Pastor Don Harris of the House of Prayer in Montpelier is an unassuming, humble man with a heart as big as the sun. He, with the help of his wife of 48 years GayLynn, has ministered in the northwest Ohio area for over 35 years, many of those in Montpelier where he has left an impact on all to whom he has ministered.
Pastor Don was born and raised in Missouri, and met his wife GayLynn while in school. They were childhood sweethearts, and married right after graduating high school. Don was happy to be an auto mechanic and worked in that field for many years. Six years after their marriage, they had their first child, son Matt. Three years later, daughter Carla followed.
Pastor Don had been raised Catholic, but he and GayLynn had not been attending church. Don accepted a co-workers invitation to attend a church service, and during altar call, he and GayLynn accepted Christ into their lives and were “born again.” Within two years, he began to feel “the call” to ministry. He was unsure if this was his path, but when he asked a friend’s opinion, he was told that if he was happy doing what he was doing, then he should continue, but if he was indeed called to minister, nothing else was going to make him happy. He realized that he was discontented with his job. He then made the decision to go into the ministry. Though he and GayLynn owned four acres of land on which they had just built a house, they sold their land and home so that Don could pursue his ministry education. When he turned 30, he entered Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, completing in May 1977. Following graduation, he participated in a 10-week mission program, and was selected from a pool of pastors from all over the country to come to Montpelier, Ohio, to a small church called Riverside Baptist, on the banks of the Saint Joseph River just north of Montpelier.
It was a very humble beginning. Pastor Don ended up staying to be the minister at the church. When the move became permanent, he and GayLynn were offered 400 acres of land and a house to live in. He had stood on the promise given in Mark 10:29 – “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life.” The four acres of land and home that he had sold so that he could serve God were indeed restored a hundred-fold!
In 1980, Pastor Don received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and the name of the church was changed to Riverside Full Gospel. He felt that God’s promise to him was in Joshua 1:3-9 – “Every place the soles of your feet tread, I have given to you. No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life…Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land…”
He was joined by Reverend Jan Garber in 1983, and the church was re-named Soul’s Harbor. He and Rev. Garber co-pastored for three years, and the congregation grew. In July 1986, he was called as an Assistant Pastor to Living Word Church in Toledo, Ohio. When that position ended, he briefly returned to Missouri. He returned in 1988 to pastor at Living Word Church in Stryker, Ohio, and remained though April1993. It was then that he felt a call to return to begin a ministry in Montpelier, and the first meeting of the House of Prayer was held in October 1993. They bought a small church building on the corner of Jefferson and Empire Streets, and the motto of the church was “A praising people establishing the Kingdom of God through prayer.” The church later bought and renovated the house across from the street, and turned it into office space and “The Way Station,” a center for teens, under the direction of church member Loni Lilliard. The ministry continued to grow and included Helping Hands food pantry under the direction of Paula Peffley, and The Potter’s Hand, a center for men who needed help with housing, employment, and maintaining sobriety from alcohol and drugs. The church also established the Extended Hands thrift store.
It soon became apparent that the congregation needed to be housed in a larger space. Pastor Don looked at some properties, and some acreage had been purchased on the south edge of town, but he felt his heart drawn to the vacant former Loudon Building in downtown Montpelier. It was directly across the street from the men’s center and the thrift store. At the time, negotiations to purchase the building fell through, but later, owner Ned Snyder felt moved to give the building to the church. This generous gift was gratefully accepted, and thus began a two year period of construction and remodeling.
Those who were familiar with the Loudon’s building would scarcely recognize it now, as it has been extensively renovated. The 45,000 square foot buildings house the sanctuary, classrooms for children’s and teens ministries, a weight room, a large fellowship hall, staff offices, a large area for the intake of commodities and food for the food pantry, counseling office for food pantry clients, and a kitchen for cooking classes. A ministry for women with alcohol and drug issues is housed in Kunkle. Though these are the ministries of the House of Prayer, many churches and organizations participate. Except for the food pantry, which is funded in part by grants, all of these ministries are funded by donations, and with a small part funded by United Way.
What began as a 10-week mission assignment in a tiny church has blossomed into a large, beautiful church with plenty of space to house its many ministries – ministries which have blessed hundreds, if not thousands of individuals.
Pastor Don has made it clear that that success is not his, but the Lord’s. He said he could not have done it alone, and that this was all possible only because he has been blessed to be surrounded by wonderful people in his church and community who have made it all happen. He gives credit in particular to his wife GayLynn, who he describes as “a great woman, a wonderful wife, and an excellent administrator.” He said that whenever he has been given a vision, she is the one who “put feet to it” and made it happen.
So after such hard work and success, why is Pastor Don retiring? He said that when his youngest child Benaiah received his own call to ministry three years ago, a call he regards as a “supernatural move,” he felt that it was time that the church had a need for a fresh insight and ministry. He wants the church to stay relevant and felt that a young pastor would be able to take the church and its ministries to the next level. He says that he needs to see the church continue and to impact the community, and feels that this will happen under the direction of Pastor Ben.
On Sunday, December 2, Pastor Don was surrounded by his wife, five children, 16 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren as the church celebrated his many years of ministry. New pastor Ben, age 31, was joined by his oldest brother Matt, age 42; sisters Charity Crane, age 39; Leah Garcia, age 36; and Charity Donnelly, age 33; and all their respective families to give tribute to their father in the midst of church members, past and present.
This reporter has also had the privilege of having been one of those church members. I can think of no better tribute than to share the words of those who have known Pastor Don throughout the years.
The Suffel family is one that has been under Pastor Don’s ministry since almost the beginning. Here is what they have to say:
From Peggy Suffel: “He would give you the shirt off his back and he was always willing to help fix my car in a pinch. I consider him a Spiritual giant with a gentle disposition who cared deeply for his congregation”.
From Julie Suffel: “Pastor Don, what a servant’s heart you have! Your soft-spoken words and prayers have been a treasure in my life. Your legacy will always live on in the lives that you have touched and ministered to.”
From Kristy Suffel: “I’ve never met a more humble and meek pastor, but straight-forward and states the truth. I am engaged into his sermons.”
Vicki Slaughter was a member of the church for many years, before moving out of state. She adds: “Pastor Don and Gaylynn Harris have been there for my family over 20 years.
My favorite memory is when we had one vehicle and it broke down at Chris’s work in Bryan. It was late in the evening during fair week and all our kids were at the fair taking care of their exhibition animals. So not only was Chris stuck in Bryan but the kids at the fair until someone came to rescue them and bring them home. That rescuer was our Pastor, Don Harris. After delivering the kids home safely Pastor Don stated” Now to go take care of Papa bear” in reference to Chris. Pastor Don did just that, returning to help Chris with the vehicle. God has blessed us with a man after His own heart. Thank you, Pastor for being the man of God that He called you to be!” Her husband Chris, in a Facebook post about Pastor’s retirement said: “He has definitely been an inspiration in my life! To look at this man and his heart, is like looking at the Heart of God.”
Michelle Kolbe writes: “Pastor Don has been such an important part of my life…always there when I needed him and never too busy to help when he could. I’ve seen him go out of his way for others and offer unconditional love to so many. A sensitive man who always put others needs in front of his own. He’s so greatly loved by my family and I’d love to be able to repay all he’s done. I can only repay by loving others the way he has for so many years God bless you Pastor Don and GayLynn!”
Thank you indeed, Pastor Don and your lovely helpmate GayLynn. Thank you for your legacy of light and love in this small community where you have made a huge impact. Thank you for serving God and letting Him use you to make it all happen.