In the fall of 1995, I inherited the old Berry farm from my Uncle Lawrence. His mother, Grandma Berry, always said that she was going to leave the farm to me, so I could take care of it.
There is an old family cemetery on the property, and soon I organized its re-dedication as an Orthodox one, “Holy Resurrection Cemetery.” Around a half dozen of my clergy friends from around the country came to participate in this momentous occasion. The weekend’s festivities included an outdoor Divine Liturgy to be served the following morning, but it started to rain, so we had to make other arrangements. After searching for a suitable place, we realized that the only available space was the hayloft in Richard and Sheri White’s barn in a nearby town. We decorated it with icons and lampadas, and placed some folding analogions. The smell of incense filled the air. It reminded us of the manger in which Our Lord was born. When the weekend was over, we departed in peace and returned to our homes.
Later that week, I was picking up my 9 year old son, Elijah and his friend Brian from school, and we passed by a magnificent structure, St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church. We’d already passed our little storefront church, which was in a somewhat depressed part of the neighborhood. Elijah said, “that’s our church!” in a most innocent and proud way. As we made our way through the streets, I could hear the boys talking in the back seat. Brian belittled our church and compared it to the splendor of his church, St. Margaret’s. It took every ounce of effort for me not to help my son to defend his church. Then, to my surprise, Elijah said, “I have attended Liturgy in a barn, and it was every bit as lovely and holy as St. Margaret’s!” Brian replied, “Oh, I see!” and that was the end of the conversation. I was so proud to witness that which was hidden from men was revealed to babes.
Around the same time, my wife was working as a secretary in a large, historic Presbyterian church, in St. Louis’s Central West End. The sanctuary was beautiful, replete with Tiffany stained glass and an enormous organ. One day she took our 6-year-old daughter, Dorothy, to work with her, and they toured the building. In the sanctuary, Dorothy asked her how many people went to that church, perhaps thinking of our little storefront. My wife replied, “several hundred, I guess.” Dorothy looked around and said with confidence, “Well, if you include all the people in the icons, we have at least that many!” So great a cloud of witnesses she recognized!
Thus, we are reminded that God is everywhere present and fills all things. Sometimes we forget that in the most meager of circumstances, God is with us. “God is with us, understand all ye people, and submit yourselves, for God is with us.” (from Great Compline)
In the year 1982, before my wife and I were to be married, we decided it was time to pay a visit to our folks and introduce our respective mates. It was quite a few years since either of us had seen our parents.
We left Atlanta to visit Magdalena’s folks in suburban Washington. We drove all day and arrived at their house in the early afternoon. We were greeted by her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, who cordially invited us in, with the warmest of greetings. As I viewed the house from the foyer, I saw her father sitting at the kitchen table with his back turned towards us. He didn’t make the slightest gesture of welcome. I started to consider how I’d react to his cold shoulder and seemingly obvious rejection of my presence. If he came towards me with malice, as I imagined, waving a broom and striking at me, I’d just fall on my knees to the floor and let him beat me. I would submit. After all, I was taking his daughter away.
After a very short time, which to me seemed like forever, he rose from the table and approached me with outstretched hand and a smile on his face, saying, “Welcome to our house!” He explained why he didn’t quickly come to greet us. You see, he was an amateur calligrapher, and he was in the midst of a letter stroke and didn’t want to stop for fear of blotting the ink. And I mistook the whole thing, as we often do. As I often say, we accept or reject people on the most flimsy evidence. Mr. Arkin remained exceedingly kind to me, and any difficulty he had, he kept to himself.
They set before us sumptuous fare. We had a most pleasant afternoon, and then started the drive back to Atlanta.
A few weeks later, we made the trip to visit my folks in the Missouri Ozarks. We arrived at my mother’s house on Thanksgiving day, and all my siblings were there, and a few other relatives, and random visitors who popped in for a plate. Later that evening, while we were having dessert and coffee, my Uncle Delmus and Aunt Ida dropped by to give a nod of approval to this girl that I had brought home. Delmus, a slight wiry man who never minced words, invited us to take a little drive with him in his 1950 Ford pick-up. Magdalena sat in the middle, a rare honor, because Uncle Delmus was quite discerning about who he hauled around in his truck.
After we had driven around for a while and returned home, parking in my mother’s driveway, Uncle Delmus turned to me and said, “Cat, you got yourself a good woman there. Sits there, keeps her mouth shut, acts like she’s got some sense!” Let me interpret: you have a good woman who’s not presumptuous and doesn’t have to put her two cents in on everything that’s said; she’s quite observant and conducts herself in a humble manner. From that point on, I knew that I had my uncle’s approval.
After we had a good night’s rest, my mother insisted that we visit our old relatives in Greenfield, Mo. We drove to the little town, to a long-forgotten neighborhood where Black people had lived since the end of the Civil War. It was known as Long’s Alley, after my great-grandfather, Robert Long, a Methodist preacher affectionately called “Bakker Bob” because he chewed tobacco. He was the son of a slave, and he remembered when, as a boy, he saw Jesse James, the famous outlaw, as his gang rode through town. Robert’s mother hid him under the staircase of a building on the town square. He and others were the formidable people I remember from my childhood – who helped me develop into the man I am today.
All that was left of that neighborhood were the tumble-down ruins of the stone masonry house that he’d built with his bare hands. On the very end of that street was a two-room clapboard house. My wife felt, as we drove towards it, that we were headed towards nowhere, as the little house was now surrounded by hayfields. I felt a bit of embarrassment, a feeling I hadn’t had for quite a long time. Here I was, taking my wife to the battered remnant of what I remembered as a vibrant community.
We knocked on the front door, and these two little old ladies in their ’90s, who were also children of slaves, answered. One was blind, the other didn’t see very well. We came in and sat on the sofa, and they were so happy to see me! I was from the generation that they had so such high hopes for. After we’d exchanged pleasantries and I caught them up on my life and where I had been, they offered us refreshments, which I quickly declined because I could see an open bag of Oreo cookies on the kitchen table of this house, that smelled of kerosene and chamber pot. But they insisted, and stood before me with a platter of cookies, smiling from ear to ear, knowing that these were something I’d surely enjoy.
As I took my first bite, the taste of lovingkindness, the acceptable gift, filled my palate with delight. I don’t think I’ve ever had a sweeter cookie since. I will always remember that wonderful day in the country, when I first understood that a gift given from the heart was quite precious. Sometimes we look at our neighbor and only see what we imagine, like my father-in-law’s hostility, or my old relatives’ poverty, and we miss the real gifts being offered to us because of our own judgment. Let me reiterate: We accept or dismiss people on equally flimsy evidence and miss the gift before us.
People often ask me how I came to join the Orthodox Church. When they first began to ask this question, I was somewhat offended, because I interpreted it as being how does a Black man from the Ozarks become part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’ve since gotten over that, and used the occasion as an opportunity to testify to the magnificence of our Lord.
Let me start with a story of a visit to my uncle, Frederick, in Wichita, Kansas. In our family, there’s a tradition of the children receiving a blessing from family elders. Uncle Fred was on his deathbed, in hospice care. My uncle Lawrence called me in St. Louis, where we were living at the time and asked me to take him from his home in Ash Grove to visit his brother in Wichita. I agreed and set off with my children, Dorothy and Elijah.
It was a memorable trip, with adventures along the way, as my uncle insisted on taking back roads instead of the interstate as much as possible. I suppose this reminded him of the routes he took in days gone by. When we arrived in Wichita, the children and I were ushered into Uncle Fred’s room. He laid hands on Dorothy and Eli, and blessed them, according to the tradition. Then he looked at me, and saw my large pectoral cross and ankle length black robe, and asked, “and what are you?”
I immediately felt defensive and ashamed, as though I had betrayed our family tradition of African American preachers, and I knew I had to respond in a humble and submissive way. I sheepishly replied, believing that he had no idea what Orthodoxy was, “I’m an Orthodox priest,” and I awaited his judgement. He said, “Oh, the Orthodox Church. They have the most beautiful temples and paintings on their walls. I really like the looks of the Orthodox Church I think there’s something to it.” Fred, who had been a deacon in St. Mary’s Baptist Church in Wichita, was a retired mail carrier and had an Orthodox cathedral on his route. He looked at me and said, “If you don’t think you’re in the best church in the world, then, my friend, you are in the wrong church!”
Now, to how I became Orthodox. I remember so clearly, when I was a boy, sitting on the back steps of the house my great grandfather built in 1871 and watching my mother hanging out the wash on a clothesline, with scent of fried potatoes and onions wafting through the air. I asked her, “Mom, why are there so many races?” She turned to me and said, “Son, it’s because we are all flowers in God’s garden. Some of us are roses, some are peonies, some are petunias, and some of us are crabgrass. But we’re all flowers in God’s garden!”
I spent most of my teen and young adult life trying to find the flowers in God’s garden that looked like me. I searched high and low for that field which contained the pearl of great price, but I couldn’t find it. I looked in Eastern religion and New Age religion, Native American religion, too, but it all fell short of what my soul sought – that other-worldly Christian fragrance.
When my wife and I were first married, we lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and our friend John invited us to visit him in Richmond, Virginia. The plan was to have a lovely dinner Saturday evening and go to his church for services Sunday morning, where I was scheduled to give the homily. On the highway up to Richmond, I was driving a little too fast and we were stopped by the police and taken to the station, most likely, I think, for being an interracial couple. “Arm in arm went black and white, and some saw red…” I’m adding this detail because our trip was somewhat fraught and delayed, and by the time we reached John’s house, it was already near 6:00 in the evening.
When we got there, he rushed us off to an Orthodox vespers service, the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. As we walked up the back entrance of this house church, I remembered saying in an embarrassingly loud voice, much to my wife’s chagrin, “This isn’t really a church!” I walked into a small upper room chapel. My eyes were drawn towards the kliros where there was a small, three person choir. Later, I realized through experience that this was most likely comprised of the priest’s wife, the reader and one other faithful. I said, once again, teasing my wife, “this isn’t really a choir!” And then I heard them sing, “Rejoice, thou through whom God will flash forth. Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam, Rejoice redemption of the tears of eve, Rejoice thou through whom the curse will cease, Rejoice thou Bride unwedded.” These words resonated deep within me. I had never heard such words before, nor did I know you could use language to describe the indescribable. I was cut to the quick. All my life, I’ve suffered from dyslexia, and it has caused me embarrassment and shame, to say the least. And once again, I heard the choir sing, “She [the Mother of God] makes most eloquent orators as dumb as fish.” Then I knew where the genuine expression of human intelligence was truly to be found, within the Mother of God, she who causes the Sun to appear.
By this time, I had warmed up to this little church, where it seemed the whole of creation resided. Around that time, the priest walked out of the Royal Doors with the censer filled with frankincense, and fragrant smoke filled the air. Once again, the evil one whispered in my ear, “Incense is no good. It must be masking the smell of something else.”
Then I looked towards the priest, and I saw on the icon screen an icon of St. Moses the Black, beside the icon of the Mother of God. There he was, an image that looked like me. His hair was curly, his nostrils were flared and his skin tone was the same as mine. On the other side of the priest, beside an icon of Jesus, was one of St. Cyprian of Carthage. He reminded me of the way my brother Gary looked – handsome and stern. I turned my gaze back to St. Moses, and it seemed he was saying to me, “Welcome home. We are the flowers in God’s garden that you’ve been looking for.”
I thought perhaps this was some kind of evangelical outreach to the Black community, and I said as much to the dear priest. These icons, he replied, are part of the Church, in recognition of our elder brothers and sisters from all over the world, who’ve gone on before us. Icons, I later learned, were much like family portraits of loved ones, which inspire and raise us up towards Heaven.
That was the evening I made up my mind to become part of the Orthodox Church. I’d almost forgotten this experience by the time I visited Uncle Fred, but now I think of his admonition to me very often. This is, in fact, “the best church in the world.”
Yesterday, a group of children whom I hadn’t seen for several weeks came by my house to pay me a visit. They were pretty amazed by my new electric wheelchair and the new sidewalk in front of the house. Unlike many adults who saw this sidewalk and thought, “it’s too bad about Fr. Moses, but quite convenient for him to get to the road, so he can easily drive his wheelchair to church,” one little boy said, “that looks like fun! Can I drive the chair down there?” This little boy was excited – how different a child’s perspective can be!
This reminded me of many times when my mother lamented over the fact that we were poor, but I never thought of us that way. We always had everything we needed, and more. It wasn’t until I entered high school and started comparing our situation with some of my contemporaries’, that I realized we were, indeed, poor.
Back to the children. After each one had told me about all their adventures, from capturing fireflies in a jar to making hideouts in the nearby woods, we got down to more serious business. One asked if he could make Confession, and they all joined in. “Have you prepared yourself to make Confession?” I asked, suspecting that they’d likely been prompted by their parents to make the request. Than I gave them a little instruction, as is fitting for children. I went through the Commandments: “Have you lied?” Have you stolen? Have you been covetous? Have you forgiven everyone that has offended you, hurt your feelings or even done you wrong?” One of the older children asked what I meant. Then I changed my tone, from being the jovial grandfather to the more serious spiritual father, and said, “Let me tell you a story.”
“Do you remember the nursing home we went to last year to sing Christmas carols to the elderly and infirm?” The children remembered. “Well,” I continued, “I used to go there every other week to visit. There was one lady I always paid special attention to because she was my mother’s friend and I grew up around her and her family. Her children were my classmates. She was always so happy to see me, and to reminisce about the times she and my mother, both expert bakers, used to make cakes and pies to order and sell them for special occasions to the wealthier people in our town. This lady and I always had a pleasant time, and she’d fill in many gaps and awaken sweet memories of days gone by. One night, I got a call from the nursing home that the lady was dying and I rushed over to her bedside. She was near to death and I could hear the death rattle. She gently squeezed my hand and said, ‘I don’t have long.’ I asked, ‘Do you have anything against anyone.’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you forgiven everyone?’ ‘Everyone but my sister, and I will not forgive her for what she did to me.’ Her sister was executor of the their family estate. and it had always been known in the family that when the parents died, the farm, property and cattle would go to all three sisters. However, the oldest sister, the executor, kept it all to herself and didn’t share one bit with her siblings.”
By this point in my story, the listening children were still as statues. I continued. “The lady said, ‘I refuse to let her off the hook for all the pain she’s caused us. My family would have been much better off had she had done the right thing.’ I reminded her that she’d done a good job raising her children. They never lacked for much and turned out to be upstanding people in the community. She said, as she was about to die, ‘I will not forgive her.”‘
I told the children that the lady had died with a grimace on her face, and her mouth wide open in pain and woe. “You must forgive everyone who trespasses against you,” I said, “so that your reward in Heaven may be great. It’s just like the new sidewalk. When the concrete is newly poured, you can easily straighten out the flaws and make it smooth. But once it starts to harden, that’s more difficult, and you can get stuck in your sin. So prepare yourself for your Confession.”
Like hardened concrete, our deeply held resentments become part of how we are constructed, and breaking them up could destroy the false reality we’ve built. We hold fast, like my old friend, to what we’re used to, what could become part of our core belief. May God grant that we are given the strength to forgive, to be straightened and smoothed, to enter Eternal Life.
photo: Fr. Moses and a couple of young parish members, years ago.
Years ago, my church had a national gathering in Seattle, WA, One of the purposes of the meeting was to discuss and vote on Resolutions regarding the church’s statutes. I looked forward to the event with great anticipation.
One day, sitting at my desk, I had an inspiration for a Resolution, which I felt was from the Holy Spirit. My wife was out of town at the time, visiting her spiritual father. I called her so that we could discuss the fine points of my idea. My Resolution was basically that the church should make an effort to evangelize the African American community, which is greatly underserved in American Orthodoxy. We wrote this up and submitted it as required. I was pleased with the Resolution, thinking it to be a groundbreaking evangelical tool for us.
At the meeting, when my Resolution came up for a vote, it was discussed, as specified in Roberts Rules of Order – pros and cons. I was surprised that many White delegates objected to it in part on the grounds that it was too “exclusive.” I was shocked, as I thought everyone would say “Good idea! About time!” I was standing to present my Resolution, and was actually weak in the knees, something that hadn’t happened since maybe the time I was taken to jail, as a youth. Since my early years, I have not considered myself naive, and have always been aware of dissension around me. But this time, I was blindsided. I had an “All Lives Matter” moment. I and other Black people feel that “All Lives Matter’ dismisses the specific needs and the pain of African Americans. Of course, all lives matter – that goes without saying. After much discussion, the Resolution came up for a vote, and it passed. I sat down at a table with Native Alaskans, who said they were proud of me because I stood up for my people.
That evening, I had dinner with a friend who hadn’t been at the meeting, and when I told him what had happened, he exclaimed, “Now that’s what you call racism!” However, when I thought of those who had objections, many of whom I’d known and truly loved for 30 years or more, I did not see them as racists. Instead, it seemed to me that they were acting upon ideas that weren’t really theirs but were part of a bigoted rhetoric that could be mistaken for notions of “fairness.” So how did this happen? Here’s a story that may shed some light.
My wife and I lived in Atlanta when we were first married, and she helped out with a street ministry. One day, she was asked to drive a homeless man back to where he “stayed.” They wound around a residential neighborhood until he finally directed her to stop at some crumbling steps in front of an overgrown empty lot. As he climbed to the raggedy shrubbery, she heard within a loud, indignant voice: “He lives in the bushes!! He lives in the bushes!!!” This was really surprising. She knew that a few years earlier she might have lived in the bushes herself, so where did all this judgment come from? It was her father’s voice she heard – not hers.
In America now, we have the opportunity to make progress in healing the national wound of racial discrimination. But our efforts (and we must make an effort, regardless) won’t be very effective if we don’t start with ourselves. To uncover the predispositions and attitudes that lie within us, but aren’t really ours, takes a lot of very hard work. St. Ignatii Brianchaninov is quoted as writing, “If you want to be a true, zealous son of the Orthodox Church, you can do so by the fulfillment of the commandments of the Gospel in regard to your neighbor. Do not dare to convict him. Do not dare to teach him. Do not dare to condemn or reproach him. To correct your neighbor in this way is not an act of faith, but of foolish zeal, self-opinion, and pride.” Heeding the Saint’s words is a good starting place for us.
We must learn to love one another, treat each other with kindness and always listen to what others are truly saying, although they may not be able communicate it in the clearest way. Let’s try to avoid off the cuff reactions. As the poet Leon Russell says, “Listen to the melody, ‘cause the love is in there, hiding.” Having reflected on the event and considered my feelings of betrayal, I was able to leave the dinner with my friend feeling more reconciled with the opponents of my Resolution. May God help us in these difficult times.
When we first moved back down to the family farm in 1998, we’d often have an Akathist to the Mother of God in our little cemetery, built in 1875 and dedicated to “Slaves, Paupers and Indians.” It’s on the Greene County historic sites registry, and the National Registry of Historic Places. It has three Osage Indian mounds, and one of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad associates, Mother Charity James, is there as well.
On one occasion, several nuns were with us to sing the Akathist, in a Valaam special melody tone. Also in attendance were my mother and several other elderly kinfolk. After the beautiful service, my dear old “Aunt” Willetta Johnson, of Springfield, MO, said, referring to the ancient Orthodox hymn we’d just completed, “that’s the way the old folks used to sing.”
At first, I thought that she was just being kind, because the older people in my family had always been kind and supportive of me, even when I lived a lawless life. To me, the Akathist sounded like nothing my relatives would ever have heard. But I knew of their kindness. I recall one occasion when I came back to Missouri after living in Salmon Creek commune in Big Sur, California, bringing along a group of my friends, who looked like a motley crew. One girl had on a mini dress which was quite scandalous. Miss Effie Yokum and my grandma Mamie Berry, both children of slaves, were there when we pulled into the yard. Miss Effie turned to Mamie and said, “That girl should be ashamed of herself for wearing that dress, and your grandson should be ashamed for bringing her here.” My grandmother responded, “Effie, you remember those long dresses we used to wear?” Effie certainly did. Grandma said, “You know, we could get those long dresses up just as quick as they can get those short ones up.” She said this not to defend me and my scantily dressed friend, but to cover my nakedness and lack of sensitivity. So you see, my relatives have always been kind and supportive of most things I did and said. Not that there weren’t any consequences, but they gave them to me later, because they knew who I was. My great grandma Zona Long used to say to me, “God takes care of old folks and fools” and since I wasn’t very old, you can imagine what category I fell into.
Back to the cemetery – I thought my relatives were once again just being tolerant of this musical form that I’d supposed was so foreign to them. But it came to me later that the reason it reminded them of the way the old folks used to sing was because both musical expressions – the traditional old time Black gospel music and the Akathist to the Mother of God sung in a Russian tone, embodied an otherworldly “joyful suffering.” When my relatives sang “I’ve got a mother in Beulah land who outshines the Sun – look away beyond the blue!” in a mournful melody, longing for the day when they would be reunited with their families, having been before the dread judgment seat of Christ, it was the same as hearing in the Akathist, “the wise children did not adore the golden idol, but went themselves into the flame and defied the pagan gods – they prayed in the midst of the flames and an angel bedewed them, the prayer of your lips has been heard.” What resonated with Aunt Willeta and my mother in the Akathist was that peace wasn’t to be found in this world, but only in the world to come would we find consolation. That’s what reminded them of ” how the old folks used to sing.”
I think that those generations of my ancestors, bound with manacles of iron, were freer than me, bound by the chains of modernity. They knew where their true home was. In this world, they were only passing through.
My great grandfather, Robert Long, the child of a Slaves, was a Methodist preacher in Greenfield, MO. My fondest childhood memories were of his church. It was a beautiful church, a one room wooden building. The walls were adorned with life sized murals from the life of Christ, painted by my mother, who was quite the artist. We would have basket dinners in the front yard, and churchgoers and non-religious people from our community would gather for a grand meal.
Children were taught to obey our elders and to “act right” in church. For example, once my brother Charles and I were cutting up in the pew, and our Aunt Josie stood up behind us, laid her hands on our shoulders, and shouted loudly, “Unleach him, Satan!” We straightened right up and thereafter kept our mouths shut (at least for the rest of the service!) At those basket dinners, we children often ran to the front of the line and tried to crowd our way forward. My great grandfather, speaking in his deep baritone, would say, “Boys, get to the back of the line. Take the lowest seat!”
This admonition has served me well throughout my years. In 1989, His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa of the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church came to St. Louis, MO. A reception was held for him in a hotel grand ballroom, and there were dignitaries from across the Midwest. The proceedings began with a procession of bishops led by Pope Shenouda from the center of the ballroom out into the hall, in which he carried the very cross of St. Mark the Apostle. The hall was lined with the faithful who’d come to hear a word from their beloved leader. When he came to where I was standing, the Pope paused. He walked through the crowd to me, took my pectoral cross in his hand and laid the cross of St. Mark upon it. He asked if I was from Africa, but then intuited that I was American. He then continued in the procession. I felt puffed up – out of all those people, Pope Shenouda recognized me and spoke to me! I was special, and everyone could see it.
When the procession was complete, people went to their designated tables. There was a three tiered dais at the front of the room. On the top level was Pope Shenouda and Bishop Moussa of Cairo, flanked by the Cardinal of the St.Louis Catholic diocese and the mayor of St. Louis. The second row was reserved for the Coptic bishops and priests. The third row held Orthodox clergy from throughout the area. I looked for my place card, but it wasn’t there. I figured that was because at the time, I was in an unrecognized jurisdiction. When the host of the banquet saw that I was looking for my seat, he quickly took me to the very back of the room and set me at a table full of unruly children. After my upset and embarrassment about not being included with the clergy, I consoled myself about being with the kids in the back of the huge room, repeating to myself, “you came to hear Pope Shenouda, not to be seated in the right place.” Then my great grandfather’s admonition came to mind. “Boy, take the low seat.” This really helped.
After a short while, through the crowd came Bishop Moussa, Pope Shenouda’s right-hand man, who told me that the Pope wanted me to come a little closer. So I started towards the front, where the priests were sitting. Then the Bishop said, no – he wants you by him. So I spent the evening seated next to Pope Shenouda. We had an edifying and entertaining conversation, and he showered me with gifts. When I went home and told this story to my wife, we agreed that it was an almost “biblical” parable – the last shall be first.
From that point on, I’ve always tried to take the low seat. After all, we should not think so highly of ourselves as to consider that we ever deserve the high place.
A few years ago, I attended a nationwide church gathering in St. Louis, MO. It was held at the St. Louis Union Station convention center. After lunch, a friend and I were talking in the lobby, when an Afro-American man crossed our path. He was young, wore a black hoodie, black Levi jeans, and a pair of vintage-type Air Jordans. His pants were hung low on his hips, and he walked briskly. My friend, a fellow minister, said “how disrespectful!” stating that this young man must be up to no good. I asked him how he knew. He answered, “well, just look at him!””Let me tell you a story,” I responded, and began.
In my home town of Ash Grove, Missouri, there was a lady named Miss Olivia Murray. She was born in 1897 and died in 1991. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Fannie Murray, who was 12 years old at the end of the Civil War. Fannie’s master set her free and on her own to roam the Ozark hills. Later, when word of this got to my great-grandparents, also freed slaves, they set aside a parcel of land for Fannie, where she could live out the rest of her days.
Miss Olivia was a tall, strong woman who walked around town with a bonnet on her head and a long dress and apron going nearly to the ground. She often carried a basket under her arms, and her little dog Wiggie ran in and out around her legs. She was quite an embarrassment to me, in the late 1950’s, when were trying to shake off the fetters of subserviency. There she was, looking like Aunt Jemima. I don’t mean the new, cute Aunt Jemima, but the old “Hattie McDaniel” version. I once complained to my mother about the way Olivia Murray looked. My mother asked – do you know what she has in that basket? She has eggs from her chickens and canned goods from her garden, and she goes around giving them to people who are down on their luck. Mom went on to say, “She’s saved many a family around here, including ours.” I felt so ashamed. I could have known a saint. We often accept or dismiss people on equally as flimsy evidence, and we could have known a saint. So be careful, brothers and sisters, how you treat your neighbors. Watch out, and don’t make up a backstory for them based on a glance. You could miss someone precious, just like I missed knowing Miss Olivia.
I’ve been getting a number of calls most recently from well-meaning and fair-minded brothers and sisters across the country asking me to weigh in on the seemingly recent situation of racial unrest. I say “seemingly” because this has been going on forever. There were no “good old days” for some people. I respond, yet I say to myself, “If I hear one more seasoned Orthodox Christian say, ‘I’m just a White guy – what do I have to say on this subject?’ I’m going to come undone.”
We Orthodox, who have been given the fulness of the Faith that cures all ills, whether they be racial or political or psychological, have much to say, if we use as our starting point and guidance the Tradition of the Church – the teachings and the lives of Saints. When someone asks “What shall we do?” my first thought is, “what have you done so far?” and the answer is usually “nothing.” They should have something to say, whether it’s “I’ve been sowing seeds in my neighborhood” or “I’ve been on my knees, streaming tears, pleading to the Lord.”
In 1975, when I was 25, I was a street preacher and pastor in Detroit. I opened a drop-in center for troubled youth near East Grand Blvd and Jefferson, which at that time was a rough area. I was in relationship with many other young ministers, who often expressed a desire to come and help me out at the center. I always said, “no” because evidence had shown me that they were more interested in “relating” to these at-risk youngsters at what they considered to be “their level”, than actually lending a hand, and their help wasn’t productive.One day, a friend of mine, Michael Harris, who was in the original Broadway cast of “Hair,” asked if he could come down. Since he was my dear friend, I agreed. He arrived at the center where there was a piano. He sat down and began to play show tunes for these inner city kids, something that seemed incongruous if not wildly inappropriate. The kids were very attentive, and began to sing along with him as he taught them the lyrics to songs such as “Hello Dolly” and tunes from “Oklahoma.” They were so engaged that they began to dance around the room in glee. It was a most successful evening, and one I’ve never forgotten. I learned that night that ministering to people means giving them yourself, whatever that might be. “What you have may not seem much, but when you yield it to the touch of the Master’s loving hand, life will never be the same.” (from the song, “Ordinary People.”)
There is no new approach to ministry – all that’s required is that we give all that we have, just as the multitude was fed, from the fish and the loaves of bread. When we give what we have, God has room to reach through our inadequacy to change lives. I’m not opposed to programs and strategies for outreach, but we already have the talents, given by the Lord, whatever they may be. Let’s start there. Like the saying I attribute to an old friend, Fr. James Barfield – “start before you’re ready.” God will help us along the way, but first we must make an effort. All that we can give this world is what we have – we are not here as problem solvers, but as ambassadors for Christ, giving our heart, mind, and soul. How can we say that we love God, who we have not seen, and yet not love our brother standing next to us, needing help. An expression of love can be as simple as a show tune.
My grandmother Berry was the daughter of a slave, and I found refuge in her house as a boy. I was there more than I was at my own family’s house because she was so kind and understanding. She was “pleasant as well as challenging.”
One day, after school, I came home to Grandma Berry’s house after being in a schoolyard fight with one of my little friends. My clothes were disheveled. Grandma asked me what I’d been up to, and I told her that my friend Marvin and I had been in a fight because he’d hurt my feelings. She said, “You know, as Jesus said, you must turn the other cheek!” I said, “Grandma, they can get one cheek, but they can’t get two.” “Aha, “she said, “I see you’re in league with the Antichrist.” I’d never heard such strong language from her, who’d never had a discouraging word for me. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If you don’t do what Jesus told you to do,” she said, “you’re in opposition to Him. You’re standing side by side with the Lord, and telling him that your idea is just as good as His.”
We are often offended when we’re slighted or misunderstood. St Moses the Black, one of the early Christian desert fathers, was present at an assembly of his peers and accused of being unworthy to be in their midst. They even, according to Holy Tradition, insulted him about his skin color. Some people asked him, afterwards, if he wasn’t offended, to which he replied, “I was grieved, but I kept silent.” We can benefit from this story by recognizing that St. Moses’ accusers have long since been forgotten and the exact words they said are lost to time. But St. Moses’ words remain to this day as instruction for proper Orthodox behavior. For me, this means that there is enormous power in humility, and sometimes we must simply keep our mouths shut. Not to compare myself to Jesus, but even the Lord, before His accusers,”never said a mumbling word.”
Grandma Berry surrounded by us children (circa 1961 – I’m on the far left)