There are a lot of iconic numbers in our world. If you’re a basketball fan, Jordan’s and LeBron’s 23 comes to mind. If you grew up in England when I did, you saw David Beckham’s England and Manchester United shirts with the number 7 on the back everywhere you went. We’re told from an early age that “third time’s a charm.” While he’s not particularly superstitious, Richard Harrell might say his lucky number is 12.
That’s the age when he first committed to giving his life to Christ and serving others. Then, in the grade 12, he became hooked on flying planes. Little did he know how these two 12s would combine to change his life and the lives of so many others.
After high school, Richard attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on a baseball scholarship. After two years, he moved on to Moody Aviation School to continue his flight training. He could’ve landed a lucrative job flying for a commercial airliner or jetting celebrities and executives around, but Richard’s call to serve took him back to Lesotho, a small kingdom encircled by South Africa, where he grew up as the son of two missionaries.
Once there, Richard served as a pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship, ferrying medical supplies and teams to remote areas and taking people who were sick or wounded to hospitals and medical centers. His workdays were nonstop and so was his personal life, with he and his wife welcoming four boys to the family within their first five years of marriage.
“I was doing meaningful work through this ministry, but it felt like something was missing and that God had a different plan in store for me,” Richard said.
This new path eventually revealed itself when he heard a talk given by Trevor Downham, founder of Genesis Trust. Richard was amazed by the story of how in addition to pastoring Norwegian Settler’s Church, Trevor had started a care center for people with HIV/AIDS in Port Shepstone, which has the highest incidence of this disease in the world.
Early risers in Port Shepstone, South Africa, taking advantage of the community center run by Access friend Richard Harrell.
When he and his wife took Trevor up on his invitation to visit, Trevor also saw firsthand how rugby and lifting weights in the youth center’s gym were giving young people in that desperately poor, AIDS-ridden community a way out of the drug and alcohol abuse that’s so prevalent there. “I saw my dream being lived out,” Richard said.
After a long discussion about the ministry and sharing how inspired he was by it, Richard was stunned by the sudden question Trevor asked: “How would you like to come manage the community center for me?”
Richard and his family were settled and he was running a youth soccer program for more than 300 kids, so the decision to uproot was not an easy one. But as the family talked and prayed it through, they realized that the opportunity was too good to pass up. Though it meant stepping out into the unknown, they were up for the challenge.
To begin with, Richard oversaw the center’s gym and sports programs. He quickly saw the positive effects on the young people who came for the exercise but stayed for the community, fellowship and mentoring that Richard and his team offered. “This is a male-dominant, sexist culture, so we have to completely reeducate how young men think about and treat women,” he said. “We also teach them that education offers a way out of poverty and that they can be the ones to end the cycle of physical, sexual and substance abuse that they see all around them.”
In addition to providing a safe place to work out and play sports, the center also offers reading rooms, music programs and many other non-sports-related activities. “Anything that we can do to reach young people becomes a useful tool,” Richard said. “We teach the kids that while building their bodies has benefits, they also can come to us to develop their minds and spirits as well.”
Check back next week to discover how Access founder and CEO Tim Elliott met Richard and the amazing ways they’re not only helping change kids’ lives in Port Shepstone, but also in Lambert’s Bay.