The sound of a trumpet awoke Huey Harris on April 5, 2001, his last night as a drug dealer. Harris looked out of his bedroom window in Montgomery, Ala., and saw people of all races running without direction, screaming and crying. Fire appeared to be streaming down from the heavens. Harris felt himself lifted out of his body. "I'm getting ready to destroy this world full of sin," Harris heard the voice of God telling him.
Few believed "Shockey" -- as he was known on the street -- had truly changed his life, and Harris would have to ignore the taunts of even family and friends as he preached on the same streets he once ruled by intimidation. He would start his own church in Montgomery, and his persistence and amazing testimony would begin to make him known nationally, with articles in church publications and appearances on Trinity Broadcasting Network and at a Billy Graham crusade in South Carolina.
On a recent 90-degree night, the 6-foot-2-inch, 255-pound preacher wipes sweat from his face with a towel as he leads Bible study on an asphalt driveway in the back of a modest home in Maple Heights. His kingdom, which once included several crack houses and a stable of cars and women, now consists of a dozen people ignoring the heat and the roar of a neighbor's motorcycle.
"Are you ready? Somebody say, 'I'm ready,' " a smiling Harris encourages them. "I'm going to bless your socks off."
In the second vision on the night that changed his life in 2001, Harris was walking on coals smoldering over a blackened Earth. Harris felt himself crunching the bones of skeletons in the vision he interpreted as showing God's judgment on those who turned away from his word.
The predominantly young group gathered in the back yard in Maple Heights hears an urgency in Harris's voice. The theme of the Bible study this night is vision, and it is a vision that cuts hard both ways.
"If they reject it, they damned. They gonna bust hell wide open," Harris says of those who will turn away from his ministry. For those who stay, this world and the next will open wide in glory. "I want to be around hungry, hungry people for God."
God does not leave Harris in the burning embers of an ashen Earth. In the final part of the vision that early morning four years ago, Harris was surrounded by beautiful flowers and water bluer than he had ever seen. God told him, "Go and tell the whole city of Montgomery and all the world that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. . . . Go back to the drug dealers, the prostitutes and the gang members."
On this June night, in the back yard of the parents of a young man recently released from jail after a conviction for selling drugs, Harris is already envisioning a future where the dozen believers before him will be multiplied into thousands following a worldwide ministry. "We're not just going to be in a back yard forever," Harris tells them. "Somebody say, 'Amen.' Somebody say, 'Amen!' "
Religious visions have guided the short, eventful life of Pastor Huey Harris, 30.
He began selling crack at age 12 and was regularly expelled from school for carrying weapons. He would be shot three times and involved in a murder before he transformed overnight from drug dealer to evangelist after what he believes was a vision from God on that morning in 2001.
There was one more vision to come, however, and Harris believes it ties northeastern Ohio into a divine history going back to the biblical patriarch Abraham. God would appear to him again in the night and tell him to give up all that he had built in Alabama and go to Cleveland. This spring, he sold his house, closed his church and moved to Lorain, Ohio.
On a humid Monday night in mid-June, he stands in front of a vacant store between a lingerie shop and a Wendy's on Warrensville Center Road in Maple Heights. Beside him are Robert and Derek Whatley, ages 18 and 19, two brothers who have joined his ministry.
The three men are getting ready to clean and refurbish the back of the empty store to convert it into a church.
The brothers and other members of the church say Harris is different from other ministers. He knows what life on the street is like and is ready with helpful words of love and forgiveness instead of a message of condemnation they associate with other ministers.
"Me personally, I wanted a dude who was a pure preacher. Most preachers, you don't know where they come from," Derek said.
"He more real to the young people," said his brother Robert. "He more real. He don't lie. And you need the truth."
If a guy like Harris can be saved, Robert says, so can he and his friends.
A large black banner with gold lettering proclaiming "Jesus Christ -- The Son of God" dominates one side of the Harrises' living room, which on this summer morning is home to the first Sunday service of their new Fresh Waters Christian Church International.
Harris has spent his first days in the Cleveland area talking to kids in schools, visiting the projects and rehab centers and preaching in front of liquor stores.
"Being a Christian is not an easy job. It's a fight," Harris tells his congregation. "The only way you're going to overcome this wicked world is to put God first. If you're going to a club, go to a club to preach Jesus. If you're going to hang out with homeboys smoking blunts, hang out with them to preach Jesus."
The day after his conversion in 2001, Harris returned to the streets of Montgomery, preaching for 10 hours a day to anyone who would listen. Few would, at first. When he started preaching on the sidewalks of the projects, "Everybody running from me, everywhere I go," he said.
Slowly, people realized he was serious, and his story started to come out in local media. He wrote letters to 200 churches about his desire to minister the Gospel. One answered: First Baptist Church, a predominantly white congregation.
Harris became a member of the missions team and started his own church among the prostitutes, drug dealers and others God told him to reach. Associated Baptist Press and Trinity Broadcasting began to make his story known nationally.
In Montgomery, his church grew to 200 people. Judges were asking him to speak in jails and to community groups. He began to lead citywide crusades.
Andrea Harris, his wife, remembers that when he spoke at her Montgomery church in July 2002, "everybody was just drawn to him. Nobody could take their eyes off him. It was so mind-boggling," she said.
Less than six months after she first heard him preach, in November 2002, they were married. Life kept getting better.
"We had a house . . . a big church. Everything was going well," Andrea Harris said.
Then, her husband said he got another call from God.
"About 4:30 in the morning, the Lord spoke to me and said, 'Get to Cleveland,' " Huey Harris said. He turned to his wife and said, "Baby, baby, wake up. The Lord just spoke to me and said, 'Get to Cleveland.' "
Slowly, the apartment fills up for the Sunday morning service.
There are the mother and four of her teenage children, a family he reached through one son at a high school assembly. Another woman, a neighbor of the first family, arrives with her son and another young man.
An upstairs neighbor joins the gathering. Harris has been telling her about the church, and she is curious. Last to arrive is the minister, who brings a woman from a drug-rehab center.
On this June Sunday, with 20 people crowded into a living room, Harris and his wife are beginning to see the foundations of their new church.
If his wife's first reaction about going to Cleveland was "God said what?" Andrea Harris now has embraced the move.
"This is our promised land," she says. "This is a big city. We can do a lot of different things here."
Harris said God has plans for the ministry to branch out worldwide, with thousands coming to the northeast Ohio church and others reached in international crusades.
How does he know all this will come to pass? "Vision," he tells his flock, "tells me God got something better for me."