Old Time Faith
Father Moses Berry combines African-American
heritage and Orthodox Christianity at the
Unexpected Joy Orthodox Church
by Jim McCarty
From the outside
the tiny white church standing in a field just west of Ash Grove looks
like thousands of others gracing the Missouri countryside. But when Father
Moses Berry opens wide the doors of the Theotokos Unexpected Joy Mission
and ushers visitors inside they often stare in wide-eyed amazement at
the rich colors of the religious icons that cover the walls.
Moses Berry, founder and priest of the Theotokus Unexpected Joy Orthodox
Christian Church in Ash Grove, explains that worshippers at the tiny
church ask the saints portrayed in the church's many icons to include
their prayers with their own much as one would ask a neighbor to pray
When Berry speaks
of that "old time religion" he takes you back to the first century of
When Barry returned
to the family farm in Ash Grove three years ago he brought with him his
faith as an Eastern Orthodox priest. It wasn't long before the priest
established a place for other Orthodox followers to worship.
"I didn't think
we would have a church for 5 years," says the priest. "But God had other
Church is closely related to the Roman Catholic Church. The two faiths
split in 1054. The Orthodox faith has changed little since that time,
clinging to traditions that are centuries old. In fact, those who worship
with Berry follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar
used by much of the world.
and the ever-present icons are a big part of their faith. Their services,
held with the congregation standing, are steeped in tradition with the
priest chanting the scriptures.
If the little
church seems out of place in rural Missouri its 51-year-old priest is
not. His roots run deeper in Ash Grove than perhaps any of the town's
other 1,100 residents. He can trace his lineage to the 1830s when Nathan
Boone and his family homesteaded land near the community northwest of
was a slave named Caroline who was owned by the Boones. She married William
Berry after being set free and the two started a 40-acre homestead. In
1873 William built the farmhouse where the priest was born and now lives
with his wife, Magdalena, and their two children, Dorothy and Elijah.
On his father's
side, Berry's great-grandfather was Wallace White, a former slave and
the first black soldier in the Union's Missouri 6th Cavalry.
Wallace was working
in the fields when the cavalry rode by. They asked him if he wanted to
join their ranks and his reply was, "Deed I do."
a medallion from a 19th-century slave trading house. The other side
of the medal proclaims "healthy, strong slaves." Berry hopes
to establish a museum recalling slavery and the lives of African-Americans.
Only 14, he left
the field with the clothes on his back and an iron padlock from his slave
chains. Today that lock is one of the many artifacts Berry hopes to turn
into the Ozark's first African-American heritage museum.
to the family homestead three years ago Berry became caretaker of a vast
treasury of family artifacts. Besides the old lock he has a massive neck
iron, leg shackles and a medallion from the A.G. Brock Slave Trading House
that advertised "healthy, strong slaves."
He has trunks
full of old quilts, some pieced prior to the Civil War. He has a cabinet
that was a present from Nathan Boone and a clock made in the 1700s.
When a housing
project threatened Ash Grove's Lincoln School, started for children of
slaves, Berry talked its owner into letting him have it. As soon as Berry
raises the funds, the school will be rebuilt to house the museum.
In frequent talks
around the country Berry tries to reconnect African-American history with
the American experience. When he shows off his ancestor's chains he says
white students are often ashamed and black students indignant.
"I tell them that
it is part of our collective history," he says. "You have to step back
to look at history or it gets too emotional. I take advantage of everything
around me to explain this or else they wore these things in vain."
fixes a tombstone disturbed by the elements in the cemetery his
great-grandfather set aside for former slaves, American Indians
and paupers. This stone marks the grave of Mother Charity, who worked
to help runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Another part of
his heritage is the cemetery located on a corner of the old homestead.
The burial ground was set aside by William and Caroline for slaves, American
Indians and paupers. Part of the priest's work is restoring the cemetery,
which he found in sad shape.
Buried here are
many family members as well as a number of unknown souls including Indians
under mounds. One tombstone marks the grave of Mother Charity, a woman
who helped runaway slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. Former
Kansas City Monarchs pitcher Lewis Frank Yokum is also buried here.
The cemetery was
in continuous use from 1875 until Mamie Berry was buried here in 1967.
Then the farm was leased and the cemetery nearly forgotten. Plans are
in place to restore the cemetery. It will be part of the Heritage Museum
which will also include room for lectures and workshops on various aspects
of African and American Indian life.
For Berry, coming
home was the completion of a life circle that started when he was born
in the old house and later hitchhiked his way down Route 66 during the
"When I was young
I couldn't wait to get out of here and when I got old I couldn't wait
to get back."
He said as a youth
he resented the way his small-town neighbors knew everything he did. Now
he sees this as neighbors looking out for each other and it's something
"Now I am thankful
for it because my children live here," he says. "People keep an eye out
For more information
on Father Berry's work write to 14617 West Farm Rd. 74, Ash Grove, MO
65604 or call (417) 751-2761 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.