Sands and Harper: African-American Christian Achievers

History teaches us about people who have proven themselves to have what it takes to make a positive impact, achieve success, and help others along the way. Don Harper and Alex Sands are two African-American Christians who have faced racism, injustice, and rejection. Yet, both emerged from those experiences as accomplished men of faith.

Sands is the first African-American president in the history of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He serves as the pastor of Kingdom Life Church in Simpsonville. Harper is the first African-American chair of any board among the institutional partners of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He currently serves as trustee chairman for Anderson University. He is a member of Utica Baptist Church in Seneca and a former vice president with Goodyear.

Sands first experienced overt racism when he was a student at North Carolina State University. “It was the first time I was called the N-word,” he said.

“My dad was a colonel in the Army. When we went to Andrews Air Force Base or any other base, Dad got a salute. It didn’t matter the color of skin of the person at the gate. Dad always got a salute,” he recalled.

“My father would never allow us to use race or racism as an excuse. He always told us we would not have it as hard as he did, and that we should work harder and work longer,” Sands said. “He was right. I believe the work God has called me to do and what He has fashioned me to be could not have been done by being a different race, or in any other family, or in any other place. Everything has been orchestrated by the hand of God.”

Harper wrote a book, “Blessed Is the Man,” that outlines the values of his parents. He said their influence helped to shape his life.

“At a critical point in my career at Goodyear, I was given the job as human resource manager at our plant in Beaumont, Texas. It was 1981 and the school system was just being integrated there,” he recalled. “The plant manager there told the vice president at Goodyear that he didn’t think I should come to Beaumont because I was an African-American. The vice president told him, ‘Sir, Don Harper will be the personnel manager on Monday. The question is whether you will be the plant manager on Monday,’” Harper said.

“I went there and performed over and beyond and became his chief counsel. That man was one of the best leaders for me that I ever had inside the company,” Harper added. “As Pastor Sands says, it sometimes just takes one.”

Sands said, “I had a third-grade teacher who made a difference in my life. Up until third grade, I was in remedial classes. We had a math exam one day, and I was finished in about three minutes. The other students were struggling. My teacher graded it, and I got 100.

“I will never forget when she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Alex, you do not belong here.’ She got up from her desk and walked me to level two (remedial was level three) and asked, ‘Alex doesn’t belong in my class. Do you have room here?’ When she was told there was no room, she said, ‘Fine,’ and walked me up the hall to level one. She was my advocate,” Sands said.

He stayed in level one until he moved into the gifted and talented group. “But it just took one teacher,” he added.

Harper watched his dad suffer the pains of prejudice while he was growing up. Those hateful things that were done to his dad hurt, but his dad taught him the importance of focusing on what he could do. So, in spite of overwhelming odds, his dad went to the office of a white banker in the town to get a loan to buy 80 acres of farmland.

Harper said, “The thing of it is, even before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, my dad convinced this banker to approve a loan for him, when he had no collateral or anything else. I talked with his daughter recently and found that he was a Psalm 1 man, just like my dad. I also discovered that he helped other African-Americans get loans. He was a friend of Obadiah Scott, whose daughter was Coretta Scott, and he was invited to and attended the wedding of Coretta and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He found a way to get to know people and help them. He was a risk taker and willing to go over and beyond what he needed to do.”

Harper added that if we continue to work on race relations, things can get better. “The greatest things can happen, like the one-on-one conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman in John 4,” he said. “There were all kinds of racial connotations in that conversation, and Jesus did a marvelous job in that situation.”

Sands agreed, “Stepping out and just saying, ‘Hey, I would love to have coffee with you and chat or whatever — just listen to your story.’ Then bring God into it. You forget what race someone is or what part of the country they come from, once you start talking about Jesus and fellowshipping around the Word.

“But we have to be willing to step out, take that risk and give one another the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “I love that story about the banker. All it takes is one person or one organization to change the culture and the environment. That banker transformed Mr. Harper’s family tree.”

Harper recalled that when he visited Utica Baptist Church, he was greeted outside the doors by a man with his hand extended, who said with a smile, “Brother, I am glad to see you here this morning.” That, Harper said, “meant a lot it me.”

Harper soon became a Sunday school teacher in the predominantly white church, and the class grew to be the largest in the church. When the pastor resigned for another ministry opportunity, Harper was elected chairman of the pastor search committee.

Sands admits that he has experienced racism, but said, “God is greater. The fact that we’re even talking about this — descendants of slaves (referring to himself and Harper) — even having this conversation is great. Think about all Don has accomplished in the corporate world, and just to think about, being in a predominantly white congregation teaching Sunday school, becoming a leader in the church — It is nothing short of the hand of God at work. It is all God.”

Both men agreed that negative racial attitudes cannot be overcome by yelling at each other or attempting to legislate how people think and behave. Harper said, “It’s got to happen with the heart.”

Both men say they benefited from godly men in the church, mentoring and discipling them as they developed. They both had the foundation of a solid traditional home life, and they both are advocates of helping young people by becoming father figures for them. Both are men of strong Christian values, and they both emphasize the importance of all being the one person who makes a positive, life-changing impact in someone’s life.

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