FLOWERS in GOD’S GARDEN
Wearing the irons that once held his great-grandfather captive, Father Moses Berry shared the story of his journey from runaway preacher’s son to Orthodox priest at Holy Cross Orthodox Church on Monday night, as part of the church’s fall education series.
“These are mean instruments that held the slaves captive. They were also the means by which their souls could soar,” Berry said. “They were no longer citizens of this world, and had the opportunity to be citizens of world to come. Me, I’m sometimes envious of my relatives, though I wouldn’t want to trade places with them. I know I’m a slave of modernity, a slave of conventionality. I know that when I go back to the airport, I want my old truck to start, expect it to start, though it’s got 300,000 miles on it.”
Berry, of Ash Grove, Mo., comes from one of the first free black families in the Ozarks, and his father and grandfather were pastors in the African Methodist Episcopal church. His path to becoming a man of the cloth wasn’t straight.
“When I was a child, I asked my mother why there’s so many races. She said ‘they’re all flowers in God’s garden. Some are tulips, some are roses, some are begonias,’ and she left out crabgrass – which I probably was. That was enough for a child, but not nearly enough for an adult.”
Berry ran away from home at age 15, in 1967, to attend the Monterey Pop Festival. He then lived a wayward life of drugs and good times for several years, including stops in the counterculture haven of Big Sur, Calif., and living in Hawaii with eight other men, now all dead, in a house rented from Pat Boone.
Getting locked up in the Missouri State Penitentiary at 19 on a drug charge gave Berry time to think.
“Such thoughts I had there on my own humanity. Such repentance as I had there I’ve never had since.”
Berry, who has dyslexia, read his first book in prison. There he heard other men getting beaten, by the “sadistic guards” in the days before prison reform. Told to come outside by the guards one day, he prayed: “‘Oh Jesus, if you would just help me, I’ll serve you in the AME church.’ I thought ‘I know that old trick. They’ll try and get me out of the cell just like that guy.’ I went downstairs and they gave me money and said catch a cab.”
Berry finally found a “flower in God’s garden” that looked like himself in 1981 in the visage of St. Moses the Black, a gang leader in fourth century Egypt who converted to Christianity and became a monk. He and his wife visited a friend in Richmond, Va., and attended an Orthodox service held in a house church, where he first saw the icon.
“It was on the second floor, rear entrance. I remember saying to my wife as we were going up there, this isn’t really a church. We went inside that little chapel, maybe 10- by 10(-feet), with a three-woman choir. I said right in the middle of the church standing there, ‘this isn’t really a choir.'”
At dinner afterward, Berry and his wife agreed to join the Orthodox church. He was ordained in 1988, and the Berrys moved back to Ash Grove in 1998, where Father Moses founded Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church on the family farm left him by his father.
Later, Father Moses founded the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum in Ash Grove, despite warnings that the institution might not be a good idea in a predominantly white town with a history of racial strife. There, Berry displays his ancestors’ chains and other relics of his family, such as quilts and the 1907 “Mammy” doll that was part of his grandmother’s dowry.
The relics all tell stories of journeys both physical and spiritual. Some of the quilts are of a “Dresden” pattern, which told runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad to head to Dresden, Ontario, the hometown of Josiah Henson, the slave on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe based “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The progress of Afro-American Christians from spirituals to gospels to praise music marks their ascension to full citizenship, though Berry believes that the “joyful sorrow, the salvation has gone from our music” since they “no longer rely on God for everything.”
“I’m always worried for my children. Those slaves, their children were sold down the river. Sad, right? It’s sadder yet to be an Orthodox Christian priest who’s not trusting that God can take care of his children. That’s what the slave had to do.”
Father Moses likes to quote some lines of Phillis Wheatley for visitors to his museum, lines that capture the Afro-American experience:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.