April 7 In Memory of Her: Ruth Harris, 1920-2013

Ruth HarrisRuth Harris, a church leader of extraordinary gifts, died this week in Claremont, California, at the age of 92. WATER joins her countless friends and colleagues around the world in mourning her passing while giving abundant thanks for her marvelous life. The obituary that follows tells her story. It is written by her longtime partner and co-worker, Pat Patterson, another remarkable leader.

We at WATER were privileged to know Ruth first when she was part of the World Division of the United Methodist Church, which supported the Frontier Internship in Mission Program. Since then, we have appreciated her friendship and her warm support for WATER during its first thirty years. She was a mentor and a colleague, a sister who struggled on the same issues we do, always with good humor.

A great read is Journeys That Opened Up The World: Women, Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice, 1955-1975 (edited by Sara M. Evan, Rutgers University Press, 2003. The book, inspired by and dedicated to Ruth, includes her story and those of more than a dozen women whose lives shaped and were shaped by their participation in religious movements for justice. She is in the company of Charlotte Bunch, Alice Hageman, Nancy Richardson, and Valerie Russell to name just a few of the writers.

WATER celebrates the life and work of Ruth Harris with deep gratitude.


June 9, 1920 – April 7, 2013

Ruth Myrl Harris was a woman of faith, courage, and vision.  Born June 9, 1920 in a small rural town in Northeast Nebraska, she was inspired by the strength especially of her grandmother Clara and her mother Esther, who raised five children after their father left at the time of the l929 crash.  Ms. Harris graduated from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, and worked as a teacher and community music leader.

Two influences shaped her profound commitment to justice. The first was Ruth’s experience as missionary teacher in China, under the auspices of the Woman’s Division of the Methodist Board of Missions.  For two years before and two years after Liberation, she saw the people’s oppressive poverty and the need for radical change. Teaching choral music in a girls’ school in Shanghai, she was moved by the idealism of her students.

The other influence was her participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  Ruth Harris took part in the march from Selma and helped with logistical organizing behind the scenes, as she brought students to Alabama.  Later she supported students in the sit-ins as an advocate in the Methodist Church for their anti-racist cause.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was always one of her heroes, and Ruth was thrilled to be present with a student delegation for the March on Washington in August 1963.

After returning from China, she studied at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ singing with the NY Philharmonic and experiencing the extraordinary gifts of Robert Shaw in a summer event at Northwestern.  Later in l967 she got a Master’s degree in International Education from Columbia University.

Meanwhile Ruth Harris led seminars on international affairs at the United Nations during 1952-54. She worked in 1954-59 as the national Field Program Director for the Student Volunteer Movement and National Student Christian Federation, helping organize two major ecumenical and international conferences in Athens, Ohio in 1955 and 1959.  Next she was national Secretary for Student work of the Woman’s Division, but was then called in 1965 by the Board of Missions to become the first Executive Secretary for University World, a fully international portfolio.  She worked with students and faculty through churches, universities, student movements, and the World Student Christian Federation during a period of decolonization and massive challenge.

Other assignments followed within the World Division to coordinate the Quadrennial Emphasis 1969-72 and then five years as Assistant General Secretary for Development and Planning.  For the remainder of her career 1977-90, she traveled the world as Executive Secretary for Global Justice.  This involved working with poor people’s movements, urban/rural mission, human rights and anti-war struggles, women’s rights, and students and young adults.

Highlights included chairing Agricultural Missions and the NCCCUSA Committee on Human Rights; helping initiate and direct the Mission Intern Program; serving for ten years as chair of the Church Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines; helping found and advise the Women’s Commission of the World Student Christian Federation; and serving on the WSCF Executive Committee and the WSCF Trustees in the USA.

A major achievement was collaborating with 16 other women on the book “Journeys That Opened Up the World: Women, the Student Christian Movement, and Social Justice Activism 1950-75.”  The book was launched at an event in New York City in November 2003 honoring Ruth for her Passion for Justice.

Ruth M. Harris came to Pilgrim Place in December 2000.  She was involved in singing in Chorale, helping start the Peace Vigil Committee, assisting at Festival, and enjoying the stimulating life of Claremont. Due to declining health she eventually had to spend the last two and a quarter years in the Health Services Center, where she brightened lives around her with her radiant smile and quiet friendliness, and where she died April 7, 2013.  In New York Ruth was a member of Judson Memorial Church and in Claremont the United Methodist Church, but was always broadly ecumenical.

Former Mission Intern Kevin Uchida wrote: “Few people have the courage to burn so brightly for so long, and my inclination is to laugh rather than cry for Ruth at the end of this tremendous journey.”  Thousands of young people, now leaders in the US and various parts of the world, have caught fire from Ruth Harris.

Ruth is survived by Pat Patterson, her co-worker and partner of 42 years; Doris Caldwell Rhoades, China colleague and friend of 67 years; her sister Elizabeth May and husband Derald, Phoenix; and her brother Guy Harris and wife Vikki, Des Moines.  She is beloved of her nephews and nieces, Catherine, Roxanna, Michael, and Philip, and Mark, Rebecca, James, and Kathe and their partners, as well as 18 greats and grands.

The Memorial Service will be at Decker Hall, Pilgrim Place, on Sunday, April 28 at 3:30 pm followed by a reception at Napier Center.  Memorial gifts may be sent to; the Ruth Harris Fund for Women’s Leadership, c/o Jorge Domingues, WSCF, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10115, or to Pilgrim Place Health Services Center, 625 Mayflower Road, Claremont, CA 91711.