Bob Harrison (1928–2012) was born into a Christian family, but nothing was further from his mind as a young man than becoming an evangelist. Growing up in the San Francisco ghetto and watching the immense drain of societal oppression upon his father, he saw very little hope in his own future, and made no claim to the faith of his parents. However, he found a talent in music, and began pursuing a career as a jazz musician and singer.
Shortly before he was to graduate from San Francisco State College as a music major, Harrison’s mother invited him to an evangelistic rally. Although having no interest of his own, he agreed to go for his mother’s sake, having always had a close relationship with her. However, as he later recalled, “…suddenly I found my attention riveted to the service. The hymns I had heard and sung hundreds of times without noticing before became very personal. They all seemed to be aimed directly at me. …I realized, I hadn’t been willing to give God the time of day. …[M]y whole life up to that moment flashed before me. It added up to a big fat zero.” 1 Tears streaming down his face, Bob Harrison dedicated his life to Christ that night. Six months later, he had turned down every jazz gig offered to him. He was certain that God was calling him into full-time ministry.
Harrison became the first black student to be enrolled at Bethany Bible College, where he performed well as a student and was extremely popular among his classmates. However, in June of 1951, he was denied preaching credentials solely on the basis of his race. Although this was a devastating blow to him as a young man, within six weeks, he was receiving invitations to speak alongside his former classmates in churches and evangelistic campaigns alike.
Before long, he was asked to pastor Emmanuel Church, a small, struggling independent congregation in the San Francisco ghetto. Though the circumstances were difficult and the pay was poor, Harrison writes fondly of pastoring there, ministering to and discipling people who were otherwise written off by society. He and his wife Marilyn relied heavily on prayer in this season: “We put Him first regarding our children; we put Him first in buying furniture. Nothing was too big or too small to lay at His feet. Our family verse had become Proverbs 3:5 and 6, which we still quote around our family table…” 2Emmanuel church grew into a healthy spiritual community under his care, and Harrison became convinced that the solution to the injustices of the inner city would be “a great evangelistic awakening”. 3
In 1959, Harrison was approached by one of his former professors with an invitation to preach in Germany. Though Harrison did feel called to travel as an evangelist, he was hesitant to accept. His discouragement in his own denomination had told him that he would not be welcome in white congregations, let alone in a country recently dominated by Nazism. Despite his misgivings, after praying it over, Harrison felt led to accept the invitation.
Upon arriving in Germany, he was overwhelmed by the warm welcome that he received from the church there. Five to six hundred people accepted Christ in response to his meetings. On the way back to the U.S., he ministered in both Switzerland and England, with similar favorable receptions. For the first time, his eyes were opened to the possibility of serving in foreign missions.
Not long after he returned home, he was approached by a member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He was again invited to travel internationally—this time, to Africa. In Harrison’s day, it was a common assumption that cultural conflict would prevent black Americans from being effective witnesses to black Africans. However, as Harrison traveled through Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria, he was again amazed by the love and eagerness with which he was received, and the fruit that the gospel was bearing. He returned home under the conviction that Africa needed more, not fewer, black American missionaries. “Our ancestors came over on slave ships,” he wrote, “now it is time for us to go back as slaves of Jesus so that, paradoxically, the black African might really be free.” 4
After his tour in Africa, Harrison went on to travel with Billy Graham in the U.S., preaching, singing, and serving an instrumental role in bringing together racially segregated congregations. However, throughout it all, Harrison’s fondest memories were not the successful campaigns, but the time spent waiting on the Lord:
“The high point of my experience with Graham was always the team meetings that took place with every crusade. … After breakfast together, we would have a time of fellowship and a time of self-searching to make certain there was nothing to hinder the free flow of the Spirit through us.
“Billy always set the stage for this. He would call us to a time of prayer. It was a time when we didn’t just recite prayers, but we would spend an hour or an hour and a half, sometimes two hours pouring out our hearts to God…
“There were times when many of us would be broken, weeping before God as we sought God’s will and purpose for the ministry of the Billy Graham Association or for a particular city…
“After the devotional time, we sometimes would go back to prayer again. On occasion, these sessions would go on for two, three or four hours.” 5
Harrison carried this mode of ministry with him throughout his life as he went on to spend two years in the Philippines as a missionary, then later lead his own mission teams into Asia.
Though Bob Harrison’s ministerial accomplishments were numerous and noteworthy, what is most striking about him is how he lived before the Lord. He was a man of prayer and faith, waiting often on the Holy Spirit for direction in a major move or for anointing for the work of his ministry. Despite facing significant obstacles in his life, Harrison persevered to be a major voice for unity in the Body of Christ for the sake of the gospel, as well as for mobilizing African American believers to preach Jesus in every nation.
Want to learn more about Christians in Black History? Explore the Malachi Project.