It is unusual for an African-American cleric from the inner
city to be assigned a pastorate in a mainline Protestant church
in DeKalb County. The Rev. Harlene Harden broke new ground when
she came to the Sycamore United Methodist Church 10 years ago
as the associate pastor. She is retiring later this month.
As a member of that church, I have observed her interactions
and total acceptance by a congregation that probably had little
contact with African-Americans, except on a casual basis. I think
it would be safe to say only a handful ever shared a meal in
their home or had a black pastor visit them in the hospital or
nursing home, or preside over a family wedding or funeral service
before she came.
I sat down with Pastor Harden to ask about her experience
in coming out to the country after a career serving mostly black
congregations in an urban area. She admitted some trepidation
being sent to a rural part of the state she had never visited
all those fields of corn and open spaces. But she soon
became accustomed to life in DeKalb County and learned about
farming, which was all new to her.
Pastor Harlene Harden prepares for communion recently
at Sycamore United Methodist Church.
Asked what she enjoyed the most during her tenure here, she said
it was probably working with 12-year-olds each year as they went
through confirmation classes and then joined the church.
Ive known these young people from seventh grade,
then as high schoolers, and now even as college graduates. That
is very rewarding, she said.
She has found the congregation very accepting, and said
building relationships that she will cherish the rest of her
life is another highlight.
Speaking for myself, Kay and I have enjoyed sharing dinners
with her and experiencing the warmth and compassion she showed
us by visiting Kay in the nursing facility the past year, as
well as unannounced stops at the house to see how I was doing.
Our senior pastor, the Rev. Dan Swinson, has likewise been a
visitor and comfort to us as we struggled through Kays
debilitating stroke and lengthy recovery to a point where she
is back home.
Rev. Harden put a lot of effort into Black History Month
and multicultural events, bringing in minority clergy from the
Chicago area as well as black choirs and other musicians to share
their talents with the congregation. She said, I felt it
was important to embrace diversity and introduce other cultures
to people in the congregation since the Northern Illinois Methodist
Conference and the outside world is a very diverse place.
I think she startled a few church members when she took
vacation and went off on her own to the first inauguration of
President Barack Obama. This was one of the highlights
of my life, something I would not have missed. I am so glad that
I lived long enough to see this, she said. She added that
her grandparents and parents never would have thought this could
Rev. Swinson recently wrote this about her: It has
been both an honor and a joy to serve in mutual ministry with
her. She has been an effective and cooperative partner in our
pastoral duties here.
I could not have asked for a better
friend and fellow laborer in the vineyard of Sycamore UMC.
Looking forward to retirement and moving closer to her
son and his family in Georgia, she said she wants to deepen her
relationship with her grandchildren and offer to help them with
the challenges young people are facing today, keeping them
on the right path.
I think after nudging and nurturing a couple hundred youngsters
through their growing years at Sycamore, she will be well-suited