“We have the vision; we have to make people see possibilities. Some people looked at the government reserve on East Ruimveldt Front Road, and just saw bush. We saw a relaxation park.”
By Dennis Nichols
An imposing four-storeyed building stands on Avocado Place, just off Mandela Avenue, in East Ruimveldt. Its signboard says ‘Ruimveldt Life Improvement Centre’ and indeed life seems to be improving for a number of residents in the relatively modest environs. The mustard-coloured edifice represents the fulfilment of a dream for the members of the East Ruimveldt Assembly of God Church headed by Pastor Simon Harris, this week’s ‘special person’.
The story of how Simon Harris rose from the relative obscurity of a ‘saved’ North Ruimveldt Multilateral School student to the prominence of heading a church and managing a social-uplift and skills-training centre is an intriguing one.
In a recent interview, he declared that the process embraced hard work, sacrifice, a shared vision, and divine intervention and guidance. He credits his wife, Denise, also a pastor, with being a major part of the church’s plans coming to fruition, in addition to a team of pastors, elders and members of the Central Assembly of God Church, headed by Pastor John Smith.
REMINISCING ON EARLY LIFE
Harris reminisced on his early life, growing up next to a tenement yard at the corner of Princes and Lombard Streets in Georgetown. It was there, he recalls, that he saw ‘my first knife-and-cutlass battle’ between two families which, he surmises, may have sparked his later desire to assist in positively affecting the lives of residents in the East Ruimveldt community which shared a similar background of social stagnation.
His family moved to Bishop Street, Werk-en-rust, in the late sixties, and his formal education began at a nursery school there, before relocating to the then-developing South Ruimveldt Park. His father, Hawley Harris, operated a small rubber stamp business to support his wife and five children.(Hawley went on to become arguably Guyana’s most renowned cartoonist,
a profession later taken up by Simon’s older brother Paul.)
In ‘South’, Harris continued his education at Robinson’s Under-12, then moved on North Ruimveldt Multilateral School, where in 1979, he met his future wife, Denise Dodson. It was there too, while in the fourth form, that his spiritual life began to blossom. “That’s where I came to know the Lord, got saved, gave my heart to the Lord, and started living for Jesus Christ … under the influence of good men like Loris Heywood and Rudolph Prescod,” he declared.
After high school, his focus shifted wholly to theology, and to this end he attended the Assemblies of God, Bible Institute, in Queenstown, after which he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Theology with the Caribbean Institute of Theology. His formal training in the subject continued with a short course at the Morris Cerullo School of Ministry, and culminated at the Haggai Institute in Singapore, where he was trained in missionary work.
Responding to a question as to whether such training prepared him for his current involvement in social work, Harris explained, “Well, the training I have gone through involved anthropology … and a bit of sociology, so yes, it trains you in terms of the study of human behaviour. I have not gone in depth with that, but the amount of years I have spent in East Ruimveldt, have been a lesson in itself.”
This ‘lesson’ began in 1980, with Harris and his wife being part of a series of house group meetings under the leadership and guidance of Pastor Smith. The house group he belonged to soon grew to five groups across the district, reaching between 400 and 500 people weekly. Eventually their work became fruitful enough to establish the East Ruimveldt branch of the church, using the East Ruimveldt Secondary School as a temporary venue. Services began there on September 1983, under the pastorship of Leonard Marks.
A challenging 18-year period followed during which the church had to adjust the physical environment of the school’s classroom setting to accommodate its weekly services, but Harris acknowledged that he was
grateful to the school administration for the use of the institution’s facilities during this period.
He was also grateful for the holding of a certain ceremony in February 1988 when he and Denise Dodson said ‘I do’ to each other. And when anyone asks about his success, his unhesitant response is, “God, and a good wife.” Their union has produced four children.
TAKING OVER THE REINS
The leadership of the church was subsequently transferred to Pastor Phillip Walcott, whose tenure lasted up to 1996, after which Harris took over the reins as pastor, a position he holds to this day. Around the same time a board meeting of the church came to the realization that the ‘total man’ should be ministered to, meaning both spiritual and physical.
Harris elaborated, “We live in a community where people just need opportunity, but even if an opportunity comes, they have to be prepared for it, and some of them have no skills, they have no qualifications. So, at one board meeting the vision surfaced for the Ruimveldt Life Improvement Centre, with the motto ‘Presenting Christ; Improving Lives’. We believed the basis is the spiritual, and then on top of that, to do the skills training.”
The church soon modified its name by dropping the word ‘East’ from it, thus reflecting the idea that it was ministering to the entire Ruimveldt area including West, North and South. “That name, the Ruimveldt Life Improvement Centre, fuels our vision, our activities, our perspective, our outreach, and that is how we have evolved into where we are today,” Harris emphasized.
At the same time the church was looking for a more solid base of operations. Harris found it in 2000, in the form of a small pink house on Avocado Place, an offer from its owner, and a deal-sealing $500,000 down
payment offer. With just $300,000 in the savings kitty, things took a miraculous turn when, within two hours of the offer, ‘somebody’ gave the additional funds and didn’t ask for repayment. Thus construction began.
Harris revealed that another challenging period ensued after, acting upon God’s word to him, the small house was demolished and the rubble used as the foundation for the new building. But services had to go on, so a tarpaulin was strung between columns that had already been erected and church was held under this makeshift tent, come sun or rain. In fact he remembers there were times when the tarpaulin leaked and umbrellas had to be used by him and the congregation during rainy weather.
Today, the site accommodates the first Ruimveldt Church/Life Improvement Centre, a large three-storeyed concrete edifice where services are kept, and social issues confronted. During the construction, funds were accessed from the European Union (EU) through a local executing agency, Micro Projects, and endorsed by the government. This funding also enabled the church to establish its training centre on the top floor, where instruction is given in Cookery, Sewing, Information Technology, and Videography for mostly disadvantaged youths.
MENTORING VULNERABLE YOUTHS
Harris disclosed that at first, scholarships were offered to trainees, but since the tutors don’t work for free, and operational costs were borne by the church, he was forced to institute fee-paying, only to discover that no one wanted to pay for their own skills development. “So we had to move to training intermittently, taking on small batches, or individuals. But we are still working on gaining some traction,” he advised.
One of the organization’s outreach efforts is to mentor youths in the area, including those in breach of the law and those in need of employment. Harris said, “We walk the streets, and engage ‘vulnerable youth’ in conversation.” Character references are written, jobs are sought, and support is given in these undertakings. He said, for example, that the centre is presently supporting a ‘parentless’ teenager, financially and otherwise, and is training him to be a sound technician.
In another case, Trevor Duncan, a young man with an aptitude for masonry/construction work, who was ‘saved’ at one of the church’s crusades, was trained in this field, and now runs his own enterprise, ‘Dunconstruct’ which includes building houses. Harris revealed that he is now in the process of constructing houses at Parfait Harmonie, West Bank Demerara.
In 2010 the organization embarked on its latest project – the establishment of another life improvement centre, and enhancement of the areas surrounding the two structures. This project would be designed to add an aesthetic touch to the environment around the Avocado Street Square, and to catalyse the process of community transformation
A building about 200 yards from the first structure was up for sale. Harris, his wife and church members prayed, and around Easter time that year another miraculous intervention occurred.
According to Harris, a two-million dollar down payment was needed, but there was only $43,000 in hand. A few days later he had $2,000,000 cash in hand and the deal was sealed. “Listen, to this day, a man I’ve never met, never seen, never spoken to; he heard about our project, and he sent that two million,” he stated. The money from the anonymous businessman was an interest-free loan which was subsequently repaid, and construction was funded mainly through the EU.
Having gained experience from managing the first life improvement centre, the church incorporated into the new structure a barbershop, salon and canteen which, he said, would serve as income generators by having them rented out to entrepreneurs. This, he added, would enable classes to continue being held on a scholarship basis, especially since tutors are willing to ‘flex’ for the benefit of community development, and those identified as vulnerable citizens.
Referring again to the environment, Harris said that part of the Ruimveldt Life Improvement Centre’s mandate is that ‘wherever we are, we take responsibility for the surroundings.’ He added, “We have the vision, we have to make people see possibilities. Some people looked at the government reserve on East Ruimveldt Front Road, and just saw bush. We saw a relaxation park … You know, people must see that something good can come out of East Ruimveldt; we have been tagged as depressed, not so nice social conditions, but there are good people here; all I believe they need is what we have termed compassionate leadership.” He quoted from the New Testament where Jesus likened the people to sheep without a shepherd, on whom he had compassion.
QUALITY IS THE HALLMARK
Upon completion of the second centre, work started immediately on the reserve and its perimeter road, which has been resurfaced. Harris says Works Minister, Robeson Benn, was instrumental in facilitating the clearing of the dense vegetation and levelling of the ground, which is now being maintained by the church.
He is quick to add that residents in the area are also helping in the enhancement process by putting down plants in front of their homes, which will supplement those that will be tended to and manicured by the centre. Plans are also underway to place benches and hedges along the park, and set up a child-friendly space with slides and swings.
The life improvement centre is currently in negotiations with GT&T and GPL to light up the area by placing eight lamps on GT&T poles, and paying for the electricity to be supplied to the poles. He said the church will also have to buy the lamps, and pay for their maintenance. He is adamant that people in the area should see the effect of the church in the community, adding that one of the things that changed his perspective on this was when the Lord reminded him that he was not just the pastor of a church, but of a community.
Pastor Harris declares that quality is the organization’s hallmark, and says he believes in what is called infrastructural witness. “People must see the things that represent the kingdom of God look good.” He adds that in the future when the trees that have been planted grow, the area will have an additional feature – an annual East Ruimveldt Christmas Light-up.
His closing words in the interview were, “People must see that community transformation is possible, regardless of how bad people may see an area, I believe, bad people are just people looking for compassionate leadership, and they must find it in the church.” Inspiring words from a man who not only preaches life improvement, but actually practices what he preaches.
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