One of the keys to Harkins’ effectiveness has been his engaging personality and his ability to make everyone feel special, friends and colleagues said. At the same time, he appeared to be flexible on thorny theological issues like the ordination of women. He also supports the full marriage rights of same sex couples.
Harkins won the respect of conservatives like former Attorney General John Ashcroft even while he was on the podium during the 2012 Democratic National Convention as the party’s faith adviser, for instance.
“In terms of faith, I have always tried to have a message of love coupled with social justice and I have always tried to find common ground to work with people,” Harkins said. “For example, while I may have disagreed with Ashcroft politically, he came to our church more than once and had enjoyed himself as [did] the President and his family.”
And even though Harkins became a national figure by hop-scotching across the country from college campuses to the studios of CNN or MSNBC during his tenure, he was keenly aware of being in the pulpit on most Sunday mornings to lead the 175-year-old congregation that for decades has been a hub of faith for a close knit congregation of middle class families.
“I am deeply appreciative for all the support that I have received from my Nineteenth Street family over the last 17 years,” Harkins said in an interview. “At the same time, I am looking forward to having a greater impact in the faith community around social justice issues.”
In his new role as Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming at Union, Harkins will focus on developing programs to attract non-degree seeking people to the New York institution through continuing and online educational programs, public events, and other avenues.
In a statement, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union, said “We must invite a broader public audience into a conversation about the connections between faith, scholarship, and social justice. Derrick Harkins is the perfect person to take on that challenge, and he is the perfect fit for Union.”
In many ways, taking the post at Union in Manhattan is a homecoming for Harkins. He received a Masters of Divinity from Union in 1987. His first assignment was at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was a seminary intern and then assistant minister. He also served on Union’s Board of Trustees from 2012 to 2015.
President Obama and the first family visited Nineteenth Street on the eve of his first inaugural which solidified Harkins support for the president, Harkins has said. In the lead up to the 2012 elections, Harkins was hired as director of Faith Outreach for the Democratic National Committee.
“Rev. Harkins has been an invaluable resource to me along with leaders across government and politics here in Washington,” said Joshua DuBois, former faith Advisor to President Obama. “D.C. will sorely miss him but he will have an even greater impact at Union and beyond.”
DuBois and Harkins recently teamed up recently with Hollywood producer Mark Burnett to unveil his upcoming NBC series “A.D. The Bible Continues”. During the screening of the film that has cast many actors of African descent in roles often held by whites recently, the fellowship hall of Nineteenth Street was filled former White House appointees and local pastors, black and white who watched parts of the the movie together, illustrating Harkins’ reach.
But those who will miss Harkins the most are his members.
“It is really ironic in terms of his leaving: it’s right after we celebrated the 175th anniversary of the church,” said Sandra LeSesne, chair of the church’s deacon board. “His leadership has been wonderful in terms of advancing the church and being the church accepting of all people.”
LeSesne said one of Harkins’ legacies is supporting the ordination of female deacons. “He was the one who ordained me. Our church is growing and as the pastor says, ‘ it is not about the numbers but the spirit.’”
Harkins said one of the hardest things about leaving is leaving the people behind.
“There have been so many genuine relationships that have developed over the years,” Harkins said. “Every year, we honor our high school graduates and now I can remember the graduates as infants. It makes you realize how woven into the life of this congregation that I have been.”