Interview with Fr. Moses Berry: “The Church belongs to everyone”

Fr. Moses Berry

Fr. Moses Berry, an OCA priest ministering at Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church in Ash Grove, Missouri, has an unusual story. In 1998, he moved with his family from St. Louis to his family’s farm in Ash Grove, near Springfield. Century Farm has been in the Berry family since 1872; on the property a cemetery dedicated to “Slaves, Paupers, and Indians” needed maintenance and oversight, and so Fr. Moses left a mission in the city to return to his rural boyhood home.

A small group of faithful collected around the new mission, Theotokos “Unexpected Joy.”  The tiny cemetery chapel hosted the first services; in 2000 the mission was received into the Orthodox Church in America, and in 2003 parishioners erected a temple.

Fr. Moses travels widely to give talks on mission and also on local Afro-American history; folks who have met him elsewhere often stop by to worship when they pass through the area. In addition to leading the parish, Fr. Moses also heads up The Brotherhood of St Moses the Black, a pan-Orthodox nonprofit organization which presents an annual conference targeting those who have little exposure to Orthodoxy or its African roots.

Recently, interviewed Fr. Moses about his unique ministry.

1.  Father, for those who might not be familiar with your background, can you give us a snapshot of how you came to be an OCA priest?

It was in a seemingly roundabout fashion.  All my life, I’ve had what we in the African American tradition (and some others as well) refer to as a “calling.” I come from a long line of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) preachers of some renown in this area. After being somewhat of a prodigal son, at one point, I found myself being released from incarceration by what seemed to be miraculous means.  I made a promise to serve the Lord, and began a long journey to the Faith, which led me through various Christian and non-Christian groups. When I was ordained by Archbishop JOB in 2000, he told me that I had traveled far to get to the Church, but that I hadn’t “arrived” - the journey would continue.  That made me both thankful for my life to that point, and hopeful for the future.

2.  During Black History Month, it seems especially fitting to discuss your 2011 AAC resolution, which passed by an overwhelming majority. What were you requesting, and why?

I wanted the OCA to invite African American people (referring to those whose ancestors were slaves or could have been slaves, in this country) to the Lord’s feast - not by a “general” invitation because we’ve always been open to everyone, but a specific one. I wanted our Church to call them by name. We know that in Christ there is no East or West, slave or free, no Gentile or Jew, but that very passage indicates that there are distinctions among people, and that God loves us all equally.  It’s time we actively sought after and made a real effort to plant the True Church in the African American community.

The text of the resolution read:
“WHEREAS there are deep resonances between the faith of the early Church and the heartfelt Christianity born out of the American slaves’ experience, especially characterized by the “sad joyfulness” common to the Desert Fathers and Mothers and to the suffering, underground church of the African American slaves, and
WHEREAS African Americans have been and are still significantly under-represented in the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church in America,
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the Orthodox Church in America, at every level of church life, promote and encourage education about the shared heritage of Black and White Americans and the necessity for increased efforts to evangelize the African American community.”

3.  You have said, “to be a Church for all Americans, we will have to overcompensate.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Basic human nature tells us that people are most comfortable with others like themselves.  Many of us take this for granted, and may not understand the profound affect it has on an individual to see an icon that resembles them - or conversely, to never see a face that looks like theirs. So many people I know were profoundly moved when they first encountered the image of St. Moses the Black, because of this.  And that’s part of what I mean by overcompensation - we have to recognize everyone’s human frailty and address it, without being condescending. We need to deeply and soberly, in an Orthodox manner, celebrate the diversity of God’s expression in the human family.

4.  This is a busy month for you. Who do you speak to during this month in schools and churches, and what is the thrust of your message?

I most recently talked to a high school group near the Ft. Leonard Wood army base, and I’m speaking at a FOCUS gathering this week about African American history.  Especially to young people, I point out that we were more than slaves, but helped build the nation.  Young people, who feel, rightly or wrongly, disenfranchised, need to know that their ancestors struggled and made great sacrifices, and were not merely victims.

I also would quote St. Ambrose, when he said “Even in the lowliest status, men should learn that their character can be superior and that no state of life is devoid of virtue if the soul of the individual knows itself. The flesh is subject to slavery, not the spirit, and many humble servants are more free than their masters…Every sin is slavish, while blamelessness is free. On this account the Lord also says ‘Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin.’ Indeed, how is each greedy man not a slave, seeing that he auctions himself off for a very tiny sum.” (Seven Exegetical Works. B#12 Vol. 65, p. 201)

I use my appearances during Black History month as way to introduce people who might not otherwise hear of it to the history of the Church.

5.  Can you tell us a bit about the 19th Annual Ancient Christianity and Afro-American Conference scheduled for May?

There’s a lot of information about it on the Brotherhood web site. The conference this year will be held at Antiochian Village on May 25-27, and will include people from all Orthodox jurisdictions. Bishop Thomas Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese will be the speaker. 

6.  What are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing the clergy and faithful of the OCA today, in regards to reaching out to the African American community?

The first, and most important thing, is to know that we are the true Church, holy, catholic and apostolic, and everyone must be part of it. I have a tiny parish in a tiny town, and I feel that there should be tiny churches in every tiny town, and in every neighborhood.  The Church belongs to everyone - and we are duty-bound to open our hearts, and our doors, however difficult that may be.  In all the years I’ve been a pastor, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “Fr. Moses, how can I minister to Black people?”  I’ve never been asked, “How can I minister to White people?”  So you see, the question is ridiculous. We all do the best we can with what we’ve got, and God gives the increase.