By Kirk Petersen
John Harmon knew at the age of 11 that he wanted to become a priest. He wanted it so badly that his mother, a seamstress, made him a set of vestments.
At 17, he fled his native Liberia during a brutal civil war — a conflict that claimed the lives of his father and older brother.
And on August 19, he was elected the 14th Bishop of Arkansas. Assuming he receives the required consents from a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees, he will be consecrated January 6, 2024, in Little Rock.
Harmon, who has been rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2000, is the second Black immigrant to be elected bishop in recent years by a diocese in a “Southern” state. In 2019, Barbados-born Deon K. Johnson was elected Bishop of Missouri — a slave-holding border state that did not join the Confederacy. Harmon is slated to become the second Black bishop in the Diocese of Arkansas. In 1918, Edward Thomas Demby was elected “Bishop Suffragan for Colored Work” for Arkansas and the Province of the Southwest.
Demby died before Harmon was born, but he is partly responsible for Harmon’s decision to run for bishop. “Arkansas, in my thinking, is the place where the Episcopal Church planted the seeds of hope, for justice and racial reconciliation,” he said, noting that Demby was the first Black bishop consecrated for a diocese in the United States. (Black bishops previously were consecrated in Haiti and Liberia.)
There’s another reason he ran in Arkansas. As a seminarian, he came to believe it is more important to revitalize existing churches than to build new ones, “and Arkansas was very clear in its profile that they wanted to strengthen small congregations.”
Missionaries established the Episcopal Church in Liberia in 1836, and it became independent of the U.S.-based church in 1979. Harmon was born into a devout Episcopal household, where his father led the family in Morning Prayer every day. He learned to read from the Bible, the 1928 prayer book, and the 1940 Hymnal. (When he got to college, a professor complained that his writing style was archaic.)
After Morning Prayer, each of the children were asked to recite a Scripture verse from memory. “Everybody wanted, ‘Jesus wept,’ you know? [John 11:35 – Ed.] So he started from the left of him,” and the first child would say, Jesus wept. “And then you, who were down the line, had to find something else.”
Harmon was the youngest of his family, 10 years younger than his sister, and his biological brothers were out of the home. “But my family raised other children … who were seeking a better life or education experience,” and there were never fewer than 10 children in the home. In addition to his mother’s work as a seamstress, his father was a goldsmith, making jewelry and gold crowns for teeth.
“I kept telling my mother, I wanted to be a priest. And I thought at one point, she got really frustrated with me, saying I was too young to even be thinking that way,” he said. “Two months after my 11th birthday, she took me to the new rector, who had just come from EDS, Episcopal Divinity School. It was a Saturday in February, and she said to him, ‘my son wants to be a priest.’ And she left me there.”
In addition to being rector of St. Mark’s, in Cape Palmas, the rector served three other churches on a part-time basis. So Harmon became his acolyte, traveling with him to another church after the service at St. Mark’s.
The early 1980s was a grim period in his life. His mother died from illness in 1980, around the time Master Sergeant Samuel Doe overthrew the Liberian government in a bloody military coup. Harmon was nearing military age, his siblings feared for his life, and arranged for him to move to New Jersey in 1982 at age 17. The violence in Liberia continued for 14 years, and Harmon’s father and brother were both killed in the conflict. His father was “killed and mutilated — that’s what I was told,” Harmon said, adding that coming to the United States “was life-saving.”
In America, Harmon continued telling anybody who would listen that he wanted to be a priest. He persuaded the late John Shelby Spong, then the Bishop of Newark, to meet with him while he was still in high school. “And in that meeting, he just interrupted and said, Do you mind going to college in the South in Virginia? I said, No, I don’t mind,” Harmon recalled.
Spong at the time was on the board of Saint Paul’s College, a historically Black school in Lawrenceville, Virginia, that later closed. Harmon had established himself as a standout high school soccer player, and Spong picked up the phone, called the college president, and said: “I have a young man here who is a scholar athlete,” Harmon recalled. “And so I got admitted to college before I even applied.”
After college he got admitted to both Yale Divinity School and Virginia Theological Seminary. Yale offered more scholarship money, and two weeks before he was headed to Yale, he got a call from Charles Vaché, then the Bishop of Southern Virginia. “We need Black priests, and I want you to go to Virginia,” the bishop told him. Vaché arranged for Harmon to spend a year at Lancaster Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ seminary, and then to transfer to Virginia.
“I think it’s good to spend some time in a non-Episcopal setting,” said the man whose heart had been set on becoming an Episcopal priest since grade school. After getting his master of divinity degree from Virginia, he also earned a master of theology degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond.
Vaché ordained him as a deacon in 1991 and as a priest in 1992, and Harmon spent the rest of the decade serving churches in Norfolk and Petersburg, Virginia, before taking his current role in the nation’s capital in 2000.
Harmon had been inspired by the idea of monastic life, and while in Petersburg he started a program providing housing for college students in exchange for work in service to the church. “And then when I came to Washington, we just formalized that in an intense way,” and attracted $5 million in funding from Trinity Wall Street to launch the Episcopal Service Corps (ESC). The generous grant enabled ESC to establish groups of “young adults living in intentional community, serving their neighborhoods, sharing in faith formation, and discerning vocational direction,” as it says on the group’s website.
“We gave $50,000 to any church organization in the Episcopal Church that wanted to start one of these programs. That’s how it grew,” Harmon said. There are more than a dozen independent ESC programs in communities around the country.
When TLC asked if he had any final thoughts as he looked ahead to his episcopacy, he remembered something his mother had told him at the age of 11: “Don’t get so busy doing church work that you forget to do the work of God.”
Harmon was elected on the third ballot from a slate of two candidates. The other candidate was the Rev. Mary Vano, rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock. The Rt. Rev. Larry R. Benfield has been Bishop of Arkansas since 2007, and will retire in January 2024.