Reverend Harlene Harden Creates Scholarship at Garrett-Evangelical to Assist Women of Color
October 2, 2020
Reverend Harlene Harden knows Black women in ministry’s dilemma – feeling God’s call but not having that call fully affirmed by their denominational community or leadership. When her calling came, Harden belonged to a Baptist church that didn’t believe women were called to pastoral ministry. Also, at that time, she had never even known a Black woman pastor.
“Every pastor of every church that I had known had always been male,” she recalled.
Yet, despite these obstacles to full affirmation, Harden said the call was clear. “God opened up Isaiah 61 for me in a way that was phenomenal,” she said. “It talks about Jesus’s call to ministry and how he was going to mend the brokenhearted, and I felt like God was telling me that I was going to be doing those things.”
At that time, Harden was happily working in a management position for Commonwealth Edison, a nuclear power company in Joliet, Illinois.
One day, she saw a newspaper article announcing that a Black female minister from Michigan – the Reverend, Dr. Linda Hollies – would come to Joliet and pastor the Richards Street United Methodist Church. Harden knew she had to meet Hollies. “That was the first time in my life that I had heard of a woman pastor,” Harden shared.
When Hollies arrived in Illinois, Harden introduced herself and welcomed her to the community. Harden and Hollies made for fast friends, and shortly after, Harden joined the Richards Street United Methodist Church. With Hollies support, Harden began to understand womanist theology, male patriarchy, and the polity differences between the United Methodist and Baptist churches. Later, Hollies encouraged Harden to attend seminary. “She became one of my dearest friends and mentors,” Harden said.
At first, Harden was resistant to the idea of seminary. She had heard an Evangelical preacher glibly say that going to seminary was like going to the cemetery – lifeless and without spirit. Hollies, a Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary graduate, convinced Harden otherwise, and she agreed to visit Garrett-Evangelical.
The visit transformed Harden. “I went to Garrett-Evangelical to check out the school, and I was like a little kid,” Harden remembered. “It was a whole new world for me.”
Harden sat in on a Hebrew class with 10 or 12 other students. As she listened to the lecture, she got goosebumps, she said.
After her meeting with admissions, Harden went out the back door of the main building to meet her son, who was attending Northwestern University. Not realizing that Garrett-Evangelical was adjacent to Northwestern’s campus, she asked her son, “Why haven’t I seen this seminary before?” “Sometimes God only lets us see things when it is time to see,” he replied.
Harden applied, was accepted, and started seminary in January of 1990, 10 years after she had finished her undergraduate degree in criminal justice from Lewis University in Chicago.
She lived in the off-campus apartments and learned how to study and write papers all over again. Harden said she loved the coursework and the professors, but what she truly valued was the diversity at Garrett-Evangelical. “I vividly remember the students I met at Garrett- Evangelical, many of them from different cultures and walks of life,” she said. “This interaction helped me to respect and appreciate our differences. These experiences piqued my interests for cross-cultural ministry and international travel,” she continued.
When the opportunity arose to travel to Russia and Israel with the seminary, Harden wholeheartedly joined the trip. “I was exposed to these incredible geographical, cultural, and historical locations that I had only read about,” she said.
Harden said she learned a lot and had a wonderful time at Garrett-Evangelical.
“Seminary was everything I wanted it to be,” she said. “I was the first in my family to go to college, and then to go to graduate school, people couldn’t believe it. I am so grateful for all the opportunities I had.”
Harden paid for most of her education, having saved during her time at Commonwealth Edison, but she did receive two small scholarships from Garrett-Evangelical. She also received support from some of the members of the Baptist Church, where she started her journey to ministry. After she heeded her call, four other women at that church also more fully acknowledged their ministerial calls.
“They loved me, and when I needed help to pay my tuition, they gave me money,” she said. “They also came to my graduation.”
Harden graduated in 1994 with a master of divinity degree and began serving a two-point charge on the south side of Chicago – the Pullman United and the Fellowship United Methodist Churches. During her time there, Harden became well known for teaching on TV 38 International Sunday School program, which aired weekly.
Four years later, Harden became pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Waukegan, Illinois. There, she became known for her Multicultural (Black History) celebration services. After serving that church for eight years, Harden became senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Hyde Park, Illinois.
Harden’s last charge was the Sycamore United Methodist Church in Sycamore, Illinois, where she was the first African American female in its 180-year history to serve as pastor. In her 10 years there, the whole community and its local businesses became her ardent supporters. Harden still communicates with her many supporters there, especially as they discuss the Movement for Black Lives Matter and how to build better relationships with the Black community.
In June 2018, Harden retired from the Sycamore Church and now lives in Scottdale, Georgia near her family and grandchildren. “I’ve served five different churches throughout my ministry, and I’ve grown in every one of those leadership experiences,” Harden shared. “I have been so blessed to have had wonderful relationships with these congregations.”
In 2009, while serving the Sycamore Church, Harden created a scholarship in her name at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and invited friends, family, and past and present congregants to contribute to it. In addition to starting this namesake resource, Harden has also made a planned gift as part of her eternal legacy to further support it. When it becomes fully endowed, the Reverend Harlene Harden Endowed Scholarship will assist Black and diverse women pursue the development of God’s call in their lives.
Harden created the scholarship for several reasons. First, education has always been a central value in her family and a source of preparation for leadership and life. Second, Harden feels strongly that Black and diverse women offer a unique expression of leadership that Black families and communities need to be vibrant and strong. Additionally, she wanted them to attend a well-known seminary.
“I know that other Black women have dreams, just like I had, and I want to help make them come true,” Harden said.