Harris Cook was on scholastic probation at the University of Alabama, more interested in drinking and partying than studying, when God reached down and changed his heart, saving him and setting him on a new course.
Cook, who recently retired as pastor of the Birmingham-area CrossBridge Community Church, Helena, had changed majors several times and was pre-law when he “met Jesus” 52 years ago. He began taking a Bible to class, and his grades drastically improved.
Just before school dismissed for Christmas break, one of Cook’s law professors asked to speak with him after class.
“He said he noticed I brought my Bible,” Cook told The Alabama Baptist. “I said, ‘I just can’t get enough of it, and every spare moment I have I’m reading and keeping a journal and weeping over the lost people that don’t know the Lord.’”
The professor told him, “I think you could make a good lawyer, but I think you need to go home and pray about whether you’re supposed to do a law degree or if God has something for you to argue for His cause. I feel like maybe the Lord’s calling you to preach,” Cook recounted.
“It blew me away, coming from an Alabama college professor,” he said. But the professor revealed he was a pastor’s son and attuned to what God was doing in Cook’s life.
‘My walk with the Lord’
By the spring semester, Cook was enrolled at Samford University, Birmingham.
“My first year or two of preaching was about David and Goliath and Jonah and the whale and all the things that people that grew up in church did in Vacation Bible School,” Cook remembered. “But here was a 20-something preacher preaching all the Bible school stories because that’s where I was in my walk with the Lord.”
After graduating from Samford, Cook went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and took his first pastorate in Proffitt, Texas, “just a little wide place in the road, out in the woods on the plain.”
In 1975, Cook and his wife moved back to Alabama with their young son, and he became pastor of Garywood Baptist Church, Hueytown.
While at Garywood, Cook earned a doctoral degree through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary extension program in Birmingham, writing a dissertation about ministry to single adults — helped greatly by single adults at the church, he said.
Some five years later, Cook followed Rick Lance — executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions — as pastor of West End Baptist Church in Birmingham. From there he went to First Baptist, Alexander City, then Northside Baptist, Jasper.
While in Jasper, Cook’s wife of 24 years died of cancer at age 42. God later provided Jenny, to whom Cook has been married for 27 years. They went from Jasper to Venezuela together in 2000 as some of the first International Mission Board workers chosen in the new millennium. In 2006, Cook was called as co-pastor of CrossBridge.
Walk with God
Looking back, one of the things that stands out most to Cook is when he was at West End Baptist and his first wife was very ill. She spent nearly three months in the hospital when their son was in elementary school.
“During that time, there was just so much on me that I got in my car one day, and I was just going to drive off, change my name and leave,” Cook recalled. “The pressure got so great. I don’t even know where I drove. I was just in another world. I pulled off the side of the road, went off and sat on a stump.
“I said, ‘Lord, I can’t do it anymore.’ I was trying to be a good husband, a good father, a good pastor, a good friend, a good son. It weighed me down. Sitting on the stump, the Lord was as real to me as me talking to you.
“[I heard Him say} ‘You’re making it hard. All you have to do is hear Me and walk with Me and please Me. If you do My will for your life, you will be the best husband, father, pastor, son and friend that you can possibly be.’”
That encounter with God changed Cook’s ministry, he said. From then on, his mornings started with asking God what He had for him to do that day.
“Rather than building my life around life, I built it around God,” Cook said. “It made a tremendous difference. It gave me a new perspective because I knew that God was with me in all that I was going through and that He had a plan and a purpose, and I didn’t have to understand everything. I just had to walk it by obedience.”
There definitely were difficult times during 50 years of ministry, Cook acknowledged.
“Not everybody in church is nice. I would love to say that they are, but they’re not,” he said, adding that even the Old Testament prophets weren’t liked by everyone.
“You just have to be loyal and faithful and true and obedient to the Lord Jesus, and that makes for a wonderful, beautiful experience with God,” Cook said. “Even in retirement I know I can do anything He wants me to do because my life is His.”