Fr. Moses Berry, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, lives with his wife, Magdalena, in Ash Grove, Missouri, a small town in the Ozarks, on the farm his great-grandfather built in 1871.
Because they are an African American family, the Berrys are notable in Southwest Missouri for owning and living on the same property for over 125 years. Fr. Moses has restored a family cemetery established in 1875 and dedicated to “Slaves, Indians and Paupers.” This cemetery is now on the Greene County Register of Historic Sites and the National Register as well. Fr. Moses is also curator of the Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum,. After 10 years in a small storefront, the museum collection is now available on line at http://oaahm.omeka.net. It has an extensive collection of photographs and artifacts of rural Afro-American life in the surrounding areas, preserved by the Berrys and other families over many years.
Fr. Moses is a contributor to An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African American Experience; co-founder of the annual Afro-American and Ancient Christianity Conferences sponsored by the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black and is in demand locally as a speaker on African American history, and nationally on issues in African American spirituality and Orthodox Christian mission. He has appeared on “Good Morning America” and on the National Geographic channel.
Fr. Moses’ parish, Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church, stands close to an enormous sycamore tree--the same tree that Fr. Moses’ ancestors used as a shelter for church picnics and other celebrations for over a century.
A brief account of the beginning...
In 1993 Fr. Moses was living in Saint Louis, Missouri and serving as the pastor to Christ the Good Shepherd Eastern Orthodox Church. It came to his attention that large numbers of Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants who, in seeking asylum from their war torn nations, were relocated to St. Louis from the East African refugee camp they had been forced into. While the move to the United States was necessary for the survival of these peoples, they were often unfortunately relocated into dangerous neighborhoods with violent issues of their own.
Fr. Moses noticed that they, like many other recent immigrant groups, lacked an established cultural community that they could rely on for help with the practical needs of adjusting to life in the United States and the spiritual needs that could only be fulfilled in a supportive environment. The Berrys, with the support of the church congregation, made every effort they could to help these immigrant become comfortable in their new lives. They set up a kind of free store in the church basement. Later, with the help of community leaders, Fr. Moses established the area’s first Ethiopian and Eritrean cultural center.
The first ad hoc meeting of the Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black, with 20 or so community members, was held in the Berry’s living room. The organization was established with the broad purpose of developing unity and brotherhood in the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities, because even though violence and forced migration had pushed these groups together, they had their own individual histories of war and aggression with one another. Members of the organization began regularly attending church services at Christ the Good Shepherd and Fr. Moses began to become known as the American spiritual father of this growing immigrant community.
As the Brotherhood grew, its outreach extended to diverse communities of African descent in the United States, but its mission of developing unity and brotherhood remains the same.