Staff Spotlight – Sam Harrell
Meet American Bible Society’s Director of Strategic Partnerships with our First Bible Ministry
Tell us a little about yourself!
First of all, I would say that I am a Christian. At American Bible Society that may sound like an obvious thing, but it’s also the most important thing—who I am in Christ! I’ve been married to my wife, Rhodah, for 22 years, and we have one son and two daughters. For over 32 years, I have preached the gospel in pulpits and taught God’s Word as God gave opportunity. This includes founding the Bread of Life Bible Fellowship and being “Pastor Sam” to the Kenyan diaspora in my Delaware community for over a decade, which is one of my greatest joys. My wife is originally from Kenya, and I always thought that God was preparing me for ministry in Kenya. Instead, he has given us a ministry to the diaspora, which has been a real blessing in my family’s life! Finally, a huge part of my relationship with Christ is my music ministry: SamHarrellMusic.com. So far, I have produced three gospel albums! Music is how I glorify God with my heart on display as a songwriter and musician.
How did you come to faith in Jesus Christ?
I was born and raised in West Philadelphia. My dad came from a Christian home; his father, Rev. Melton C. Harrell, was a local church pastor. My mom grew up in a more secular home, although her parents were occasional churchgoers. My parents were high school sweethearts who met at Overbrook High. They were still young when I was born, and a year later, they had my sister. Unfortunately, they divorced when I was young.
My mother came to Christ when I was five. From then on, she took my sister and me to church often. My earliest church experience was at my grandfather’s church, Wynnefield Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, but in 1978, my mother joined Christian Stronghold Baptist Church. One day, our Sunday School teacher asked my class how many of us were Christians. I recall raising my hand along with the others, but inwardly I asked myself, “What is a Christian?” I took the question to my mom, and she used a children’s gospel tract called “The Good News” to explain the gospel to me. She told me that Jesus was standing at the door of my heart and that all I had to do was open the door to receive him. I said, “Yes, please Jesus, come into my heart! I am a sinner—please save me!” My mom told me that Jesus was to be the Lord of my life, and I have grown in my love for him ever since.
How did God prepare you for ministry?
I began moving toward ministry in 1986, when I taught myself to play piano and formed a gospel singing group called F.A.I.T.H (Forsaking All I Trust Him). I immersed myself in the Bible, and in 1987, at the age of 17, I preached my first sermon. The following year, I began to discern a call from God to preach the Word all the days of my life. I shared this with my pastor, who began mentoring me. In 1989, at a small church in Southwest Philadelphia called Ezekiel Baptist Church, I received my license to preach the gospel—32 years ago this month!
While I had a strong desire to go to Bible college, I wasn’t yet sure which vocation God wanted for me. Then, in 1992, while studying at Temple University, I was able to travel to Kenya on a two-month mission trip sponsored by our campus ministry. That trip changed my life, and my heart was touched by the Kenyan people. When I came home, I enrolled at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University) in Langhorne, PA. During my first month on campus, I met Rhodah Kipyab, a fellow student. We courted for six years and married in 1999.
What was your career path before you joined American Bible Society?
While in college, I worked full-time for a ministry that trained churches in nonprofit organizational development. I started out as just the young guy who was the project associate, but after eight years I became the director!
In 2000, I took a job in Washington, D.C. as manager of the Faith-Based Community Economic Development Initiative of the National Congress for Community Economic Development (NCCED). Notably, I worked for Dr. Wheeler Winstead, who is the uncle of Rev. Dr. Nicole Martin. Rev. Dr. Martin is now American Bible Society’s Senior Vice President for Ministry Impact. I was then recruited to serve as Vice President of a philanthropic foundation in Central Pennsylvania. This was a great fit for me since I had cultivated an interest in becoming a grant maker. I served the foundation for over a year before I was invited to work for Public/Private Ventures as a Senior Program Officer for Public Policy and Community Initiatives. In that role, I testified before Congress, provided millions of dollars in grant funding to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) grantees as part of a major policy initiative focused on ex-offender reentry, and on the side, began teaching grant writing at two Christian universities. I went on to write a book for the DOL, advise mayoral offices in Memphis, TN and Philadelphia, PA, manage Philadelphia-area grant programs, serve at Capstone Legacy Foundation—a Christian community foundation—and found the Center for Christian Nonprofit Excellence (CCNE).
In 2015, I presented the work of CCNE to a group of Christian Philadelphia leaders, including American Bible Society. I gave everyone my business card and later received an email about a Philadelphia Mobilizer position. I responded and on November 2, joined American Bible Society. I recently celebrated my sixth anniversary.
Can you tell us about your role at American Bible Society?
I was hired as a Philly Mobilizer, since American Bible Society had just moved to Philadelphia from New York City. Within 5 weeks, I got promoted, so that was a quick change! I went on to serve as a director, overseeing Bible engagement efforts in our U.S. cities, Armed Services Ministry, Multilanguage Ministry, Catholic Initiatives, national partnerships, and, most recently, the Year of the Bible 2020 campaign. For the Year of the Bible campaign, I was away from American Bible Society for 18 months.
I returned to American Bible Society in January of 2021, joined our First Bible Global Access Partnerships (FBGAP) team, and jumped right into my new role of overseeing U.S. Catholic Initiatives and our End-to-End Program, the latter being a global initiative in 50 countries. Both promote Bible access and engagement. End-to-End, in particular, invites people who are not yet Christians to meet Christ through watching a gospel film, then experiencing Scripture through an audio Bible listening group, and then receiving their own Bible and being discipled by the local church. We call it End-to-End because it guides people from not being a Christian to the other end of knowing Christ and joining the church. It is active all over the world and is growing.
As the Director of Strategic Partnerships for FBGAP, I work with both ministry and financial partners who are part of the First Bible mission. I do fundraising and, in the case of End-to-End, grow partnerships with church planters and amazing gospel film providers like the Jesus Film and Lumo Project and audio Bible listening partners like Faith Comes By Hearing. My colleague, Erle Deira, was the principal leader of End-to-End and the one who’s been growing it over the years. When I returned to American Bible Society in January, he mentored me to take over this ministry, but it is definitely his work that I now get to build on. I am standing on his shoulders!
What is your favorite part of your work?
I am passionate about the work that I do. I have felt that way about all my various assignments at American Bible Society—in each role, I’ve been able to make decisions that help thousands of people experience God’s Word. And through Catholic Initiatives and End-to-End, I have been able to be part of projects that reached millions of people. It’s humbling to sit in your office and know that a decision you made translates into God’s Word going forth to waiting people. That’s an amazing job!
I also love my colleagues. I get to work with some outstanding people. We pray together and we connect at multiple levels in our journey, both professionally and personally. All of that is an amazing gift. The work that we do is life-giving, for me personally and for the people who are experiencing God’s Word through our efforts.
Would you share one of your favorite Bible verses with us?
My life’s verse is one that was posted on a little piece of paper on my mom’s dining room wall in West Philadelphia. I grew up looking at it, and it still holds so much meaning for me:
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:24-26 (KJV)
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