Standing up for #BLM: It is ‘not a movement. It’s a mentality.’
Written by Abby Lee Hood
Edited by Myranda Thigpen
Feature photo by Carissa Degen
On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Pastor Chris Harris, Sr. gave a sermon at Bright Star Church of God in Christ about manifesting a better life. He told members of the congregation that as a preacher, it’s his job to preach good news, not fire and brimstone. Harris said he was trying to build people up by encouraging them to imagine better lives and futures and instructed those in his audience to tell each other their futures looked bright.
“That is what the preaching of the gospel is,” Harris said during the sermon, which can be viewed on his YouTube channel. “Preach more about Heaven and less about Hell. I’ve been studying the law of manifestations.”
Manifesting better lives for people in his community has been a priority for Harris for years. Bright Star Church is located in Bronzeville, and he is working to improve lives in the area through action-oriented pastoring and the Black Lives Matter movement. His journey started in 1997 when he said he felt called upon to preach and went on to learn under his pastor and mentor, Dr. James Stovall, the same man Harris says anointed his eyes with oil when he was three months old, curing the blindness he was born with.
Harris is now able to see, although he wears glasses.
He believes his ministry should go beyond the pulpit and is focused on addressing issues the African American community faces in Chicago.
“I decided it’s not enough to just be a pastor who, you know, sings or preaches,” Harris says of his efforts to help Bronzeville, “but I also need to provide services to my underserved community.”
As a Black Lives Matter activist, Harris has been involved in protests, has offered counseling services and has founded the Bright Star Community Outreach program, aimed at serving the African American community in Bronzeville. Among other projects, the program is focusing on providing trauma-based counseling to victims of violence and their families.
While traveling in Israel, Harris was struck by the ways in which war-torn cities help counsel those who’ve lost family members to violence and said he believes the same approach would benefit Chicagoans who have lost someone to gun violence. At the headquarters located on 4518 South Cottage Grove, he helps victims and their families overcome obstacles by receiving the counseling and therapy they need.
“They don’t know the counselor, they don’t trust the counselor,” Harris says of the type of counseling he wants to provide. “Number three, they don’t think they can afford counseling, and then number four, nobody wants to be labeled ‘crazy.’ So how do we release or reduce that stigma, right?”
Gun violence is a major issue for members of the African American community in Chicago, and Harris believes the Black Lives Matter movement should address it.
As another part of the outreach program, Harris is planning to build the Bronzeville Dream Center, where trained post-trauma counselors could help victims and their families. He said partners from across Chicago, like Northwestern Medicine, The University of Chicago, and United Way are helping build the center and make it successful. At the press conference held in 2014 announcing plans to build the center, Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke in support of the project.
There are many ways to support Black Lives Matter, and there are many organizations you can work with, but Bright Star Community Outreach is the one he’s using to help community members. Bright Star’s website lists the many programs it offers, including youth employment and scholarship opportunities. Harris said when it comes to Black Lives Matter, it is so much more than a hashtag, which is part of why he takes it so seriously.
“First of all, it’s more of a real statement than it is a hashtag,” Harris says. “Because black lives DO matter, and they should matter, to everybody. Both to those who are not black and those who are black. I always tell people Black Lives Matter is not a movement. It’s a mentality. If it’s just about protesting and not the other things that we can actually do to bring change, then you know, I’m not sure we’re sending the best message.”
While it isn’t his focus, Harris has been a part of protests and marches, including the one held in Bronzeville to remember the lives of gun violence victims Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Harris said many churches in his community came together and marched, and received support from local police, including an escort. For the march, Harris wrote, “Black Lives Matter,” a song about the movement he cares so deeply about. Harris said the song was a way for people to chant meaningful words while staying on topic during the march.
The song, a hip-hop and rock fusion, counts down the reasons why black lives do matter. A full choir from Harris’ own church sings on the track beside the pastor himself.
“I can’t breathe, hands up don’t shoot,” the lyrics say. In another section, Harris sings, “Some say black, some say colored. African Americans, stop killing each other.”
The protest was held in 2014, and many more like it have happened in Chicago since the death of Laquan McDonald, a teen killed by Chicago police the same year. Harris said anger over his death isn’t going away soon, and just a few weeks later, Black Lives Matter activists helped shut down a rally being held for Donald Trump at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Harris says the movement and its supporters may have the power to impact this year’s presidential election. In Chicago, the effect of McDonald’s death is still being felt as Mayor Emanuel is looking for a new police superintendent; he fired the last one over the backlash after video of McDonald being shot 16 times was released. Emanuel appointed Eddie Johnson, a veteran police supervisor, as interim superintendent, but a more permanent solution has yet to be reached.
Outside of the outreach program, Harris is the chairman of the Bronzeville Community Action Counsel. The counsel is five years old and focuses on improving schools in the area. As part of his work there, Harris wants all the schools in Bronzeville to sing the Black National Anthem every morning. Harris said as a child, he sang the song every day. He said many don’t know there is a Black National Anthem at all, but it’s important for children to hear it and understand their history.
“A lot of times the reason people don’t know where they’re headed, is they don’t know where they’ve come from,” Harris says.
He also weighed in on the tension surrounding the statement, “All lives matter,” which has trended on Twitter in protest of the hashtag and Black Lives Matter movement. Harris agrees that all lives matter, but he wants people who believe all lives matter to understand the need to focus on black lives while they are in such danger.
“When white people say all lives matter when black people are saying black lives matter, it’s just as rude as going to a cancer fundraiser and raising up a sign that says HIV matters,” Harris says.
Harris has a multi-pronged plan of action for addressing the issues the Black Lives Matter movement is a part of. For now, he is focusing on improving his community and manifesting better futures for the African American community in his own way with Bright Star Community Outreach.
His sermons, the song “Black Lives Matter,” and conversations with him confirm his positivity and action-oriented plans. Harris is looking toward the future, and he’s committed to making sure it’s brighter than today.