Game Changer: Pastor Winterbourne Harrison-Jones (United States)

In Game Changers 14 by Mary Kurek

Winterbourne Harrison-Jones Develops Youth Through Experiential Learning

The Reverend Dr. Winterbourne LaPucelle Harrison-Jones, is a scholar, author, ecclesial leader, and distinguished Churchman out of the lineage of Dr. William Augustus Jones, Dr. James Forbes, Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, and Dr. Howard Thurman. A fifth-generation minister, Dr. Harrison-Jones is widely sought after as a preacher, speaker, and workshop facilitator. Reverend Harrison-Jones is a 2006 graduate of Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington D.C. and a 2010 graduate of the historic Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee where he earned his bachelor degree in Religious and Philosophical Studies. While at Fisk University,
Reverend Harrison-Jones had the distinct opportunity of having been mentored by Fisk University President and former United States Secretary of Energy, The Honorable Hazel R. O’Leary and Dean of the historic Fisk Memorial Chapel, the Reverend Dr. Jason Richard Curry, Ph.D.  In addition to Fisk University and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Reverend Harrison-Jones holds degrees and professional certifications from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin Germany, and the Universidad de Salamanca in Salamanca Spain. Reverend Harrison-Jones simultaneously matriculated in two national doctoral programs, earning the Doctor of Ministry from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and is currently pursuing the Ph.D. in Urban Education from Indiana University Purdue
University (IUPUI).

As a scholar, Reverend Harrison-Jones investigates how theological and homiletic resources within Christian traditions are valuable for interpreting and responding to such pressing public issues as economic deprivation, religious bigotry, racism, class inequity, and structural inequality.  Reverend Harrison-Jones is married to Mrs. Jillian Ardelia Harrison-Jones, who is a doctoral candidate
in choral conducting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and serves as the Richard Wesp Assistant Conductor of the Cincinnati Children’s Choir and the Music Director of MUSE, the Cincinnati Women’s Choir. His credo is shaped by words of noted scholar, theologian and 1926 graduate of Rochester Theological Seminary, now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Dr. Howard Thurman; “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive!” Reverend Harrison-Jones is the esteemed Pastor of the historic Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana

Q & A with Winterbourne:

Q:  As a 5th generation Pastor, the pressure to stay with tradition had to be in place, but, you’re unique, holistic way of approaching faith development has brought you into a broader job description for Pastor.  Can you explain how your work differs and complements standard practices?

A:  Taken from my vast studies in theology, community development, and philanthropy, I have professionally developed a credo of inclusivity and care that intentionally and unapologetically seeks to dismantle systemic and ideological barriers to God’s ultimate vision of love and the beloved community.

Above all, I seek to create places and spaces here so all of God’s creation feels welcomed and wherein people can come and find refuge from the traumatic effects of life. The church more formally is the institution through which I live out this call. 

Through the legacies of my maternal grandparents, the Reverend Dr. Robert and Charlotte Harrison, my mother and a vast array of mentors and friends, I strive in every way to help people understand that God’s ultimate longing for their lives is to live out their call fully and boldly, therefore I am here to create the incubator of love and care necessary to make that happen.

I believe it was Dr. King who said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Therefore this is the goal!  To create places of Hope and Restoration wherein people from every walk of life and age feel valued and resourced in their own journey of becoming. 

Q:  What are some of the programs you’ve developed to reach youth and expand their horizons?

A:  Youth ministry is my heart!  I’ve had the honor of leading and helping to shape youth development work for nearly a decade!  My approach to youth work is fourfold. I believe in faith formation, life skills development, cultural enrichment, and academic excellence. Each of these areas is essential and no one is more important than the other. 

Over the last 10 years, we have been blessed to develop Saturday leadership academies, cross county cultural enrichment experiences, academic support networks, job placement training, mental health support, a arts academy, and have forged partnerships with leading industries in our community to offer our young people a firsthand glimpse of the deep possibilities for their lives. 

Just last month here at Witherspoon we had for the second time, the Elder Denise K. LaRue Summer Leadership Academy which is a part of a 12-month commitment to nurture, support, and resource aspiring high school students and offer them the life and cultural experiences needed to think broadly and move wisely through the world.

As part of their summer experiences, students traveled the region for an entire week taking in the sights and sounds of culture and Black excellence. They toured the campuses of Fisk University, Tennessee State, Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University, Central State, and Wilberforce University! Coupled with site visits to area businesses, meetings with local artists, and musicians, as well as a creative writing experience, they led them deep into the woods!  All of this was anchored in this year’s theme of “400: Stories of Triumph and Pain” wherein for the next 12 months their sessions and activities will be centered about 2019 and the 400th commemorative year since the beginning of slavery in America. Such topics help our young people connect to their ancestral past while challenging them to think critically and seriously about their own life’s purpose. 

One of our greatest commitments of all is that programs like the LaRue Fellows and all of the others I just mentioned are free and at no cost to families!

This hints at my understanding about philanthropy and creating cultures of generosity, it is our goal never to allow finances to become a barrier for some young deserving child to participate in any of our programs. For those parents who can donate and help to sustain our programs, we welcome them, and for those who cannot, we never turn them away and find other creative ways for them to show gratitude through the giving of their time, talents and treasure of care.

Ultimately, the work of youth development belongs to the community at large. We have been blessed to have as our supporters a vast array of funders and institutions. The Indianapolis Public Library, the Center for Congregations, The Lilly Endowment, the Madame Walker Legacy Center, Indiana University Purdue University (IUPUI), the Arts Council of Indianapolis through the Asante Children’s Theatre, The Whitewater Valley Presbytery, and a host of other funders, partners, and friends. One of our most promising partnerships is with the Asante Children’s Theatre of Indianapolis. Through their riveting programs that center on the importance of theatre and dance in African culture, the young people of the Witherspoon community have firsthand access to this world-class theatre company and perform regularly in their productions. 

Q: What is one story that you’d like to share that reveals the impact this work is having?

A:  There are so many! There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a young person’s mind expanded and hearing them say, “thank you.” This may seem simple to some, but so often people give up on our children and relegate them to the sidelines of life, many never have a fighting chance to either lift themselves or be lifted. Hearing thank you and seeing the glow of opportunity in their eyes is breathtaking.

In my previous work around the country and certainly here at Witherspoon, we have young people who are serving as teaching artists, creating technology, exploring careers in medicine and education, the list goes on and on!  But there is always a sense of gratitude for being afforded the space and communal support to grow into their best selves. 

Winterbourne’s Networking Interests:

  • I believe in exposure and the power of experience!  Offering young people the opportunity to see and be in community with people who are diverse and bring with them the abundance of the human spirit is central to me. (Partners to provide experiences)
  • Our youth also need mentors and conversation partners! While I do believe in experiences and resources, I also know that nothing beats having a network of support around you and a listening ear!
  • I encourage more faith communities to reimagine their work outside of the walls of their physical place of gathering. In this way, I am always looking for partners from across every sector who dream courageously and who are willing to collaborate in new and innovative ways.