Rev. Ralph Harrell

Obituary of Rev. Ralph Webster Harrell

Ralph Webster Harrell, 90, passed away peacefully on Saturday, November 30, 2019 at  Brookshire Assisted Living in Hillsborough, NC. Ralph was preceded in death by his wife Rosalind Knott Harrell, and eleven brothers and sisters. He is survived by his three children: Stephen, Beverly and Samuel, and their respective spouses: Daniela Coacci, James Barnett, and Melody Carroll. Ralph loved and cherished eight grandchildren during his life: Catherine, Jonathan, Steven, Corwin, Luca, Deborah, Christopher and Carter.  A memorial service will be held at the First Baptist Church of Hillsborough on Saturday, December 07, 2019 at 2:00 pm, followed by a reception.


The family welcomes flowers sent to Walkers Funeral Home, 204 N. Churton Street, Hillsborough, N.C. 27278 or, in lieu of flowers, contributions can be made towards the work of Africa Exchange,


Ralph was born in August of 1929 in Rocky Hock, a rural community of Chowan County in Eastern North Carolina, to Mary Perry and Webster Worcester Harrell. His father farmed peanuts, cotton, and watermelon among other crops, and taught his twelve children how to work hard, be responsible, and love the land. His mother loved and cared for their brood with great affection, instilling in them a love of people and of laughter. To know Grandma Harrell was to understand why there was so much love in the family. Ralph learned his lessons well as throughout his life he never met a stranger, never hesitated to initiate conversation, or wave at people as he drove by, which was customary in his friendly southern community but often bewildered passers-by in other parts of the country and the world, and would eventually embarrass his teenage children, who nonetheless, learned to have the same love of people that their father had always modeled. 


Being the eleventh of twelve children, Ralph got plenty of attention from his six sisters and five brothers. He often recalled that he once asked his mother why she had so many children. She responded: “Well, which ones do you think I should give up?”


The Harrell household was one of affection, hilarity, the occasional drama, and of course, the usual sibling rivalries. One day, Ralph’s younger sister threatened to throw a big bowl of cream she was trying to whip if he put his finger in it one more time. He couldn’t resist, and as a result saw the bowl full of whipped cream being thrown across the kitchen and landing all over him and the entire kitchen. Needless to say, there was penance and punishment that followed, including having to clean up every last bit from the floor, furniture and just about everywhere else. Family lore has it that the little scar above his right eyebrow was received in another sibling fight when this same little sister got so mad at him that she threw a pair of scissors! The telling of these tales always elicited peals of laughter, especially from his own children in later years.


The extended Harrell family believed in hugs, humor, hard work, and good country cooking, so naturally, food and cheerful sociability were always a part of their gatherings, such as the frequent meetings for events at church, whether it was Homecoming or dinner on the grounds during the annual Revival week. And so Ralph experienced first hand that good Baptists rarely get together without having something to eat, and he ate it up.


During his youth and throughout his entire life, Ralph was known for his big smile, easy laugh, and cheerful disposition. He also took seriously his Christian faith, and was very active in Rocky Hock Baptist church while growing up. He was baptized in the Chowan River, the customary location for this special ritual, and most probably walked into the water like the other candidates, wearing a white robe and singing the old hymn “Shall we gather at the river.” The pastors, Sunday School teachers and music ministers of the church had a positive and important impact on his life, and as early as his teen years, he sensed God calling him to preach and was eventually ordained as a minister of the Gospel in his home church. Once that happened, and his daddy knew that Ralph was going to “do the Lord’s work” and would not be choosing farming as a profession, he encouraged him in the pursuits that would lead him to his goal of one day pastoring a church. Ralph was probably the only boy in the family who was not given a farm of his own when he got married. He had other ideas for his future. And yet, he always remained passionate about tilling the earth, tending his vegetables and flowers, getting his hands dirty. Later in life, in another country, he would be known for his beautiful and fragrant rose bushes, as well as one of the most beautifully kept yards, colorful flower beds, and fruitful vegetable gardens one could want to have.


Ralph also showed a talent for music, playing piano by ear and singing in a beautiful tenor voice, and he was a strong student. In elementary school, he would walk three miles, rain or shine, along with other children from neighboring farms, to a one room schoolhouse where students of several grades learned together. When he attended Chowan High School, he loved his studies and excelled to the point that, at the end of his senior year, he was chosen Valedictorian of his class.


Ralph was the first in his family to attend college. This was in the late forties, after the end of the war, in which he had been too young to enroll, but other young men who had served in the military, and could now benefit from the G.I. bill to get their education, flooded the college, creating a housing crisis on campus. As a result, some of the basements of the buildings on the Wake Forest campus were used as dorms, where scores of students of varying ages all slept in a big room and shared the same bathroom facilities. Eventually, Ralph chose to rent a room in a boarding house off campus, working part time jobs to fund his education and lodging. Before his father gave him his first car, a very special moment in his life, he would sometimes hitchhike home several hours with a buddy, all the way from Wake Forest where the campus of the college was then located.


During the summers between college semesters, Ralph worked for the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and like many of his fellow summer workers, he was assigned to small churches in Appalachia or other disadvantaged parts of the state to help them develop Sunday Schools that could relate more to children and young people who were not always reached in a pew, surrounded by adults on Sunday morning. It was during this work that he met a spunky, attractive young woman from a tobacco farm in Granville County. Rosalind, and her twin sister Rebecca, were a force to be reckoned with. They both had strong minds, strong wills, sharp wit, and a sense of fun. When back in Raleigh in the Fall, where they attended Meredith College,  an all-women’s Baptist institute of higher education at the time, they once played a joke on Ralph and his buddy who were going out on a date with them. They switched places in order to see how long it would take their dates to tell them apart and realize that the woman they were with was not the woman they had asked out!


Both young women, also committed Christians, felt that God was calling them to serve people on the foreign mission field. Ralph and Rosalind reached a point of crisis in their relationship when he asked her to marry him. She knew that she was in love with him, but also realized that he did not have the same calling to go overseas as she did. The story goes that she stayed up all night praying, and by morning she knew that she had to leave things in God’s hands to work out their vocational callings, and that the right thing to do at that time was to marry this Rocky Hock boy!


Ralph and Rosalind were married in July of 1952 in Enon Baptist Church near Rosalind’s home place, on one of the hottest days on record. So much so that the candles melted during the service and almost burned the back and the dress of Ralph’s younger sister, Norma, who was one of the bride’s maids. Perhaps it was the universe’s way of getting her back (no pun intended) for the thrown bowl of whipped cream and the scissors to the forehead!


The Harrells had their first child in the Fall of the next year, during which they had lived in Hamlet, North Carolina where Ralph was a youth pastor at a large Baptist church. Soon after baby Stephen was born however, Ralph had to travel to Louisville, Kentucky to begin classes at Southern seminary before Rosalind was ready to travel with the infant, so she followed several weeks later, flying in a then common prop plane. Enough time had lapsed that the baby had no idea who this smiling man was reaching out to hold him at the airport, and he promptly started to scream and wail at the top of his lungs. Needless to say, Ralph was rather crestfallen.  


Both Ralph and Rosalind attended classes at the seminary. Rosalind attended part time at the Carver School of Religious Education and on some days, left the baby with a sitter and took a bus into inner city Louisville where she did some substitute teaching. The kids were rather tough, and she tried the best she could to keep them in line. One time when Ralph took her place on a day when she was sick, he returned home absolutely exhausted. Later, the students confessed to Mrs. Harrell that they had run all over Mr. Harrell had let them walk all over him!


Their second child, Beverly, arrived four years after Stephen, and when she was one year old, the Harrells were appointed as missionaries to Tanzania, on the eastern side of Africa. It boggles the mind to think how their families must have felt at the prospect of their adult son and daughter taking their two small children to the other side of the world, in 1958 no less. Nonetheless, they boarded the New Amsterdam ocean liner in the New York City harbor, travel by sea being the more common way to go such long distances in those days, sailed to Southampton, England, boarded the Kenya Castle liner, and sailed for several weeks past the rock of Gibraltar, to Genoa, Aden, Cairo and through the Suez Canal, down the coast of then British controlled East Africa to the capital of Tanganyika, Dar es Salaam.


The family served there in the first Baptist church established in the country, as well as in some of the villages on the outskirts of the city, for about three and a half years, interrupted by a year’s furlough, helping to grow the church, disciple young Christians, and teach leadership skills, literacy, sewing and other ways that might help young men and women survive in this diverse urban environment where the traditional tribal village did not exist and where the traditions and mores of rural Africa were fast disappearing. Early on in their missionary experience, Ralph and Rosalind won the hearts of the people they served, with their loving attention and genuine affection for them. When the heat, humidity and malaria of Dar es Salaam began to compromise Rosalind’s health, the family transferred to Nairobi, Kenya where the weather was much less oppressive, and the altitude about 5,000 feet higher.


They settled in Kenya about the time that the country was receiving its independence from Great Britain. Many of the white farmers and civil servants were nervous about what was going to happen during the transfer of power, but it turned out that Jomo Kenyatta, an Oxford educated anthropologist, and a former freedom fighter against the British, was the best thing that could have happened to the “new” county and its government at that time, and for several years, Kenya enjoyed peace and prosperity. In Nairobi, Ralph served as mission treasurer and also worked with African pastors in church planting and discipleship. Rosalind worked with the women in the community, cared for the children and invited many guests into their home. It seems that his whole missionary career, Ralph would juggle two or three responsibilities, which could each have been a full time job, but he and Rosalind loved their ministries and fell in love with the people of Kenya and the beauty of the country, at the same time establishing friendships with the expatriate British, former colonialists, businessmen whose forefathers had come from India and Pakistan to build the railroad from the coast to the highlands, and people of many other nationalities, religions and ethnic groups. They modeled for their children what it means to love all people, just as Christ loved and died for all humanity. They invited all kinds of people into their home, in turn being invited into the homes of Hindi speaking Indians, Arab speaking Muslims, Swahili and Kikuyu speaking Kenyans, and folks from European countries, Australia, and on and on.    


Into this context was born their third child, Samuel, in 1963, and not long after, they were asked by the mission to transform an old British hotel near the town of Limuru that had gone into bankruptcy, and which the East Baptist mission of East Africa had purchased for a song, into a conference center where groups of all denominations could meet. At 7,000 feet above sea level, It was a huge contrast with living on the coast and even with Nairobi, which one could see on a clear day, 2,000 feet below on the plains. Winters, which were in July and August, were cold, sometimes in the upper forties and low fifties, and without central heat, fire places were common in homes and were always lit at that time of year. During the day, however, things warmed up quickly, and except for the foggy, overcast days, perfect for growing the acres of tea around them, and residents were gifted with brilliant blue skies, lush green hillsides, and the rarified air of the Kenya highlands.


Ralph worked tirelessly at managing a staff of employees to get the buildings and grounds in livable condition since the hotel had remained out of operation for some time. Rosalind took on the role of caterer and helped train or retrain the kitchen staff, many of whom had worked there when it was a hotel and told salacious stories about visiting movie stars on safari, and their various vices. Once the conference center opened, Ralph and Rosalind became accustomed to serving two hundred guests at a time, for a week or two at a time, depending upon the length of the conferences. They also developed good relations with their British neighbors, some of whom were descendants of the original colonialists and had been in the country for two or three generations, running tea and coffee plantations and dairy farms. Their personalities and their upbringing in the rural south served them well, and as in each place they worked, they became known for their hospitality, their love of the people, their sense of fairness, and for the respect they showed all.


After a few years in Limuru developing Brackenhurst (the former name of the hotel) Baptist Assembly, Ralph and Rosalind were asked to work in the field of international publications, so they moved back to Nairobi for a time just as Stephen was getting ready to graduate from an American missionary boarding school, having attended local Kenyan schools that were still heavily influenced by the British curriculum, in turn influencing these American kids, who could  sound just as English as the next Brit. Meanwhile, Sammy, as he was called then, who was born in Nairobi, was growing up speaking Swahili, and more than any in the family, was establishing deep roots in Kenya and strong ties with its cultures and people, along with a wild sense of adventure.


In an obituary for Ralph Harrell, you might ask why so much here is dealing with his family, his work and his relationships with the people of East Africa. Well, frankly, that is the best way to understand who Ralph Harrell was. Family was everything to Ralph. He was consistently himself, jovial, people loving, dedicated and dependable, and even today one can meet someone from Kenya, Tanzania or from the U.S. who knew him, and they will always describe the characteristics of a man of God: open and hospitable, somewhat larger than life, a lover of people, a man who made others feel loved, and who in return, along with his wife, was deeply loved by so many. He was a true pastor for those who crossed his path, a shepherd for “the least of these.”


When, years later in 1995, Ralph and Rosalind retired and returned to the U.S. after having worked in Sunday School literature production for Eastern and Southern Africa, training writers, mentoring young Africans, and after having served as mission administrators and counselors of younger missionaries, Bible Correspondence School and language school directors (and countless other tasks and responsibilities), they were in many ways the same generous hearted couple who had left in 1958, wiser now and perhaps less naive, but still full of the love for all people, with almost the same energy they had always had, and with the same excitement to be involved in ministering to people as they did when they were young, aspiring servants of their Lord.


Ralph and Rosalind took this love, energy and enthusiasm, and rather than rest on their laurels and relax their way through retirement, instead took up the reigns of responsibility in their local church, Mars Hill, and in their local association and community, and continued to reach out, hold up, and inspire many. Ralph was interim pastor in many churches well into his late 70’s. And when he was near 80, he was asked to pastor full time a church in Durham. With his gentle, loving and diplomatic way, he led the church to open its buildings to congregations of Christians from other countries and languages. To this day, that church building is used by groups from Spanish speaking countries, refugees from Myanmar, and a third congregation of mostly young professionals who strive to reach out to a diverse, urban community in the name of Jesus. During their time at then Lakewood Baptist church, they had a very positive influence on their congregants, and taught them much about reaching out to a world without borders.


It has only been in the last five years or so that Ralph’s health has begun to fail, as he has suffered from interstitial lung disease and the need to be on oxygen at all times. Rosalind died in 2017, and naturally, after almost sixty years together, he missed her every day. Their family will miss them both forever. All who knew them have been especially blessed, as they too were blessed by those whom they served. There was hardly a day that went by during the past year when he was in Assisted Living  that Ralph did not receive a visitor to his room in Assisted Living, attesting to the fact that, in spite of increasing debility, he was still the open-hearted, loving, and well loved follower of Christ he always was, even to the very end of his life.

The Harrell family is being assisted by Walker's Funeral Home of Hillsborough.  

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