Pastor Chris Harris, Sr. and Nichole Carter: ‘We've got to get to the next phase.’

Chris Harris, Sr., Senior Pastor of Bright Star Church Chicago, and CEO and Founder of Bright Star Community Outreach; and Nichole Carter, Chief Program Officer at Bright Star Community Outreach
Chris Harris, Sr., left, is Senior Pastor of Bright Star Church Chicago, and CEO and Founder of Bright Star Community Outreach. Nichole Carter is Chief Program Officer at Bright Star Community Outreach. Through the Community Voices series, the University of Chicago Medicine examines health-related challenges faced by communities served by the South Side-based academic health system through interviews featuring a variety of perspectives.

Community Voices interview with Chris Harris, Sr., Senior Pastor of Bright Star Church Chicago, and CEO and Founder of Bright Star Community Outreach; and Nichole Carter, Chief Program Officer at Bright Star Community Outreach.

Q: Pastor Harris, what motivated you to get involved in tackling health issues?

Harris: As a faith leader, my role is to help preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and get people saved. But I realized that as an African American man, as a citizen born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, that you cannot get people to a place of being saved or holy without them being safe and healthy. Often the church focuses so much on the spiritual that we forget to focus on the natural, and the health of people is really important.

We have to ask questions. Why is the life expectancy on the North Side different from the South Side? Why are white people living longer than Black people? Why are those who are wealthy living longer? And why is it that how long you live is based on where you live? We have to look at those questions and make sure that equity is the focus.

African Americans on the South Side experience two times the rate of heart disease, obesity and cancer, when compared with white people. And these are just some of the things that we see as the result of a lack of access to care. We have seen it over and over again. The reality is, there are many barriers that keep people from going to doctors, including accessibility and affordability.

Q: In what ways are you trying to turn things around?

Harris: We have now laid the foundation for our own health ministry in the church. And I founded Bright Star Community Outreach, which is a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, with its own board that the University of Chicago partners with, that has been around for 12 years. Annually, we employ about 400-plus people, full-time, part-time and seasonally. An executive from UChicago Medicine sits on the board of the community outreach center and another sits on our steering committee, helping to make sure that we bridge the gap between community and hospital.

Q: Why has mental health become a major focus?

Harris: I’ve always known that mental health was an issue. But it became personal for me about 13 years ago when, as a pastor of a thriving church, I went through a divorce and wanted to commit suicide and leave the ministry, and became a functioning alcoholic. And the problem was, everybody would come to me for counseling. But because I was a leader, I felt I didn’t have a safe place to get counseling. And I knew that there were many more people like me — leaders and laymen.

Who does trauma counseling for those families in Chicago, whether they’re victims of violence and trauma, or perpetrators?

The second thing is, everybody was focusing on violence at the time, but I was focusing on trauma. I took a trip to Israel in December of 2012 and saw a place called NATAL (Israel Trauma and Resiliency Center) in Tel Aviv, and they were talking about those who live in Israel who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder because they live under the constant threat of violence and trauma.

A light bulb went off: They’re worried about missiles and sirens. Black people are counting body bags and toe tags every single day. And I asked the question, “Who does trauma counseling for those families in Chicago, whether they’re victims of violence and trauma, or perpetrators?” In most cases, nobody. Because Black and Brown people don’t go to counseling for four reasons: They don’t know the counselor. They don’t trust the counselor. They can’t afford the counselor. And stigma – people fear being labeled crazy.

The Lord told me to identify, train and certify faith and community leaders to provide trauma counseling based on the Israeli model, and then replicate this model across the country in other urban communities.

We’ve developed what we call the TURN model, an acronym for The Urban Resilience Network, which has five core competencies: counseling, mentorship, parenting, workforce development and advocacy. We have touched more than 50,000 people in the greater Bronzeville community and all around Chicago with our work.

Everybody has experienced tremendous amounts of stress. We surveyed 19 schools in greater Bronzeville in 2015 and 21 schools in greater Bronzeville in 2018. About 2,500 students were eligible to take the 127-question anonymous youth survey in school. In 2015, 35% showed signs of clinical depression. In 2018, it was 50%. Imagine what it is right now. 2020 has devastated and further traumatized our Black communities in ways none of us could have ever imagined.

Q: Can you describe a little more what Bright Star Community Outreach does?

Carter: We have about 11 core programs. And it really does span the gamut from child and family services to workforce development and mental health services. The crux of what we do surrounds reducing the effects of trauma and violence. As we were thinking about trauma and violence, workforce development really popped up. If people are employed, you can reduce stress, and possibly violence.

We do workforce development — the entire span of it — from work preparation to getting people ready for interviews, job attainment and job retention.

We have a coalition of over 30 partners through an initiative called the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network. And our goal is to help 500 people every year find household-sustaining income. But in addition to that we do financial literacy counseling because if your paycheck increases it doesn’t mean that your wealth and savings increase.

We do after-school programming and out-of-school programming. We focus on reading and mathematics. In the summer, we try to give students a well-rounded academic experience of fun activities.

We started our trauma helpline about three years ago. It’s a free service. And we have had almost 900 callers since then. We’ve banked about 2,100 minutes a month in services. Our needs have increased exponentially. It is not necessarily the kind of trauma cases that you see on TV — gunshots and murders and things like that. But we help anyone who has had any level of trauma, whether related to housing instability or the loss of a loved one from cancer or a terminal disease. We work with individuals for as long as they need, until they feel that they have been helped by us. If, for some reason, we assess that there’s a deeper level of need, then we do a warm handoff to one of our community partners and make sure that they’re served.

We also have ambassadors who help our community to become trauma-informed. We want people to understand that trauma can affect your quality of life, your belief in hope. And when those are dampened, your life is not the quality that it should be.

Q: What needs to happen next to address health inequities?

Harris: There has to be an intentional, strategic and sustainable plan to achieve health equity, which includes investment in the communities and people who live all across Chicago.

The data shows where the gaps are, where the disinvestment is, where life expectancies are much, much shorter. So, if you look at that data, invest in the places that the data speaks to, you don’t need another commission, another focus group, another assessment, another survey — just use what you already have and start to move the needle on what you already know.

Health will be a major focus in what our team and 100-plus collaborative partners call our Greater Bronzeville Community Action Plan. You can find the plan on the Bright Star Community Outreach website.

Carter: Being in this arena, we are always talking about social determinants of health. Some of our work has just been repairing what’s wrong. Now we’ve got to get to the next phase of what we’re doing. So, I think partnering with a hospital is important because they can really illuminate what the challenges are. And they can begin to help us think about how we do prevention. It’s way easier to prevent someone from becoming insulin-resistant than to treat insulin resistance. We have to stop the cycle and then hopefully do some things to change the systems that created this.

This interview originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune's Community Voices column. It was conducted by independent health writer Deborah Shelton on behalf of UChicago Medicine. Neither the Tribune newsroom nor the Editorial Board was involved in producing the content.