LOOK AWAY BEYOND THE BLUE

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.

This photo is from 1951 and shows my grandmother and her sisters. You can see Grandma Mamie on the left, above the first row. My grandfather Luther is the only man in the picture. It was taken on the front steps of the house we live in now.

“Boy, take the low seat!”

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.

I COULD HAVE KNOWN A SAINT ~

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.


This is a photo of Fannie Murray, approx. 1935.

“Start before you’re ready”

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.

Bearing insults

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)

You never know…

A young Orthodox African American woman from St. Louis told me that she didn’t feel comfortable going to a certain church in town. She said that the last time she attended that church, she received a less than warm welcome. I told her a story about that very same church, that happened to me, around 1987. 

This church was having an open house to display its wonderful mosaics. I saw the event in the newspaper, and knew I had to go, as I’d always been attracted by icons and mosaics. When I entered the crowded nave of the church, on a Friday afternoon, an official person approached me and said “How can I help you?” I knew what she meant by that question, by the subtle tone of her voice. In my experience, this always meant “what are you doing here?”  I replied, “no thank you ma’m, I’m just looking.” A few moments later, the priest approached me and again asked, “How can I help you?”  I replied, “Father, I’m interested in Orthodoxy, and I just want to look around at the mosaics.” He said, “I think you’d be happier in the Coptic church.”  I also knew what he meant – that there wasn’t room for someone like me in his church. (The Copts, after all, were more likely to have people of color.) I was wounded, and in my madness, pledged to myself that I’d never darken the doors of that church again.  I’d go out of my way to avoid even driving near it, as it was a trigger for me of that unpleasant memory. 

Years passed, and a young man who I’d helped mentor, a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary, was now an associate pastor of that very same church. Not knowing my history there, he asked if I would come and give the Sunday of Orthodoxy homily. I was torn between my natural inclination to steer clear of that place and the request of my spiritual son.  I gave in to my better nature and agreed to go. 

I started my homily by saying that we must be very careful about how we treat people, and always treat them with lovingkindness and respect. If we’re not careful, we will offend our own brothers and sisters. As we read in Proverbs, a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city captured. I continued my homily by talking about what happened to me at that church. At the end of the service, there was a reception, during which a little old lady came up to me and said, “I was the one who approached you all those years ago,” and she began to cry, and I began to cry. And there we were, in the middle of the church hall, in front of all these people, holding hands and crying over our offenses to one another – hers of rejecting me, and mine of being resentful of her for my rejection.

I told the young woman that we don’t go to church to get accepted by other people, although that’s a wonderful thing, but, rather, to be in the presence of Christ. After all, even our Lord did not always have the warmest of receptions. It is your choice, I continued, whether or not you go back to that church, but don’t be confused as to why we go to church in the first place.

WOKE or AWAKENED

A young man told me most recently that he was “woke.”

After reflection, I remembered being woke myself. In 1971, I was incarcerated, in solitary confinement, when I had an awakening. After many months in this place, which we referred to as a “mean camp,” I had a nudge from God. This left a clear impression on me about the Prodigal Son. I saw that in my Father’s house, there were even servants, hirelings, who were better off than I was, having my soul in prison as well as my body.  And I knew from my upbringing that the countless descendants of slaves, (who I’m numbered among) had breathed sanctity into me and had taught me right from wrong. And there I was, in the belly of the whale. 

Then it occurred to me (or perhaps I was informed by something from the Eternal) that if I would turn away from evil and do good, my soul would not forever be lost. It also occurred to me that everyone else in the prison, through God’s love for mankind, also had an awakening. God wouldn’t give that only to me. The problem was, that once they knew from this experience that they must turn away from evil and do good, many of them, having no foundation, didn’t know what “good” was. I believe that many of the rudderless people of today are indeed “woke,” but find themselves in the arena of life clueless as to how to begin to do right. This is a direct result of my shortcomings in ministering to them. Rather than not recognizing that they have been awakened to a certain degree, I should start providing a foundation for a true awakening to a life in Christ.

BLACK LIFE MATTERS

During the Ferguson disturbances, near St. Louis, MO, a young Black Orthodox man told me that he would like to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, to which I replied, “By all means, do it right away, but you must take my direction in this matter. I want you and your friends to carry banners with Jesus Pantocrator and the Mother of God of Kazan and one of St. Moses the Black. You must also carry beeswax candles and burn frankincense as you march, while singing, “The Cross is the Guardian of the whole world. The Cross is the might of kings, the Cross angels glory, and wound to demons.” To which he replied – that would be out of character with the energy of the movement, and I said – we don’t take our cues from this world. Instead, we inform them as to what is proper.

Black lives have always mattered to me. I remember suffering as a young man under the yoke of the godless authority (police) in Jefferson City, MO, who bound me in handcuffs and threw me in the back of the squad car and told me, “we’re going to take you over to Cedar City and let the wolves eat  you.” If it wasn’t for a fair minded officer, Don Klein, who intervened, Heaven knows what would have become of me. My crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more. And also disobeying my grandma Dorothy, who said, “if you keep running around with these white folks, you’re going to end up with your ass in a sling.”

It’s about time that we, as men and women of good will, address the ills of our society and not on its terms, but on the terms of otherworldly Christianity, which will always be in opposition to the wisdom of this world.

Who lives in that house? God is everywhere present and fillest all things

cda06c09416b307ad31555d63cea4d98

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.

72b2f04e8a39a6d740efa47b08cbc7ae

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.

filename-1-66 (2)

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.