Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine

 

Keeping the
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.

Father 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 for them.

When Berry speaks of that "old time religion" he takes you back to the first century of Christianity.

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 plans."

The Orthodox 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.

Incense, candles 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 Springfield.

Berry's great-grandmother 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."

Berry displays 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.

Since returning 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."

Father Berry 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 '60s.

"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 he treasures.

"Now I am thankful for it because my children live here," he says. "People keep an eye out for you."

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 m.berry@ix.netcom.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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