May 7 – Charles Harris

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Charles Harris, faithful servant

Charles Enoch Edward Harris (1931–1993) was a cane cutter, railway worker, Assembly of God evangelist, Methodist and Uniting Church minister, and the Founding President of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. Harris was born on 8 July 1931 into a Christian family in Ingham, north Queensland. After a self-confessed ‘wild’ youth and various labouring jobs, Harris joined the Assemblies of God and became involved in youth work at Ayr. He later trained at the Commonwealth Bible College (Assemblies of God) from 1957 to 1959 and then took on several non-stipendiary pastorates with the Assemblies of God.

In 1966 Harris joined the Ingham Methodist Church and the following year he was appointed pastor to the newly established ‘Mission to Aborigines and Islanders in North Queensland’ in the Hermit Park Circuit in Townsville. Under testing circumstances Harris persisted for five years in this ‘evangelical and caring ministry’, visiting prisons, conducting missions, and caring for Townsville’s displaced and homeless ‘bridge people’.

Harris became a staff member of Central Methodist Mission in Brisbane in 1973, where he was introduced to the world of Aboriginal struggle for justice. Harris was ordained on 27 November 1980 in Brisbane, the first Aboriginal and Islander Minister to be ordained by the Uniting Church in Queensland.

Of the many achievements in Harris’ ministry two stand out above the rest. The first is the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; it was his vision and energy that would eventually lead to the formation of Congress at Elcho Island in August 1983.  The second is the March for Justice, Freedom and Hope. It was Harris who was the driving force behind the idea of the March held on the streets of Sydney on 26 January 1988, the largest gathering of Indigenous people ever in Australia and arguably the centrepiece of Aboriginal protest during the bicentennial year. The March propelled Charles Harris into the national and international spotlight and promoted the fledgling Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress as one of the leading Aboriginal and Islander organisations in the country. Throughout the planning of the March Harris grew as a national leader and a symbol of what Aboriginal and Islander people could do together in their common struggle. Sir Ronald Wilson remarked on the occasion of Harris’s retirement: ‘The emergence of the Congress as perhaps the leading Aboriginal organisation in the country, the growing maturity of its leadership, and its finest hour—the Bicentenary March for freedom, Justice and Hope will stand as lasting monuments to Charles’ vision as president, his determination and keen sense of justice.’ Towards the end of Harris’ life, he became progressively more radical, seizing every opportunity to speak out against injustice and the church’s and governments’ role in perpetuating injustice.

Charles Harris died on 7 May 1993.

Contributed by William W. Emilsen (alt)

Edited down to a single page; see Commemorations document (see above) for the full text