A lot of times in the African-American community, when you say the “C” word, people don’t want to talk about it. There’s that fear factor.
PT: Were you brought up in a faith-based family?
NH: Yes, my father was a minister in Rochester. When my husband and I got married, he was in ministry, an evangelist. He had come to Rochester from Georgia one summer as a visiting evangelist. He never went back. My mother actually met him first. He wasn’t feeling well, and my mother was one of the prayer warriors in the church who was called to pray for him.
PT: How strong is your marriage?
NH: Oh my gosh. I think I have one of the strongest marriages there are. Not because my marriage is perfect. It is not, by far. We have had some of the most difficult struggles in these 44 years than anybody can imagine. Being married to a pastor is very hard for your children, and for you as a first lady because you have to share him with everybody. We’ve struggled with balance all of our married life. We were married five years before our first son was born. The first two years of our marriage we lived out of a suitcase, and here I was just leaving my parents.
PT: How old were you when you married?
NH: Seventeen. I turned 18 the next month. All I knew was this man came to me and said: “God wants you to be my wife.” And I said, “Well, is he going to tell me that?” He replied: “He just did tell you.” At this point, I was 16. I was engaged my whole senior year of high school.
PT: You are a role model for the women of your church. Is that overwhelming at times?
NH: It is at times because people have an expectation of you. Whether you like it or not, people look up to you. Sometimes you feel like you’re under a microscope. You know I wrote my first book which will be available in April at my conference. In this book I talk about what it’s like to be a mom of chronically ill children. Our two elder sons both are deceased from sickle cell anemia. Our eldest passed 13 years ago this year. He was 26. And three years ago in February our second oldest son, who was 33, died. As the pastor’s wife, there were expectations of me. They were looking to me for how to deal with something like the death of a child. But to me they were looking for superwoman.
PT: What is the title of the book?
NH: “How Do I Go Forward Without You?” There is a way.
PT: What surprises you about your life?
NH: Everything, because things just don’t happen the way you think they will. Somewhere there’s always the unexpected. I never in my wildest imagination have expected my life to take the course it’s taken.
PT: Did you ever think of ascending to the pulpit?
NH: No. My husband is amazing. Do you hear that little calm soft voice? When he’s on the pulpit, it’s not so soft.
PT: When was your last vacation?
NH: Years and years and years ago. We have to go on a vacation, I don’t know when and I don’t know how we’re going to make it happen, but we have to go on a vacation. I just said that this morning. Boy, I sure would love to go to Hawaii.