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Harris, Charles Enoch (1931–1993)

by Thom Blake

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Charles Harris, by Juno Gemes, 1982

Charles Harris, by Juno Gemes, 1982

National Library of Australia, 55584678

Charles Enoch Edward Harris (1931–1993), Aboriginal and Islander community leader and Uniting Church minister, was born on 8 July 1931 at Victoria Estate, near Ingham, North Queensland, fifth child of Murray Island-born Golgay Harris, labourer, and his Queensland-born wife Allie, née Wyle. Charles’s father was of Torres Strait Islander and Spanish descent and his mother, Aboriginal and Malay. Growing up in the Pentecostal tradition, he became a member of the Assemblies of God in Australia. After attending (1937–44) Victoria Plantation State School, he found labouring jobs in the sugarcane fields and on the railways.

Realising a commitment to ministry and evangelism, Harris studied at the Commonwealth Bible College in Brisbane (1957–59), then worked as a travelling evangelist in northern New South Wales. On 29 June 1963 at Pastor Frank Roberts’s Cubawee Church, Lismore, he married Dorothy Jessie Ruth Roberts, a Bundjalung woman; she would actively support him in his ministry throughout their married life. The couple moved to Ingham, where Harris worked as a canecutter while continuing to spread the gospel in his spare time.

In the mid-1960s Harris came under the influence of Rev. Ed Smith at the Ingham Methodist Church. At Smith’s invitation, in 1967 he became part of the ministry team at the church, with responsibility for the Aboriginal and Islander community in the town and district. A year later, when Smith was transferred to the Hermit Park circuit at Townsville, Harris followed and was appointed as pastor to the newly established Mission to Aborigines and Islanders in Queensland.

Harris moved to Brisbane in 1973 as pastor to a predominately Aboriginal and Islander congregation at Paddington. Formed by Pastor Don Brady, it was part of the Central Methodist Mission under the leadership of Rev. George Nash. Harris’s ministry enjoyed Nash’s keen support and focused increasingly on the spiritual and physical care of the people who frequented Musgrave Park, South Brisbane. In the mid-1970s the congregation was renamed the Urban Aboriginal Mission. Although his work was extremely demanding, Harris managed to undertake further theological studies at Alcorn College in Brisbane and, externally, at Nungalinya College, Darwin, to fulfil the requirements for ordination in the Uniting Church in Australia. On 27 November 1980 he became the denomination’s first Indigenous minister in Queensland.

Returning to Townsville in 1981, Harris was appointed to the West End parish. In the same year he undertook a study tour to New Zealand to observe Māori congregations and investigate their distinctive theology and organisational structure within the mainstream Protestant denominations. Harris saw a need to generate a similar model for Aboriginal and Islander congregations. He organised meetings of leaders to discuss how a theology encompassing matters of concern to Australia’s first peoples could be formulated and how greater autonomy could be achieved for them in the Uniting Church. The most significant gathering was in 1983, at Galiwinku in the Northern Territory, where the participants decided to set up a national organisation.

The assembly of the Uniting Church accordingly endorsed the establishment of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) in 1985. Harris was appointed president, based in Sydney. In this capacity, he worked tirelessly to support and encourage Aboriginal and Islander congregations throughout Australia. He also spoke regularly to a wider audience on the role of governments and churches in the history of injustice towards the first Australians. An important campaign that he initiated was the Long March for Freedom, Justice, and Hope, which culminated on 26 January 1988 in Sydney. Harris laboured unflaggingly to organise the event, the most significant assembly of Aboriginal and Islander peoples and their supporters during Australia’s bicentennial year, with some fifty thousand in attendance. The march attracted national and international attention and emphasised that, for Aboriginal people, the bicentenary represented no cause for celebration, but marked two hundred years of oppression.

In 1989 Harris retired from active ministry owing to ill health. Acknowledging his contribution as head of the UAICC, the president of the Uniting Church, Sir Ronald Wilson, praised his `vision … determination and keen sense of justice’ (Emilsen). Harris was a short, slender man with a quiet, unassuming manner. He died of renal and heart diseases on 7 May 1993 in Townsville and was buried in Belgian Gardens cemetery. His wife and their three sons and three daughters survived him. More than five hundred people attended his funeral. The Indigenous-rights campaigner Charles Perkins, a long-time friend, described Harris as one who helped set ‘the moral and ethical standards for relationships between Aboriginal, Islander and white Australians. A man of principle, whose impact will never be forgotten’ (Foster 1993, 5).

Select Bibliography

  • Busch, David. ‘Pastor Harris Fights On: Church Wins Black Cleric.’ Telegraph (Brisbane), 21 November 1980, 10

  • Dingle, Adele, comp. ‘Rev Charles Harris, 1931–1993.’ Journey (Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod), June 1993, 14-15

  • Emilsen, William W. ‘Charles Harris: Faithful Servant.’ In A Calendar of Other Commemorations. Uniting Church in Australia. Accessed 12 June 2014. https://assembly.uca.org.au/cudw/worship-resources-and-publications/item/1354-a-calendar-of-other-commemorations. Copy held on ADB file

  • Foster, Michael. ‘High Praise for an Aboriginal Legend.’ Townsville Bulletin, 14 May 1993, 5

  • Gordon-Harris, Dorothy. Interview by the author, 10 June 2014

  • Woodley, John. Interview by the author, 16 June 2014

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Thom Blake, 'Harris, Charles Enoch (1931–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-charles-enoch-18183/text29753, accessed 30 May 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012