Delivering the message at HCC

Published 12:50 pm Friday, July 20, 2018

First impressions, as Charlie Morris learned from experience, are not always accurate.

As a Harlan County resident for over 30 years in his role as pastor at the Harlan Christian Church, Morris likes to tell the story of his first thoughts when visiting Harlan several years before moving here.

“When we started the church in Virginia I took a secular job at Banner Bearings. I would deliver in Harlan every Wednesday (from 1978 to 1981). I remember thinking ‘Boy, I ‘d hate to live in Harlan,’ and I’ve been here for 33 years now,” Morris said with a laugh while sitting in his office at the church. “It didn’t strike me then as a good place to live, but I think God has a sense of humor.

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“Don’t ever say you’d hate to do something because you might do it. I learned to love Harlan though. It’s a great area and we’re blessed to have our kids and grandkids here and have a chance to be part of their lives growing up. I have a wonderful congregation that loves me and encourages me. It’s a unique area. You have to live here to understand just how unique Harlan is.”

Morris eventually found a home at the Harlan Christian Church, one of the county’s largest and most active churches with a long tradition of service to the county dating back to 1921. Morris has been at the helm of the church since 1991, except for a brief retirement that he soon thought better of before returning in 2016.

While he loves his Kentucky home, Morris was born and raised in Athens, Tennessee, the home of Tennessee Wesleyan University, and has a running joke with many of his parishioners about his affection for the Tennessee Volunteers.

Morris’ mother, Beatrice, died when he was 6 and his father, Newell, traveled quite a bit with his government job, so Morris said he spent much of his childhood with his grandparents, Ed and Buena Morris. He credits them with providing an early connection to the church.

“It was a blessing in disguise, because my grandmother always made sure I went to church,” said Morris, who was a charter member of the Athens Christian Church in 1960, when he was 14.

After graduating from McMinn County High School, Morris decided to attend Johnson Bible College (now Johnson University) even though he had no intention of entering the ministry.

“It was a good Christian college. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Morris said. “I went there to church camp when I was in high school, so I liked the college even though I didn’t know what was going to be.”

Morris said he received his “call to the ministry” when he was at Johnson.

“I don’t consider the ministry a profession you choose,” Morris said. “I consider it a calling that God places on your heart.”

Morris quotes the Apostle Paul in explaining his decision.

“For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because I am compelled to preach — and woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” said Morris as he recalled the Bible verse.

“I consider preaching a call from God and he puts a passion in your heart to preach. He put that passion in my heart when I was in college, so I followed his calling when I entered the ministry.”

Before he could finish college, Morris had to answer another call — this one from Uncle Sam. He spent three years in the Army, primarily serving in Germany. By that time, Morris was already married after having met his future wife, Joyce, a Grundy, Virginia native, on campus. Their oldest child, Tracie, was born in Germany in 1970. Amy followed in 1973 and then Stephen in 1976.

Morris returned home to complete his education at Johnson in 1970. He soon started preaching at his home church in Athens, then moved to a job at the Church of Christ in Grundy, then Englewood, Tennessee, then back to back to Virginia where he started a church near Richlands.

Morris’ Harlan County experience began as pastor at the Loyall Church of Christ, where he served from 1985 to 1990. He then left Loyall to start a church in Hickory, North Carolina.

“Amy was a senior and Steven was a freshman, and they were very unhappy,” Morris said, “so we didn’t stay long. I got it started, but someone came in to follow me.

“I was preaching at a small church in Tazewell, Tennessee, when Harlan Christian Church contacted me. I was also working a secular job with DeRoyal since the church was very small.”

Morris started his work as pastor at the Harlan Christian Church in December of 1991, a post he held for 20 years before deciding to retire in 2011. He soon learned he was not happy being retired and kept busy by preaching at Christian churches in Wallins, Cumberland and Jonesville, Virginia. When the job at the Harlan Christian Church came open again, Morris was asked to return.

“I guess I still had the passion to preach,” he said. “I still preached just about the entire time. I would teach Sunday School here, then to go a church somewhere. That desire never did leave me. Joyce loved her retirement so much, but she could stay home from Sunday to Sunday and be content, but I’m not like that. I knew I had the energy, so I thought I’ll would preach a little while longer.”

“Charlie is one of the most humble men I know who loves God, loves people and loves the church,” said David Johnson, an elder at the church and former superintendent of the Harlan Independent Schools. “He is committed to God’s word and delivering it to others in love. Jesus said that to be great in God’s Kingdom, one must serve others. Charlie is one of those people. And he is the same in his private life as what you see in the pulpit. We are blessed to have his leadership at HCC.”

“What strikes me about Charlie has always been his love for the church and the unwavering passion for preaching the Gospel,” added Rodney Jones, also a church elder. “He is definitely called to preach and is compelled to preach by that strong call on his life by God. It’s rare for older ministers to remain so open to new methods to deliver the gospel while retaining the essentials of saving faith in Christ. Charlie actually has that quality. His whole life points others to Jesus, and that inspires all of us.”

Morris spends a lot of his time with church activities, along with visits at the hospital and other locations, including an occasional stop at Dairy Queen for coffee with church members. He can also be found at various sporting events watching his grandchildren, including a busy Little League summer where his grandson, Brayden Morris, was a standout on a Harlan Little League All-Star team.

Basketball has been a family effort for a number of years. Amy King and her husband, Mike, have served as scorekeeper and clock keeper for the Lady Dragons with Mike coaching all three of his daughters in junior high school. Their youngest daughter, Natalee, will be a junior next season and one of the team’s top players.

Morris has been a regular at Harlan High School girls basketball games for a number of years as granddaughters Katie and Mackenzie King were standouts on 13th Region championship teams. Both played on the 2016 team, and Mackenzie was a junior on the 2017 squad.

Mackenzie was also a state track champion in the shot put and discus and will continue her athletic career at the University of Virginia-Wise. Tracie Luttrell, whose husband, John, is the football coach at Harlan, served several years as an assistant basketball coach.

All three of Morris’ children are educators — Tracie and Amy at Harlan High School and Stephen at Harlan County High School. Stephen took a leave of absence during a battle with cancer, but he has responded well to treatments while sharing his testimony at various churches. He has been cleared to return to work next month.

“We really believe God has taken good care of him,” Morris said. “We’re thankful everything has progressed well with him.”

Morris is enjoying being back in his familiar role at the church and has no plans to retire for good.

“I plan to carry on the best I can, and I’m sure that God, in his way, will let me know when it’s time to step aside and get someone younger and fresher,” he said. “I think the church is going very well right now and I wouldn’t want to do anything to hinder the atmosphere we are experiencing. It’s a great congregation.”

Before a recent service, Morris worked his way around the church, catching up with the latest news from several church members.

“I think it’s all about relationships. The role of the minister is a role of relationships,” Morris said. “His first relationship is with God, then his family, then his church family and then the community. I think the minister should lead in all those areas. He should set an example that his relationship with the Lord is strong, and he leads his family and exemplifies leadership with the congregation and in his own way is a leader in the community.”