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Arkansas hospice nurse becomes ordained minister

In search of a revival, Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church hires nurse as co-pastor by Frank E. Lockwood | October 23, 2021 at 3:27 a.m.
Ruskin Falls (left) and LaWanda Harris have served as co-pastors of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church since July. The congregation, which flourished in the 1950s, saw its Sunday attendance drop to roughly 25, but has rebounded since then, Falls said. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

Concerned about the long-term health and vitality of their small congregation, members of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church in Little Rock recently hired a young minister to help lead them -- and she's a medical professional.

LaWanda Harris, a nurse at Arkansas Hospice, has been co-pastor since July. As a bivocational minister, she is splitting her time between both tasks.

The other co-pastor, Ruskin Falls, was previously the congregation's senior pastor.

He encouraged the church to split his responsibilities -- and his salary -- so that Harris could come on board, arguing that she would help the congregation flourish again.

Now, the ministers take turns preaching, but the sermon rotation varies.

"We don't have a set schedule, like I do first and third [Sundays] and he does the second and fourth," Harris said after her installation service on Sunday. "We just work it out amongst ourselves. And whatever we do, we try to make it balanced and equal."

It's a full partnership, according to Falls.

"Basically, we share, equally, responsibility for the life of this congregation [and] ministerial authority," he said.

Falls is "in the sunset" of his ministerial career, he says, while Harris is "just in the morning, the dawn of hers."

Nonetheless, "She has to look at me and I have to look at her as ministerial equals. We have to really do that. And I think we are going to do that well," he said.

The division of duties is nearly 50/50, but not quite.

"We intend to share everything equally except the website," he said with a smile. "That's not mine. I'm not going to touch it."

HARRIS ORDAINED

Sunday afternoon, Harris, 29, was ordained as a Minister of the Word and Sacrament and installed as co-pastor after pledging to fulfill her ministry "in obedience to Jesus Christ under the authority of Scripture."

Among other things, Harris promised she would "seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ," love her neighbors, "work for the reconciliation of the world" and "further the peace and unity and purity of the church."

After vowing to "pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love," she bowed on her knees and closed her eyes as a fellow minister delivered the Prayer of Ordination and Installation.

Marion Humphrey, an ordained Presbyterian minister and retired Pulaski County circuit judge, delivered a sermon based on a passage from Romans 10: "How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they going to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.'"

Harris and all Christians are tasked with sharing the good news, Humphrey said.

"LaWanda, you are to proclaim His love, His goodness, His mercy, His humility and His forgiveness to people everywhere you can," Humphrey told her.

Rather than sitting on the platform, Falls sat in a pew near the back, one of 50 or so worshippers present for the service.

Afterward, he described how the partnership had come to be.

Harris is a Camden native and grew up attending the city's First Presbyterian Church.

"She knows nothing but Presbyterian," her father, Michael Harris, said Sunday. "She was 3 months old when we first went [to the church in Camden]. She was baptized when she was an arm baby -- when we had her in our arms."

Growing up, she attended church faithfully.

"Every week. Didn't miss a week. She taught Sunday School there," her dad said.

For part of the time, Falls was the church's pastor.

"I taught her confirmation class," he recalled.

About the time that Harris headed for nursing school at Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, Falls moved to Little Rock and soon was tapped to serve at Pulaski Heights.

'USHER IN A REVIVAL'

By the time he arrived, the once-thriving congregation had dwindled and the building was in disrepair.

"When I came here in 2008, I was part time, filling the pulpit. Some people thought I was here to do the church's funeral," he recalled.

Rather than writing the congregation's obituary, Falls helped to usher in a revival.

"Instead of dying, we started growing," he said.

Harris was one of the church's new members. After earning her bachelor's degree in nursing, she found a job in Little Rock. She joined Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church in 2014.

Average attendance topped 60, Ruskin said. Giving increased. Repairs, long overdue, were finally made.

"We were able to raise enough money to get it back together and really do some good things," he said.

But the church's growth eventually plateaued. Older members died and covid-19 made life a lot more complicated.

In the pandemic era, worship has increasingly shifted from in-person to online.

"We just started livestreaming a couple of Sundays ago," Falls said.

BIVOCATIONAL MINISTRY

Fellow churchgoers were delighted when Harris felt called to the ministry and supported her decision to enroll at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.

With Harris nearing graduation and expressing an interest in bivocational ministry, Falls was delighted.

"I think she brings some things to this work, to this congregation, that I'm not going to do. That I can't do. And I think that the two of us, together, are going to work well," he said.

Stewart Smith, general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of Arkansas, said the pastoral arrangement at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian is unconventional.

"I would say it is fairly uncommon," he said.

Falls embraced the move and brought Harris in "to try to help the church grow and thrive in this new leadership we're in," Smith said.

Harris sees God's hand at work in the partnership.

"The Spirit just kind of formed things together," she said.

Asked what makes the Presbyterian Church special, she emphasized the Lord that it and other denominations proclaim.

"We're all one church under Jesus Christ, so all churches that are serving the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- they're all special," she said.

Rather than naming a favorite Bible verse, she cites an entire book.

"In the book of Psalms, you can find scriptures about joy, about pain, praise, suffering, longing. I mean every emotion you can think of is in the Psalms," she said.

Asked what the church has to offer, she said, "The message of Christ. ... It's what the world needs."

"Christ is the hope for the world, he's our salvation," she said. "Without Christ, what do we have? What's going to become of us at the end without Christ? Christ is everything for us."

(Left to right) Stacey Hammons, Alisa Secrest, Julie Gillaspy and LaWanda Harris, the church’s co-pastor, exit the sanctuary of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church following Sunday’s ordination and installation service. A reception was held outside the building to celebrate the occasion.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)
(Left to right) Stacey Hammons, Alisa Secrest, Julie Gillaspy and LaWanda Harris, the church’s co-pastor, exit the sanctuary of Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church following Sunday’s ordination and installation service. A reception was held outside the building to celebrate the occasion. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

Print Headline: Arkansas hospice nurse becomes ordained minister

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