It is unusual for an African-American cleric from the inner city to be assigned a pastorate in a mainline Protestant church in DeKalb County. The Rev. Harlene Harden broke new ground when she came to the Sycamore United Methodist Church 10 years ago as the associate pastor.
As a member of that church, I have observed her interactions and total acceptance by a congregation that probably had little contact with African-Americans, except on a casual basis. I think it would be safe to say only a handful ever shared a meal in their home or had a black pastor visit them in the hospital or nursing home, or preside over a family wedding or funeral service before she came.
I sat down with Harden to ask about her experience in coming out to the country after a career serving mostly black congregations in an urban area. She admitted some trepidation being sent to a rural part of the state she had never visited – all those fields of corn and open spaces. But she soon became accustomed to life in DeKalb County and learned about farming, which was all new to her.
Asked what she enjoyed the most during her tenure here, she said it was probably working with 12-year-olds each year as they went through confirmation classes and then joined the church.
“I’ve known these young people from seventh grade, then as high schoolers, and now even as college graduates. That is very rewarding,” she said.
She has found the congregation very accepting, and said building relationships that she will cherish the rest of her life is another highlight. Speaking for myself, Kay and I have enjoyed sharing dinners with her and experiencing the warmth and compassion she showed us by visiting Kay in the nursing facility the past year, as well as unannounced stops at the house to see how I was doing. Our senior pastor, the Rev. Dan Swinson, has likewise been a visitor and comfort to us as we struggled through Kay’s debilitating stroke and lengthy recovery to a point where she is back home.
Harden put a lot of effort into Black History Month and multicultural events, bringing in minority clergy from the Chicago area as well as black choirs and other musicians to share their talents with the congregation. She said, ”I felt it was important to embrace diversity and introduce other cultures to people in the congregation since the Northern Illinois Methodist Conference and the outside world is a very diverse place.”
I think she startled a few church members when she took vacation and went off on her own to the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.
“This was one of the highlights of my life, something I would not have missed. I am so glad that I lived long enough to see this,” she said. She added that her grandparents and parents never would have thought this could happen.
Swinson recently wrote this about her: “It has been both an honor and a joy to serve in mutual ministry with her. She has been an effective and cooperative partner in our pastoral duties here. … I could not have asked for a better friend and fellow laborer in the vineyard of Sycamore UMC.”
Looking forward to retirement and moving closer to her son and his family in Georgia, she said she wants to deepen her relationship with her grandchildren and offer to help them with the challenges young people are facing today, “keeping them on the right path.”
I think after nudging and nurturing a couple hundred youngsters through their growing years at Sycamore, she will be well-suited for that.
• Barry Schrader can be contacted via email email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. An archive of his past columns can be found on his website www.dekalbcountylife.com.