African American missionary pioneers of the 1940s
The Gray and Harris families in Liberia and Sarawak
By Christie R. House*
After World War II, the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church raised a call for new missionaries to serve around the world, a call that included a specific invitation to African Americans. Some served three-year terms with the new young adult corps of missionaries known as regional threes (Africa-3s, Latin America-3s, Japan-3s, for example). Two couples, however, were recruited for long-term service, and each served for decades in their missionary placements: Thomas and Jennie Harris in Sarawak, Borneo, and Ulysses and Vivienne Gray in Gbarnga, Liberia.
Jennie and Thomas Harris look on and give support for a Iban boy as Dr. Harold N. Brewster conducts an examination in Sarawak, Borneo, 1957. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History
While the Gray and Harris families were not the first African American career missionaries in the United Methodist tradition, they were the only African American missionaries serving in their specific placements from the 1940s to the 1970s. The two couples, in completely different areas of the world, shared much in common. Ulysses S. Gray (known as U.S.) and Thomas Harris were both recruited as agricultural missionaries who had a passion for the gospel. The Rev. U.S. Gray was ordained clergy of the Central Jurisdiction in Texas before his missionary service in Liberia, and the Rev. Thomas Harris was ordained in the Florida Conference after his return from Sarawak. Both had college degrees in agricultural studies. Jennie Harris and Vivienne Gray were teachers, but they both also had experience in the United States as social workers, particularly with migrant communities in the south. Both couples adopted children in their places of assignment.
A passion for China and Sarawak
Thomas and Jennie Harris were commissioned in 1947 and first assigned to serve as teachers in Nanping, China. But within a few years, they, and many other missionaries, had to leave China because of political unrest. In 1951, they were appointed to serve in Sarawak, the Malaysian side of the Island of Borneo. Although a large China ex-pat Methodist community resided in Sarawak, the Harris family was sent up river – way up the Banyao River to Nanga Mujong, where the Dayak Sea people made their homes in great long houses. The Dayak, also called the Iban, are the largest indigenous group in Sarawak. Their longhouse residences could accommodate as many as 25 families, all living and working communally. Thomas and Jennie effectively became the mission superintendents of the Iban work, building a residence, a school, a clinic, and an agricultural center in Nanga Mujong. They were well accepted and respected by the indigenous community and did much to improve their health, agricultural practice and acceptance into the Methodist mission. They served as missionaries from 1947 to 1970.
The Harrises had a seamless way of integrating their work in agriculture, education and spiritual leadership, and perhaps they learned this from living for many years among the Iban. This excerpt of a December 1966 missionary letter from Thomas shows how easily one area leads to the next. “The usual ‘dry season’ of August has brought heavy rains, swollen rivers, and delayed planting of rice! Though a hopeful change will come in this month, it is likely that the delayed rice crop will catch the shattering rains of November-December when in bloom. With crops to be grown and hunger lessened; souls to be claimed and nurtured; and the minds of young and old alike captured by the thrilling new experiences of learning, we will find plenty to do that will need your prayerful support.”
Home in Liberia
The Rev. Ulysses S. Gray, missionary superintendent, preaching at the church in the Gbarnga mission station, 1950s. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History
U.S. and Vivienne Gray met at Gammon Theological Seminary. Before entering mission service, Vivienne Gray worked as a field secretary for the Woman’s Division, traveling across the Central, North Central and Northeastern jurisdictions, holding seminars and leadership workshops, and teaching in Schools of Christian Mission. In 1948, the Grays were commissioned as missionaries to develop the Gbarnga mission station in Bong County, Liberia. Like the Harrises, they were mission superintendents and builders. Over the course of their tenure, they oversaw the building of a church, homes, schools, an agricultural demonstration farm and the first gymnasium in the region. In 1959, U.S. Gray saw the completion of the Gbarnga School of Theology, where he taught and encouraged students to become pastors in the Liberian Methodist Church. The Grays lived and worked in Gbarnga for 27 years, retiring from mission service in 1974. They were honored by the Liberian government with the Liberian Star medal, its highest award for civilians.
Missionary Vivienne Gray teaching at the Harriet Tubman School at the Gbarnga mission station in Liberia, 1950s. Photo: General Commission on Archives and History
One of their children eventually became bishop of the United Methodist Church in Liberia. Vivienne proudly wrote about him in a letter to “World Outlook” in 1967, “In 1949 we received into our home a little boy in primary school. He said that he was hungry; he sought work. Now he is grown up and is serving as principal of the Tubman Elementary School and pastor of St. John Methodist Church: a former Crusade Scholar, Bennie Warner.”
Both the Harrises and the Grays possessed unique gifts and experiences to serve God as global missionaries in turbulent times. In both placements, the people they served accepted them as friends and mentors, teachers and pastors. The bonds and relationships they developed enabled them to guide several generations in a new faith and a renewed sense of community.
*Christie R. House is the senior writer and editor for Global Ministries.