14 minute read

Interview with Fr. Moses Berry

Race and American Orthodoxy

an interview with Archpriest MOSES BERRY

Fr. Moses Berry is the rector of Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Church in Ash Grove, Missouri, and a co-founder of the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, a group devoted to linking ancient African Christianity and the African American experience.

In this interview, he discusses his own conversion to the Orthodox Church, how the Church should think about interracial outreach, and what an African American expression of Orthodoxy might look like. This interview was conducted in the Spring, before the protests that followed the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but it has been updated to deal with the recent events.

Could you give a brief rundown of your biography? Where did you come from and how did you become a priest?

Well, I came from the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, and I live in a house that my great grandparents built in 1871. My great grandfather built the house, my grandfather was born and raised in that house, my father was born and raised in that house, and I was born and raised in this town.

When I was young, I was what they would call a lawless man. I turned 21 at the Missouri State Penitentiary in a 4.5-by-6.5-foot cell, with 12-foot ceilings and no windows. You know, this was in the late '60s and early '70s before prison reform. This was a horrible place to be. They had a habit of taking prisoners out of the cell and beating them for any number of reasons. And there was this man

we called Pretty Boy, from Illinois. They took him out of his cell, and they beat him with a transistor radio wrapped in a towel. And every time he passed out, they would pee in his face to revive him. I was 19 years old. I looked under my cell gate door and I could see them mistreating him. I asked God to help me at that point. And I prayed that if He would help me, then I would serve Him.

Did you have a religious upbringing?

Yes, I was a third generation AME — African Methodist Episcopal.

I see. And I’m guessing this story ends with an answer to that prayer.

Well, the officer who had arrested me came clean. He had set our house on fire and came in with the police department, so he didn’t have to get a warrant. He had known there were drugs inside. But it was still an illegal procedure, so they threw it out of court. The officer had become a born-again Christian. So I was let out. I moved to Hawaii, and I lived there for a while. I wanted to somehow rededicate myself to following Christ. And the only experience that I had with the church was with Protestant churches in America—and to me, they were not the answer to what I was looking for.

And so I became part of what you would call a newage Christian group. We all lived in San Francisco. This is what I thought was the answer. The church that I grew up in, the suffering African American church, had long since gone. Because after integration took hold in this country, the black church was no longer a suffering church, where we had to rely and depend on God for any consolation. They relied on the fairness of men and the gesture of a quota system. And so, after being in this new-age, nondenominational, so-called “church” for a while, many of my friends were becoming Orthodox. In fact, in the Orthodox Church in America, we have at least 10 priests from our organization.

You’re talking about the Holy Order of MANS, right?

Absolutely. I was one of the founders of it — one of the early people in that organization.

What period are we talking about?

I joined in 1971. And then in the early or mid-'80s, we were introduced to Orthodoxy. At that point, I thought I would never become part of the Orthodox Church, because it seemed to me like an ethnic church. I didn’t see very many African American people in leadership positions. As a matter of fact, until last year, I was the only black priest in the OCA. Now we have two since Fr. Samuel Davis was ordained at St. Tikhon’s (Davis is now the rector of St. Simon of Cyrene Mission in Somerset, New Jersey).

So the Orthodox Church seemed distinctly ethnic, and the ethnicities represented didn’t include your own.

Yes, it looked like quite an exclusive church, no matter how people may have tried to explain that away. But in about 1983, when my wife and I were living in Atlanta, we took a trip to visit a friend who lived in Richmond, Virginia. Our friend said, “You know, you should come to this church service with me tonight.” And I thought, Goodness, I don't think so. But he said, “Please come.” We went, and it was a house church. I guess people lived downstairs, and on the second floor there was a little chapel. As it turns out, it was St. Cyprian of Carthage Church, which is part of the OCA. And I had no respect for those people. I was just biding my time because it was just the civilized thing to do. The choir was only three women. I thought, This isn't even really a choir. I was displeased with the whole thing.

You were probably accustomed to a full gospel choir.

Not only that, but I knew it was probably the priest’s wife, the priest’s daughter, and one faithful lady. Then the choir began to sing: “Rejoice, thou through whom joy will flash forth. Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam. Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve. Rejoice, thou bride unwedded.” And I was cut to the quick. I had never heard such language before. I hadn't read a book until I went to the prison, because I had dyslexia— and at that time, you know, that really wasn't diagnosed. So I just thought I was a dumb person.

They were singing the Akathist to the Mother of God: “She makes the most eloquent orators as dumb as fish.” I was very emotional at that point. Then they sang, “The wise children did not adore the golden idol but went themselves into the flames and defied the pagan gods. They prayed in the midst of the flames, and an angel bedewed them. Already the prayer of your lips…” I said, Oh, my goodness! They reminded me so much of the early gospel music and songs I had grown up with. It had this deep, heartfelt expression of God's love for man, and man’s redemption on account of God’s love. It was the thing I had been looking for and hadn’t been able to find.

Structurally speaking, the Orthodox Church still was not what I was looking for. But that very night, I said to myself, I will forsake all, and I'll buy the whole field for this one pearl of great price. And, you know, even though all my superiors, all my peers, and all my subordinates will be of a different race than I am, I don't care. I’ll buy the whole thing.

This is really moving to hear.

When I was a boy, I asked my mother why there were so many races of people. And my mother said to me, “That's easy, son: because we're all flowers in God's garden.” And I thought, Where, in this church, are those flowers that look like me? And I didn't find them. So I went to that church, St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond. The priest came out through the iconostasis. And beside the icon of the Mother of God was an icon of St. Moses the Black. And on the other side of the Mother of God was an icon of St. Cyprian of Carthage. At first, I thought it was some sort of ploy that the priest had made—a missionary tool to reach out to the African American people in the community. And I confronted him about that. I said I didn’t know who those saints were. He said, “We have many saints.” And he showed me the saints of the Boxer Rebellion. He showed me St. John Maximovitch. He showed me St. Mary of Egypt. I saw a tangible expression of “In Christ, there is no east or west, no bond, no freeman, no Gentile, no Jew.”

So when did you become a priest?

I became a priest in a non-canonical church of the Old Calendar Greek church in 1988. I became part of the OCA in 2000.

Back in the ‘90s you started an organization called the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black— which is now the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black. Could you explain what it is?

It was formed for outreach to the African American community, which was tremendously underserved. We have several hundred people, and we have chapters in California and Virginia. So this is good. I don’t ever want to forget where I came from — not being accepted.

Many people throughout the country have been affected by our outreach. Often they say they’ve found us through Facebook. They’re invested in trying to have some idea of racial reconciliation and recognizing the saints in the Church that are people of color—not that that’s important, but people need something to anchor themselves to. Just as other people are interested in Celtic Christianity because they feel an inner resonance with that Celtic expression. Well, I say, anything that works will work for me.

So that’s why St. Moses is my patron, and it’s why I'm very interested in the African saints. When people walk into churches, they might not even see an icon that reminds them of themselves. Unless you know that deification is possible in your flesh, it is very difficult to be deified.

Right. It’s the reason Protestant churches tend to make images of Christ that look like their members. Obviously, black churches do it, they have images of Jesus as a black man, but white churches do it too. We’ve all seen the old pictures where Jesus is so white, he looks Norwegian.

And that makes sense. My mom, she made these lifesize murals on the wall of our church of the life of Jesus. It was an artistic rendering. He was brown-skinned.

So we have to recognize that there are differences and that it's OK. It's not OK for you to have your own interpretation of Orthodox dogmatic theology, but it’s OK for you to have a somewhat different expression. We see this expressed all over the world, in Africa, in Russia. Many of the things that we hold dear about the Russian transmission of Orthodoxy — that I hold dear—are based on folk culture.

That’s interesting, because one of the traits that makes Orthodoxy seem exclusive, or forbidding, is the way it takes on these strong cultural expressions. Many of our parishes are already centered on certain ethnic traditions. Do you think we can celebrate those without alienating newcomers?

Don't underestimate people's ability to be moved by the depth of our Christianity. There is a certain resonance in our musical expression that, if you allow it to, will touch you in a very deep way. Everybody knows some black people, and everybody knows some black people who are not in church. We could just say, “Within this year, I’m going to find a friend or someone I know and invite them to church.” Invite them; twist their arm. Don’t be ashamed. Invite them there and let God give you an increase.

Bring them and let the service do the rest.

Yes, because that’s all that can happen anyway. I once went to St. Catharine’s in Ontario to speak at the university, and these local priests took me around to

show me the sights. They took me to a British Methodist Episcopal Church where Harriet Tubman had raised money for the Underground Railroad. I saw a podium where she spoke. And I said, "Oh my goodness, it's a relic." I believe inanimate objects hold sanctity. I think this very podium holds sanctity, because Harriet Tubman bled and sweated and suffered over this podium.

So we just need to reach out to people and suppose that they will understand all that we understand. I’m not a very educated man. My children are very educated, but I didn’t even get out of high school. What reaches a person is our intention. If we have intention that’s strong enough to look out for somebody, and bring them to church, and show them the icon, and tell them about the lives of the saints —we’d be planting seeds. There are hundreds of young African Americans—though some of them aren’t so young anymore—who the Fellowship of St. Moses has evangelized.

What do you think an African American expression of the faith might look like? How could we start introducing elements of that?

Well, for one thing, I don’t think we can have some sort of contrived or made-up expression of African American liturgical music. I believe that we must wait on God to raise up a melodist among us. But I also believe that once you get a group of African American people together and they begin to sing—which I’ve witnessed in the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black — something comes forth from them that is very natural. They’re singing the same tones—for instance, the Slavonic tones — but it turns out to be an African American expression. That’s why evangelizing the African American community is more important than making up some kind of musical expression.

Remember the old blues singer John Lee Hooker? He had a song where his mother and father were in the other room, and they were talking about John Lee, about how he always liked to boogie-woogie. He heard his dad say to his mom, “That boy’s got it in him, and it’s just got to come out. He’s got to boogie-woogie.” So the expression is always in people. If you unloose it a bit, it will come out.

I have to say that among all the converts I’ve known over the years, I can count only a handful who are black. Most of our converts seem to be white. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because we don’t reach out to African Americans so much. We have to make a special effort. We must reach out to people in a concerted way. That’s all it is. I think most of it is fear. We haven’t made the effort. We’re praying. But African American people can be a little intimidating. They’re a little intimidating to me sometimes — and I’ve been one all my life!

Have you seen racism lurking anywhere in American Orthodoxy?

I’ve never really seen racism. I’ve seen lack of consciousness. I’ve seen people who have been cavalier, who have said things off the cuff. Even as a 70-year-old, people want to touch my hair. But I also remember this man who came here and wanted to make confession. He was beside himself. He said, “You know, I’ve never made confession to a black person before. This is really weird for me.” Some people, if they want to, could make that person out to be a prejudiced person. He’s just a man who doesn’t know how to express himself properly. But in my children’s generation, people are a little more sensitive than they should be. They’re a little more suspect.

Being a priest, you have to consider that these are your children, and your kids will say rude things. It’s because they don't have enough information, or it’s because they think it's funny — it’s because they think all kinds of things. But I’ve not seen what you would call racism in the Orthodox Church.

How do you interpret all the unrest since George Floyd’s death?

It’s not surprising to me, because I’ve gone through, in my experience as a young man, the tumultuous times of the 1960s. Everyone was looking for the cause to these problems. You can’t find the remedy for a spiritual problem in a secular world, by secular means. So it doesn’t surprise me that these things would come up, because they were never properly dealt with in the first place. We have this problem in our country because of the things that we have done. We all make mistakes, nations and individuals. But in order to make it right, we must truly repent, and truly forgive one another.

One young man asked me about being involved in Black Lives Matter protests, and maybe bringing some of his friends, who were Orthodox. I said, “I bless you to do that. Only one thing I require of you. I require that you carry banners of Jesus and of the mother of God, and I demand that you carry candles. And I want them to be beeswax candles. And sing, ‘The cross is the guardian of the whole world; the Cross is the beauty of the Church, the Cross is the might of kings; the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful.’”

He said, “We won’t very well fit in.” I said, “Of course. We don’t take our cues from this world.” So, therefore, what do we have to share? The only thing we have to share is the real remedy. We’d better figure out some way to unite and pray about this — at least our churches. Some call it racial reconciliation, and that’s an easy term to use, but it’s reconciliation of man to God.

Interview by Nick Tabor