Here’s a link to an interview I did for the Orthodox Christian Network: OCN interview July 2020
God is always at work in our lives; in the lives of the good, the bad, the just, and the unjust. It’s not ours to judge how He works, or why. We just don’t know, and often when we think we do, we’re wrong. Here are a couple of experiences I’ve had which have vividly demonstrated this to me.
The first is that of Pamela and her mother.
I first met Pam’s mother, Liza, when I was in my car outside my storefront church in St Louis listening to the tail end of A Prairie Home Companion on the radio before going in to prepare for Vespers. A woman came to the car window and knocked softly. I rolled my window down a bit, and she said “Do you want a date?” When I turned towards her, she could see my priest’s cross and she was humiliated by having approached me in such a manner. She apologized and said she was sorry, and also that she needed help because she was a drug addict. Liza disappeared into the night. I recognized her from the neighborhood and knew her house, as it was often missing a front door and was frequented by crack dealers.
Later that year, I was standing on my back porch, which overlooked the sidewalk, drinking coffee before work, around 6:00 am. I had often seen a sprightly young girl of around 15 walking down the street, carrying a flute case and a backpack. After observing her every morning for some time, I asked what her name was, and she replied, “Pam.” By her last name and the direction she was coming from, I knew she must have been the daughter of the woman who had approached me. I knew where she lived.
Pam and I would chat sometimes in the morning. She said she had to ride for over an hour on the bus to get to an elite school in the suburbs. As time went on, we became friends. After a couple of years, I had the pleasure of meeting her grandmother, who came by my house, saying that she knew I was Pam’s friend, and could I help her? Would I buy her a prom dress? They had no money, and Pam wanted to go to prom with the rest of her, mostly well-off, classmates. I said that I would and went down to the Famous Barr department store and got her a dress and shoes.
As the prom day drew closer, Pam’s grandmother came by again, this time asking me to drive her to the prom! She didn’t know anyone else with a car – there wasn’t anyone trustworthy. Of course, I agreed. I dropped the girl off and waited in my car until the prom was over. (I suppose I took a nap.) When it ended, I saw Pam walking towards me, looking radiant. Only then did I fully realize the value for her in being able to be a full participant in the so-called “normal” life of her school. And although I’d never been one for proms, personally, I could see that having a time away from her everyday difficult circumstances, at an event where she could feel good about herself, made all the difference in the world for Pam.
That was her senior prom. The next year, she went off to the University of Missouri, where she was on the cheerleading squad, of all things. She graduated, was accepted into law school, and now practices in Chicago. We keep up with each other occasionally through Facebook. God was at work in her life all along, guiding her and steering her away from the demons that lurked around every corner. God was reminding her that she did not have to end up like her mother.
My friend, Pam, lived in the crack house without the front door.
Here’s the story of another, very different house.
A friend wanted me to meet her godmother in Tulsa, OK. As we drove through the neighborhood, an upper middle class suburb, I began to paint a mental picture of who this woman might be – elderly, Eastern European, white, from a privileged background.
We knocked on the door, and after a while, the lady came to open it. When she saw me, her face was quite joyful. She put both hands on my face and said, “It’s a black boy!” She was Russian, and had quite a story. She had been in Auschwitz concentration camp, suffering harsh treatment. She and her sister had escaped into the woods by miraculous means. I fell in love that day.
There was a most wonderful icon of the Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” (to which our church is dedicated) on her wall. She said she always had a special feeling for that icon. When she had come to Springfield in the early 1950s, not too long after the war, there were few places for her to buy icons. She was going down the street one day and saw a yard sale, and as she browsed the items, she came upon a hand painted icon of her beloved, “Unexpected Joy” with a silver and gold plated riza for a very small sum – a few dollars.
I visited her several times before she passed away, and every time, she had a catered lunch for me and whoever else had been invited. She would tell us stories of her life. This, of course, reinforced for me the need not to judge people by outward circumstances.
Her house had a very fancy door, but the lady behind it wasn’t anyone I expected.
We make assumptions about each other all the time. When I have speaking engagements, people often refer to me as “Dr. Berry”, when, in fact, I’m not a high school graduate (I hope this doesn’t give you cause to further judge me!) Let’s try to see each other a little more like Christ, born in a manger, sees us all – His beloved children.
On the back 40 of my family farm is a lovely little cemetery that my ancestors established for “Slaves, Paupers and Indians” – people who were not allowed to be buried in the regular town cemetery. One of Harriet Tubman’s people, Mother Charity, is buried there, along with former slaves and children of slaves. There are Osage Indian mounds in the cemetery, and the graves of poor white people who couldn’t afford plots elsewhere. Established in 1875, and now consecrated as Holy Resurrection Cemetery, the original Berry cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places.
I have noticed through the many years I’ve been back in Ash Grove on my family property, a peculiar phenomenon. When folks come to visit, the people of color always, without fail, want to visit the cemetery. It’s a spiritual experience for them, often bringing them to tears. The white folks, well-meaning and often religious, seldom ask to see it. I’ve wondered about this.
It may be because people are simply not interested in that which does not directly resonate with them. The African Americans, and the Africans, and certain others that have visited here, feel a personal connection to those buried in a little cemetery in Ash Grove, because on a very profound level, they know that they share the same experience of suffering. This is not merely a matter of sentiment. It puts me in mind of the verse from Langston Hughes’ poem, “I’ve Known Rivers”—that feeling is “older than the flood and deeper than the blood.”
I think that the varying interest in the cemetery points to something essential about our experience as Americans. We are not, in our bones, one people. In some very deep ways, we are not Americans, together. The nation as a whole has not repented of nor made amends for hundreds of years of enslaving and thus profiting from Black Americans. Neither has it repented of the mistreatment and betrayal of the country’s native peoples. Most of the white people who have come to visit me aren’t interested in the cemetery, because they don’t think it has anything to do with them – it’s just an historic site.
When the cemetery was consecrated, back in 1995, Fr. Alexii Altschul and I spoke of what it represented, why it was important. Its existence spoke to a wound this country suffers from, one that can only truly be addressed on a spiritual level, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We acknowledged, then, that legislation and social programs could and should address the problems faced by “slaves, paupers and Indians,” but the real healing would need to come from somewhere else. Let us continue, in fear and trembling before God, to work towards that end.
As my parish follows the Julian calendar, we recently celebrated the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. The Saint himself came to visit our children and told them edifying stories from his life. He even brought a little gift for each of them, golden chocolate coins.
I collected a few thoughts about the significance of St. Nicholas for my sermon at the lovely Divine Liturgy, one that was almost paschal in its joy.
We know the Saint not from his own writing, because we have none, but from what others wrote about him. Written words can be destroyed – lost to history. But St. Nicholas’s actions towards others have immortalized him in a profound way – he is the very type of the bishop as a Good Shepherd. St. Nicholas’s good deeds have been described and handed down to us through remembrances of the holy hierarch’s exceeding kindness and pastoral care for his people – his loving legacy. The hymnography for the day is filled with stories, and we even have a folk hymn that we like to sing on St. Nicholas day, with numerous verses, including one where we remember that, in defense of Christ, the good bishop gave the heretical Arius a slap in response to the blasphemy he was uttering!
On a recent Saturday night, I hosted an open house at the church, as part of our town’s Christmas house tour. I’ve done this for a few years now, because I like to give local people a chance to come inside the church and perhaps get some questions answered. That’s exactly what happened this year. One lady asked about the icons, and she was not at all persuaded by my explanation of their meaning for us. Seemed idolatrous to her, sorry! Then she remembered my name and asked if I knew Mamie Berry. Of course, I said, she was my beloved grandmother, and I spent much of my boyhood with her. OK then, said the lady, and the whole tone changed. We reminisced about Mamie for a while, and she warmed up to me, and by extension, everything I stood for. Mamie’s loving legacy overcame this lady’s doubts.
We can never overestimate the power of kind deeds. I once went to an auction in town and saw a beautiful, small table there. When I inquired about it, I was told by the owner that it wasn’t for sale. But why did it look so familiar? The man told me its story. When he and his siblings were quite young, the family was poor, and kids had to go from door to door asking for handouts. This, remember, was in a small town, where everyone knew each other. Imagine how difficult this was for the children. When they got to Mamie’s house, she prepared a bushel basket of food – preserves, eggs, whatever she had -for them and then told them to go home and set the table and have a good family meal. They went home happy.
After a little while, though, one of the children came back and said, “Mrs. Berry, we don’t have a table!” So Mamie sent one of her sons to their house with her own table – the one I remembered from my childhood – the one I was looking at in the man’s home. No wonder he didn’t want to sell it.
These aren’t the only stories about my grandmother’s generosity and kindness – her loving legacy. I can only hope that some are told about me, when I’m no longer here to share the Lord’s goodness through my actions.
St. Nicholas, pray to God for us!
There’s a German word, zeitgeist, which means “the spirit of the age” You could call it the mindset of today, the social and mental realm in which we exist. It affects everything, including our interpretation of Scripture and spiritual life. I want to speak today about how we are to relate to this, as Orthodox men and women.
The lines along this worldly determination of what is good and what is bad are being clearly and very forcefully drawn. We humans haven’t gotten better or worse, but our public expression of opinion made easily accessible and almost unavoidable in the media, has made our differences very obvious. It’s so easy to choose a side, and there’s so much information to back us up!
However, our duty as Orthodox Christians is to not be overcome by this spirit of the age and begin believing that one secular interpretation of how we should think and behave is better than another. We must put on the mind of Christ – everything we think, and the actions we take, must be rooted in the Gospel.
How does this work? It’s a real challenge, but our salvation, and our witness to our brothers and sisters, depends on facing our present reality honestly and fearlessly, keeping our face turned towards the kingdom not of this world. We need to practice other-worldliness, develop discernment, and act only on gospel principles
I spoke last year about the need for an otherworldly perspective. This need has become even more pressing.
We know that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees or we shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is our only goal. I often tell the story of my great grandfather, Wallace White. He had been enslaved, and after Emancipation, he remained in the same area as those who had enslaved him. He and his wife were well known for their generosity and the quality of the sorghum they made, which she baked into some famous cookies. The story goes that my father and uncles, his grandsons, once asked him how he could be so kind to people who had done him such a great wrong. His reply, “because I want to go to Heaven.” This, I think, is a good example of the radical other-worldliness that we must aspire to.
I have always maintained that the Afro American spiritual tradition has an other-worldly quality because our ancestors knew without confusion that this world, in which their suffering is well known to us, was not their true home. Our righteous ancestors spoke of keeping our eye on the prize, which meant not letting the good seed that is planted in us be choked out by the cares and the worries of this world.
This other-worldly focus does not mean that we are not responsible for righteous action in the world. I’m not suggesting that this world doesn’t matter. But the actions that we take must be rooted in our Orthodox faith, and they may not be what the surrounding society expects or even approves of. To paraphrase St. Moses about the nature of our efforts: The farmer endures the heat of the day and the labor of planting seeds in order to bring forth a profitable harvest. The merchant, likewise, endures travel on the high seas and the plains in order to further his business endeavors. The monk, and we can this extend to all Christians, endures the hardship of fasting and vigils and being contrary to the world he lives in, in order to reach his goal – the Kingdom of Heaven.
I recently saw the movie, “Harriet” about Harriet Tubman. She was a powerful example of a person taking action, while rooted in her faith. Would that we had a small part of her courage and conviction.
When we strive to maintain an otherworldly perspective, discernment becomes a lifelong challenge. The meaning of Scripture changes for us we grow in our faith. We often need the counsel of a spiritual advisor, or the wisdom found in our church Tradition, to help us uncover the truly orthodox response to our situation – to judge rightly how we ought to think. To add to our difficulties now, we are presented with clearly drawn battle lines wherever we look. Indeed, “battle” is not too strong a word to use to describe where we are now. Have you taken a side in the “culture wars?”
But this is a fight that we have no part in.
You may have heard me talk about what I call “high secularism.” High secularism refers to the thinking of the public intellectuals, seemingly religious and otherwise, which is often excellent and attractive, but falls short of the Truth, even if it sometimes seemingly coincides with Orthodox principles. For example, I think of Te-Nahisi Coates, who speaks most eloquently about the Afro American situation. And yet, he is not a guidepost for us. Others of you may have other examples.
Aligning oneself with this high secular thought, liberal or conservative, or whatever other flavor we choose, makes us feel relevant and engaged in what they might call “the Struggle.” Remember, though, that this struggle is the secular battle in which there are opposing sides. Can we, as Orthodox, set ourselves against others on this basis? I think not. On a practical level, as a pastor, I can’t preach or teach even my most dearly-held opinions unless I want to alienate, and thus create a stumbling block for, members of my flock. I can, however, speak of Christ’s commandments to us, which when obeyed, lead to everything we hope for in this world.
If we speak truth deeply rooted in the Orthodox tradition, which is full of longsuffering, love and compassion, we may express something unexpected, and even, perhaps, unacceptable. My wife, Magdalena, likes to tell the story of a time she confessed to a priest in Russia that a deep wound had been suffered from a clergyman they both knew. She hoped for a sympathetic response, and she did get one, but it wasn’t the one she expected. Yes, said the priest, he (meaning the other clergyman) is deeply wounded. Pray for him.” My wife immediately felt the burden of the injury lifted off of her. This was the real truth, and it was healing. It wasn’t the typical answer, but it was the Orthodox one. Orthodoxy doesn’t give us what we expect, or what necessarily “makes sense.”
I urge you all to love one another and not be affected by the rising tide of high secularism. If we are to follow anything, let us follow the teachings of the Church which have been handed down to us that we may have a chance to think clearly and discern wisely.
If we’re not careful, we will be sucked into one camp or another. We have been given our mandate from God as to how we ought to behave towards one another. Yes, the wheat is being separated from the chaff.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you have fallen short, that our efforts in BSMB have missed the mark. We have not missed the mark, and God has been with us. “Don’t you let nobody turn you ‘round”.
People will say that the Brotherhood could have and should have done more to fulfill our mandate of bringing the Church to under-represented people. Of course, we all sin and fall short of the Kingdom of Heaven, but we have been diligently plugging away for all these years, and we have made a mark on Orthodoxy in America, and will continue to do so. When I sometimes get weary and doubt this, my wife reminds me that I might not see the fruits of my labors, but the seeds are planted. And yes, there are sprouts!
The lady in this photo is Miss Fanny Murray. Although she was married, most of the adult women in my family tradition were referred to as “Miss.” She was 13 years old at the end of the Civil War. She had no place to go, and she wandered around, a motherless child.
Miss Fanny had a daughter, who we knew as Miss Olivia Murray. Miss Olivia was born in 1897 and died in 1991. She was a great, tall woman, nearly 6 ft, and she used to walk around town with a bonnet on her head, a long dress that went to the ground, and a basket under her arms. This was during the late ’50s and early ’60s, when we were trying to shake off the fetters of subserviency. And there she was, walking around town, looking like Aunt Jemima, and not the new, cute version, either. Quite honestly, we were ashamed of her. Once, I had the occasion to talk to my mother about my distaste for the way Miss Olivia looked and acted. My mother asked, “Do you know what she has in that basket?” and I replied, “No, and I don’t care.” My mother disregarded the latter part of that statement and said,”She had eggs from her chickens and canned goods from her garden. She went around and gave them to families who were down on their luck.” Mom went on to say, “She saved many family’s lives around here, including ours.” I felt so ashamed.
I could have known a saint, but I was too busy checking her out. And we, likewise, accept people or reject them on equally flimsy evidence.
Recently, I posted photos of Malcom X and Muhammad Ali on my Facebook page, along with a comment that these were good fathers. I got some strong reactions, not all of them positive.
To my father’s and my generation, these men were heroes, because they weren’t afraid to stand up against the unjust system that kept us in a second class citizen category. My father came back from WWII, having helped re-wire Nagasaki, and was unable to get employment as an electrician because he wasn’t allowed in the union, solely on the basis of his race. Malcom and Muhammad actively, publicly, said, “No. We’re not going to take this treatment anymore.” Even if you didn’t agree with everything they stood for, you had to admit that they had courage and integrity.
Yes, they embraced Islam. They were looking for a more genuine faith experience and at that time, there were no Orthodox people reaching out to evangelize them and bring them to the true faith, even in an era in which we had Saints walking the streets of North America. Consider that Islam was an alternative to segregated Christianity. Malcom had to go to Mecca to see the diversity of races in one faith community, and he was blown away when he did. Certainly, he wouldn’t have found this at home. Who knows in what direction his profound belief in God would have taken him had he not been murdered? In spite of what some think, he was not a thuggish, terroristic figure, but rather a man who spoke his mind in a day where most African American men, while they probably agreed with what Malcolm said, stayed tight-lipped and subservient. Malcolm was the classic “uppity Negro.”
We judge others, and we sometimes fear them, because we lack empathy for the situations in which they find themselves. Sometimes, if we are not part of a minority community, we think we can understand their concerns, when we simply can’t. (A community, according to the dictionary, “is a group of people with a common characteristic or interest, living together within a larger society.”) It’s just not possible to know what it’s like to walk around in another’s skin. However, when we acknowledge this and confess our ignorance, we then have the opportunity to listen, and learn.
Let us reserve judgement and examine ourselves. To say, “I don’t understand,” or perhaps, even to discern one’s own fearfulness, is more spiritually nourishing and may lead to a richer, more authentic life.
Dear brothers and sisters of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black,
I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Only one year has passed since our last conference and through the grace of God and your prayers, we are able to assemble again.
We find ourselves in the midst of turmoil and confusion in our country. But Jesus Christ has overcome this world, and if we would only follow his instructions concerning how we ought to treat each other and how we should be disposed towards Caesar, we will prevail.
People are responding to the injustice that we see all around us. The BSMB response will not be lock step with that which I’ve come to call “high secularism”. High secularism, for which I have respect, is the thought of intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning people who yet remain outside the salvific ark of Orthodoxy. These are righteous people, but unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we should in nowise enter the Kingdom of Heaven” Matt. 5:20.
I will not attempt to tell you how you, personally, should rally around today’s movements and protests. I will, however, address how the Brotherhood can participate in these events. We can act through prayer, fasting and forgiving our brothers their trespasses.
Very few of us, other than I, have directly experienced police brutality, in my case to the point of being handcuffed at gunpoint and pushed into the backseat of a police car and threatened with being taken to the woods and left for the wolves. If not for the prayers of right-believing Christians, the descendants of slaves, I wouldn’t have escaped. So, I can, with some authority, talk about how we overcome unjust and cruel treatment at the hands of the godless authorities. We endure it with longsuffering, we turn away from hatred, and we pray for those who despitefully use us and say all manner of evil against us falsely for His names’s sake, for great will our reward be in Heaven. If we don’t act for the sake of Christ, our labors are in vain. This may sound lofty, but the whole enterprise of being an Orthodox Christian is lofty, and not of this world.
Black lives matter. What we are saying is, “I am a human being. Treat me like one.” When I proposed to the All American Council of my jurisdiction that we resolve to make every effort to reach out to African Americans, I was met with, “but we should reach out to all people, so why specify African Americans?” In other words, the painfully familiar, “all lives matter”. Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the point, is it. This kind of response comes from some of those outside of our experience, and we need to be steadfast and patient in educating them about what it means to be Black in America and Black in the American Orthodox Church. That’s part of what this Brotherhood is called to do. Nevertheless, our engagement with this movement must transcend high secularism.
How do we do that? We march, but as Orthodox we march with holy images, banners, incense and prayers. Were we to publicly proclaim our faith this way, we’d soon find out who our real brothers are, Orthodox or not. I suspect we’d have friends within the movement and enemies within the Church. Regardless, if we want to make a change, we reach towards heaven, not to the unrighteous wisdom of this world.
I know a Jewish woman who told me once that the central question of her life was “if they threw me into a concentration camp, the intent of which was to turn me into an animal, how could I remain a human being?” Her answer, she said, was most deeply revealed in the Church. We aren’t promised fairness, kindness, dignity, love, or any other right and pleasant thing from this world. But we know the source of all those things, and that we are loved. Hold on to that, brothers and sisters and to each other, in Christ. Yes, with each passing year the deception is stronger, “normalcy” becomes more confused, and it gets harder and harder to do those things prescribed for us in Holy Scripture, to yield to the Word of God. This is our struggle, and it is very real.
Do what you feel you must to join your efforts to those crying out for change. Hold fast to the words of Our Lord, “these things have I spoken unto you, that in Me you might have peace, in the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
May God bless you,
This is Frank Coker, who was related to me on my mother’s side and also by marriage – double kinfolks. On Good Friday in 1906, on the main square in Springfield, MO, just before midnight, he was hung from a light tower, along with two other young Black men. 5,000 White people watched as the bodies were burned and shot at. All of this because of a rape allegation later proven to be false.
Terror reigned after the lynchings throughout the African American community in Springfield and Greene County. An angry mob set out to wreak havoc. Wallace White, my great grandfather, lived in Cave Springs, MO, which is along present day Hwy 160 and Rte. 123, 9.5 miles from my home. Wallace had been with the Missouri 5th cavalry, which fought at Vicksburg, The unit was made up of men and boys (Wallace was 15) from Ash Grove , Walnut Grove and the surrounding areas. When the mob neared Wallace White’s cabin, it was met by a line of his fellow men in arms from the Civil War, rifles fully loaded. The threat was real enough to turn the mob away.
Top: Wallace White’s cabin. Bottom: Wallace and Daisy White outside their canebrake, Cave Springs
Although both sides were willing to defend their position with force, I would never say that both sides had equal responsibility for the potential violence. Sometimes, we stand up for the right, and there is a difference between right and wrong. These Civil War veterans’ methods were somewhat flawed, but their intention was to be their brother’s keeper.
This pinwheel quilt belonged to Caroline Boone’s mother, Maria Boone, who was my great great grandmother. Her grave is in our family cemetery.
Caroline was Daniel Boone’s granddaughter, and Nathan Boone’s daughter.
This quilt top dates from the early 19th century. It’s made of silk and waxed cotton. It’s remained in my family trunk for many decades, preserved for succeeding generations.
In 2003, I created a museum of my family’s artifacts, along with others given to me: the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum. In 2013, my daughter Dorothy, an archivist specializing in African American studies, created an on-line version, which you can visit here: OAAHM