New Dean Associated with Religious Life Joins Staff

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Rev. Brandon Harris was ordained a Baptist pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where MLK served as co-pastor. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Harris)

Wednesday, October 26 was Rev. Brandon Harris’ third official day as Associate Dean for Religious and Spiritual Life at USC. His office was still empty, although he had found time to move his two gray sofas to the corner of the room – right in front of the door. Faint jazz music rumbled through the lobby of Room 106 of the University Religious Center.

Raised in Rochester from 1995 to 2009, Harris grew up in a Pentecostal household but a multi-denominational family; his uncle was an imam – a person who leads prayer in a mosque – and others were Protestant, Catholic or secular. Her father is a sixth-grade teacher, and her sister, along with all of her uncles, are teachers.

“[Becoming Associate Dean of Religious Life] was a big surprise in the scenario of my life. We were very comfortable in DC and my wife had an opportunity in LA,” Harris said. “I was here in Los Angeles preaching in a church, and I saw the application while I was sitting at LAX, and before I got on my flight, I submitted my resume.”

As Harris grew and questions about his faith mounted, he made the decision to leave the Pentecostal tradition during the four years he spent at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. At Lincoln, he became close to a teacher in his introductory religion class, Methodist minister Dr. Mel Leaman.

“He was really cool, he was hanging out on the quad, throwing footballs around with students. He would be in the dining room. I was like, ‘This guy is a normal human being! He is religious. There’s something to that,” Harris said.

Harris converted a Bible study group attended by three students into a social justice book club attended by 15 to 20 students when he was chaplain at Georgetown University Law School. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Harris)

In his office, Harris constantly questioned Leaman about his faith and explored what it meant to be a person of faith. One day, Leaman offered Harris an intern position at his Methodist church — and he accepted.

Coming to USC was a surprise for Harris, he said, especially since administrative positions like these have little turnover. However, he was eager to engage in the mission of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life.

“Fifty percent of our students identify as secular, non-denominational. So what does it mean to be a Religious Life Office? said Harris. “I wanted to join a team that thought about the future of religion, that was willing to be innovative and creative and think outside the box.”

Harris first took notice of ORSL’s innovative work during his time at Georgetown University as law school chaplain, a position he held after earning his master’s degree at the University. Emory in 2016.

While at Emory, Harris was officially ordained a Baptist minister at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, known for one of his former co-pastors, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, l he current senior pastor of Ebenezer Church, along with many other church members, helped shape Harris’s outlook on life.

“For me, [Ebenezer Baptist Church] was a place that when I was new to a new town, when I was new to the South, it was a place that became home to me,” Harris said. “It taught me to balance commitment to social justice, a commitment to some kind of deep spirituality, while also being engaged in the world.”

When he arrived at Georgetown Law School, Harris transformed a Bible study group attended by three people into a social justice book club that grew to about 15 to 20 people. While the book club initially looked at social justice from a spiritual perspective, Harris broadened the conversation to people of all belief systems.

Harris left Georgetown and served as senior minister of the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in 2019. During the coronavirus pandemic, Harris held 51 funeral services.

Now, as Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life, Harris’s role is to bring to his attention the needs of USC students, regardless of their belief system. This consists of tasks such as individual counseling, creating programs for students, and overseeing more than 80 student faith groups on campus. Rev. Harris also hopes to provide support for students of color at USC.

“[The Rev.] Howard Thurman says our main job is to help us find our common humanity,” Harris said. “So it’s my job to help us find our common humanity: what makes us more alike than what makes us different. So, I can enter a mosque, I can enter a synagogue, I can go to puja, I can relate to people from different backgrounds because we share a common humanity.

Following in the footsteps of Reverend Dr. Thurman is something Harris and Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni have in common.

“He’s walking in the footsteps of this amazing person who was a chaplain, a teacher, and a civil rights leader,” Soni said. “We all walk in the line of people we look up to. But, I think what we can do as academic professionals is create new bloodlines that our students can enter.

For Associate Dean of Religious Life Vanessa Gomez Brake, Harris was a perfect fit for the job from the start — the only person out of all the initial screening applicants who she gave a 10 out of 10. Thanks to a document, the Associate Dean Gomez Brake led To help her through her transition, Harris’s next few months will be filled with meetings with student faith groups, campus religious directors, and campus cultural centers.

“What I found with him among the other candidates is [that] our conversation just flowed naturally,” Gomez Brake said. “[Our work] can be so difficult sometimes. I also need someone who can be there for me as we take care of each other in our professional settings. We support each other in these difficult times.

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