The Rev. Moses Berry, an Orthodox priest and pastor of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Mo., began his career as a Protestant preacher, a family tradition reaching back into the 1800s. Then, in 1983, he visited an Orthodox church in Atlanta and was so moved that he retrained to become a priest in the Orthodox Church in America. He also helped to organize the coalition of clergy, scholars and lay leaders coming to Detroit.
“Reconnecting with the Orthodox tradition connects us with the earliest Christian traditions,” Berry says. “It means that, when our ancestors were brought here as slaves, they didn’t arrive here with just a collection of tribal religions. They didn’t all discover Christianity here. In fact, many Africans already were part of the ancient Christian church.”
When Berry 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 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.