“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.


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.


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


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.

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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.

“Slaves, Paupers and Indians”

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.


A Loving Legacy

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.

ask-saint-nicholas-of-myra1.jpgSt. Nicholas, pray to God for us!



Address to the 2019 Meeting of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black

302179There’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!