by Susan Brown
“I have no idea why God made me the way I am. I am always for the masses. I want everybody.” Where others see obstacles, Murelle Harrison sees opportunities. From south Baton Rouge to South Africa, she is connecting people with resources, inspiring hope, motivating change. A school in Dikgale, South Africa now has hot lunches and textbooks. Children and teens in the Gardere community thrive in summer camp. And everywhere, they’re getting a taste of love in action.
Harrison makes it clear: the work depends on the involvement of many, many volunteers with diverse gifts and experience. Cooperation, she says, is key.
“To make a difference you have to have community involvement, and so I started learning about coalitions and pooling resources and being strategic,” she explains. She delights in discovering a person’s passion and putting it to work, shoving cultural and religious differences aside. And she sets the example, using her own experience as a psychologist and prevention specialist.
Most often that means balancing her career as associate dean for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Southern University and investing in families through the Gardere Initiative. But her academic connections have also opened opportunities for ministry abroad.
A research project to investigate substance abuse among rural African American families in Louisiana turned into an international outreach after the National Institute on Drug Abuse decided to fund supplements in a sub-Saharan country. Harrison connected with Dr. Dorothy Malaka, from the University of the North, a similar historically Black university in recently post-apartheid South Africa. A few years later, her sister Joyce Green joined her on site.
“She said let’s do a mission project, and we got started,” Harrison said. They focused on Kokona Dikgale Primary School, located in the northern province of Limpopo. Faith Chapel on Staring Lane, where Harrison is a longtime member, took on the project, a daunting task since the school had no electricity, no textbooks for children and no cooking facilities for lunchtime. The church, under the leadership of Pastor Bartholomew Riggins, continues to contribute more than $4,000 annually.
“We chose this little school because it only had 116 students,” Harrison says. “It was small enough that you could do something for everyone at the school.” Her brother, Mark Guidry, offers science projects: a vinegar volcano, balloons to measure the weight of air. Parents wait for hours to see their children display their projects.
After a ten-year mission commitment, Kokona Dikgale Primary School looks very different. The church has raised money for a complete set of textbooks, along with computers and printers. Now there is a teacher’s aide for the 40-student K-3 classroom, and they’ve added kitchen facilities.
“Now for their hot lunch program we’re excited because they have a wood burning stove,” Harrison explains. “These are things that people can help with – we give them meat for the three days that we’re there.” For the upcoming mission trip in February, they are also collecting school supplies.
Harrison draws a parallel between the families in this South African community and those in the south Baton Rouge Gardere area. They need resources and help to obtain them.
“Both of these are impoverished areas,” she says. “In this country, there are resources and the people in this area hadn’t connected with them. We just established a site so that there would be a point of contact. In South Africa, you don’t have resources.” The work is challenging, but she is guided by Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I think the people who really believe, I think they just continue working,” Harrison says. “’And let us not be weary in well-doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.’” [Gal. 6:9]
“It’s only Jesus Christ who’s going to really bring forth the transformation that’s needed,” Harrison says. “And that’s why I want people who work here to see Jesus Christ in the lives of people who come to help – the love and the compassion.”
Support for the Gardere community accelerated in 2005 with the formation of the Gardere Initiative, a response to rapid change in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A member of Faith Chapel and local attorney, Rica Kwentua teamed up with Pastor W.M. Pitcher of Greater Sixty-Aid Baptist Church. Harrison was quick to say yes to the idea of a concerted effort and took a lead role as the Initiative’s treasurer/secretary, a title that belies her hands-on leadership.
The Initiative now holds small gatherings of families and teens to bridge the gap between community members, plus two annual large-scale events. The back-to-school drive provides supplies to area children. The Christmas Love Fest raises money for gifts. The celebration rotates among Greater Sixty-Aid, the Church of Ephesus and Greater Morning Star Baptist Church.
“The Gardere Initiative has been the best example of how the church was meant to operate,” Harrison says. “We have people from all walks of life, different beliefs, but everyone believes in Jesus and that’s really important because people who believe in Jesus Christ operate differently.”
The result? Academic summer camps, bag lunches for kids during summers and holidays, domestic violence classes for teens, a mother’s mentoring breakfast, a community garden – programs continue to multiply as leadership fosters an environment for creative solutions.
After three attempts, the Gardere Youth Alliance just received $600,000 for five years to address issues related to alcohol and marijuana in the area. And that’s not all.
“Our real big accomplishment this year was funding for the sidewalks that will start in 2016,” Harrison says. “Having the sidewalks and a crosswalk at GSRI/Innovation Way will sort of be a bridge between the two communities and make it a lot safer for our children.”
“It’s always like, ‘let’s do.’ But it’s never to give up or to complain,” Harrison says. “I’m always so grateful because there are so many good people who come and volunteer here. Let’s not get tired. This is a journey.”