Downtown minister served most vulnerable and most powerful

sbarr@newsobserver.comMarch 24, 2014 

— You never know where in First Baptist Church you’ll find Mike Morris.

Morris, a minister there, might be wrangling the air conditioning system in the historic Salisbury Street building, listening to the story of someone who’s hit hard times or cracking jokes with a member of the congregation.

Morris is always on the move because he’s always willing to lend a hand, say those at the church who know him well.

“He’s the person who everyone goes to when they need something,” said Anne Bullard, a member of the congregation.

In his 26 years at the church, Morris’s ministry has included making sure the church’s bills are paid and building is in order, helping the city’s most vulnerable find food, clothing or next month’s rent and offering prayers and counsel as chaplain for the state senate.

But as he prepares to retire next month, he doesn’t talk about how much he’s helped others in the congregation, the downtown community or the senate. Instead, he’s drawn to reflect on how much they’ve given him by strengthening his faith and commitment to others.

“I’ve felt loved and cared for by each of these congregations,” he said.

As the congregation sends Morris off into retirement, it’s no surprise to them he would find a way to celebrate others while he has the the spotlight.

“I’ve never worked with anyone as encouraging or supportive,” said Lin Carter, another minister at First Baptist.

Call to service

Morris, 65, arrived at First Baptist in the late 1980s after he left a career in broadcasting for the ministry. He worked part-time at the church while in school at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and then joined as a full-time staff member a short time later.

Morris had been divorced and worried about finding a job, but the community as First Baptist welcomed him in, a fact he cherishes to this day.

Morris immediately knew he had found the right place. He especially liked that the congregation had opted to remain downtown to serve vulnerable people in their community.

His initial experiences stirred up childhood memories of his grandmother, who owned a corner store in High Point, N.C. When customers were in need, they would show up on her doorstep, and she wouldn’t hesitate to share what she had.

She had a “heart of service,” said Morris, who strives to emulate her spirit.

During the following decades, Morris took on numerous roles within the church, eventually landing in his current position of minister of administration and community ministries.

In every position, Morris has tried to listen first to find the best way to serve the needs of any community.

When people show up at the door of the church in need of financial help, Morris said he approaches each person with an open heart and a willingness to hear their story.

It would be easy to be cynical, but Morris doesn’t see the need to be afraid of the rare cases where someone takes advantage of his help.

“How can you be effective if that’s the attitude you approach someone with?” he said.

As chaplain of the senate, a position he held for 18 years until 2010, Morris took a similar approach, aiming for openness.

He deliberately tailored his prayers to be as broad as possible.

“I decided I would speak in a way that could reach everyone,” he said. With a smile, he also mentioned he wrote them as short as possible, which may have accounted for their popularity.

Barbara Quinby, the coordinator of social justice ministries at Sacred Heart Cathedral, said she also feels confident referring those in need to programs at First Baptist. The downtown churches work together to make sure their services don’t overlap too much.

She’s happy to send them on in part because she knows Mike will be there to welcome them in.

“He’s just a delight to work with,” she said.

Tough to replace

Carolyn Dickens, a member of the congregation, said the community also will miss Morris’s sense of humor and willingness to have fun, the spirit that accompanies his hard work.

When the two plan the annual ‘Hanging of the Greens” together, they’ll trade ideas by rewriting the lyrics to the beach music Morris loves. He’s been a regular in church talent show skits, lip synching along to the Beach Boys and others.

“He was just a person who, from the very beginning was a hard worker and always had a spark about him,” Dickens said.

Morris isn’t sure what to make of the attention that has accompanied his retirement.

But if it gives him a chance to recognize the First Baptist congregation, he’ll take it. He calls his years there, when he came into his calling, met his wife, and reared his daughter, the best of his life.

Morris hopes that when he and his wife arrive at their retirement home on the North Carolina coast, he’ll be able to take a pause, do some fishing and figure out which community may need him next.

“I feel like there’s another chapter of service there,” he said. “So I’m going to trust the God who made all of this happen.”

He knows for sure though, that when he tells stories years from now about his time at First Baptist, they will be about the people who loved and cared for him there and made his work possible.

“They’ve ministered to me,” he said. “I don’t think you can stay somewhere 26 years without it being a mutual relationship.”

Barr: 919-836-4952

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