A Hard Promise to Keep

September 26, 2015 Length: 35:50

Joel Smith and Fr. Moses Berry join us to talk about a video documentary planned to tell the remarkable story of Fr. Moses Berry and his coming to Orthodoxy. Also mentioned was the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black conference coming up in October. Learn more about A Hard Promise to Keep and stay connected with progress.

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Mr. John Maddex: This is John Maddex, and today I have the privilege of talking with Joel Smith. Joel is the president of Comprehensive Media. He’s a board member for Ancient Faith Ministries. He’s in Nashville, and, Joel, you’ve been producing videos for quite a long time, as long as I’ve known you. What’s your history in video production?

Mr. Joel Smith: Well, John, it’s great to be with you. We very much enjoy the work that Ancient Faith is doing in our community, and it’s a privilege to be on board.

My background is video production. My degree is in music performance, but along the way I stumbled onto video production and have owned my own business in that now for 25-plus years. We produce a lot of content for corporate clientele: training, promotional, point-of-purchase, those kinds of things. It’s been a great joy. I very much enjoy what I get to do.

Mr. Maddex: Well, we have a mutual friend, and he’s going to join us here in just a second, but Fr. Moses Berry is a name that is familiar to many of our listeners, and I know, Joel, you and I have been talking about a project that has been near and dear to your heart for many years. In fact, I can remember when you first talked with me about the project, and at that point it was called God’s Garden, because you were about ready to tell the story of Fr. Moses Berry through a video documentary. Now, Joel, I understand that you have a new name and that you’ve kind of taken up the mantle again and you’re working on this really full-force, and you’re calling it A Hard Promise to Keep. I’d love to know what’s behind the name, A Hard Promise to Keep, and then for sure we want to bring Fr. Moses in and get deeper into this project.

Mr. Smith: So, John, A Hard Promise to Keep is a documentary film about the life of Fr. Moses Berry. Father is one of only a handful of African-American Orthodox Christian priests in North America today, and it really is a true story of struggle and his search for belonging. It is also a conversion story of one man’s journey to the ancient Christian faith. Initially we went with the title of God’s Garden because it was such a strong theme throughout the story, but the main thing that we kind of kept coming back to was really about keeping that promise that he made in a Jefferson City jail. It also was a turning point when that young Karl Berry came to his senses, if you would, and realized that without God he was in real trouble.

Mr. Maddex: This would be a good time to bring Fr. Moses Berry in, and if you’ve not heard his story, it is on Ancient Faith Radio, the audio story that he gave himself at a lecture that we recorded. Just go to the Ancient Faith website and use the magnifying glass at the top right to search on Fr. Moses Berry. But, Fr. Moses, it’s a joy and really a privilege for me to welcome you to Ancient Faith Radio today.

Fr. Moses Berry: Well, the pleasure’s all mine. I’m glad to be here.

Mr. Maddex: Certainly people can listen to the story, but for those listening, they want to know right now: What is particularly unique about your conversion to Christ and entry into the Orthodox Church?

Fr. Moses: Well, I think it’s not necessarily unique, because we all are brought to Christ by him, but it’s particular. There are some things about my story that may be a little different than others. I was born and raised in the house that my great-grandparents built in 1871. I’m a third-generation AME pastor’s son, and I was raised by the children of slaves here in Ash Grove, Missouri. I departed from upbringing and my righteous upbringing to live a life of lawlessness, from my teenage years until my early 20s, and I had almost given up hope of finding any meaning in my life, and I found that meaning in jail.

I found that meaning in a four-and-a-half-foot cell, by six-and-a-half-foot, with twelve-foot ceilings and no windows. I was so desperate that I turned to God, my only help. I’d exhausted all possibilities. My lawyers had already promised me ten years if I copped a plea of guilty for my crimes, for selling drugs. And I’d exhausted all possibilities of being freed. And it wasn’t until I made that promise, that hard promise to God, which was, basically, “If you help me, I will serve you.” I don’t suppose I’ve said a more sincere prayer before or even, for that matter, since then. You know, I’ve been spending my life trying to keep that promise, through his grace and love for mankind, [he] freed me from that jail, which is a whole story by itself.

Mr. Maddex: We always rejoice when we hear stories of conversion, whether it is on the battlefield, those bunker experiences, or in a prison cell, where someone is at the end of the line, and they realize, “Unless I get help from something, someone, beyond me, I’m lost forever.” So those types of stories are wonderful to hear. They’re not that unusual, though. I find intriguing about your story, Fr. Moses, that as a third-generation African Methodist Episcopal Christian from that background and heritage, you found yourself not just converting to Christ but embracing the historic Orthodox faith. How did that happen?

Fr. Moses: I think that it happened because I was not satisfied in our church. We had come to a point—this was at the end of the integration period in the United States. My father was the first one in our family to vote, and he had to take a literacy test. He and the generations that preceded him were praying people. They relied on God. And I was born in a generation of people who didn’t rely on God, but relied mostly on the justice system and on the fairness of men. And we put much of our hope in men being just to us, and for me the church was destroyed. After integration was the law in this country, the church that I loved so much, the Black church, altogether, not just the AME church, but the Black church altogether, didn’t rely so much on otherworldly intervention as we had in the great time when we were in chains and freed from chains, but we relied on the justice system.

Not only did we rely on it, we started to demand our rights. And in demanding our rights, we were pulled further away from the only help and the only consolation that man can have, and that’s through God Almighty. By the time I was a teenager, the church was already pretty much established as a regular American institution, the Black church was, that is to say. The Black church was established as a normal American Institution, and the struggle that made me love our church, the struggle—not the struggle of being down-trodden, but the struggle of having no one to rely on but God—had certainly gone away. Our new god was sort of mingled with the hope that people would be fair and that the judicial system would be fair. So I became totally disillusioned, not only with the church, but with the whole of life.

Mr. Smith: And, John, from my perspective, what makes Fr. Moses’ story so unique is he’s a trailblazer. If you stop and think about—how many African-American Orthodox priests do you know that serve in a small town of 1500 in a Russian church? How many of those are there? So there’s really a sense in which he is a trailblazer. I have in the past weeks or so, I’ve really thought about Fr. Moses very much like the EOC was, the Evangelical Orthodox Church, 20 years ago, and their coming into the Antiochian Archdiocese.

Just a couple of weeks ago now—we attend St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin—we laid to rest our father-in-Christ, Fr. Gordon Walker. I think in some ways Fr. Moses’ story, while he wasn’t a part of a group like the EOC, his is a journey of conversion, and there’s a lot of parallels in his journey, from his Protestant background to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. So I think those are a couple of reasons that it’s such a unique story and that so many people really resonate.

Mr. Maddex: So that disillusionment certainly would cause anyone to begin searching and to try to find out: Is there a church expression out there anywhere that addresses that need, that addresses the fact that we need a power outside of ourselves, an otherworldly, divine power? So you end up Orthodox, and some would say, “Orthodox? I mean, that’s pretty much Eastern European: Romanian, Russian, Greek. What does Orthodox Christianity have to say to an African-American Christian?”

Fr. Moses: I think that what the Orthodox Church has to say to the African-American Christian is that you no longer have to invent your own theology. You no longer have to invent your own doctrine. I remember when I was a non-denominational pastor and I came to my mother’s little church in Jefferson City, Missouri, which was called Donovan’s Chapel [11:50], and that was the first preaching job that I had, was to give the sermon at my mom’s church. I remember these ladies who were the eldresses of the church, came to me before I gave the sermon. One particular woman, Sister Turner, told me, “Now, whatever you do, make it short, and make it good.”
[Laughter] I said, “Okay, okay.” So I just thought, “What’s the best thing I could come up with?” So I came up with my own ideas of what Jesus was saying when he told Peter to “feed my sheep,” and it was a hit. Everyone loved it. And I knew that I had made that up myself. So what the Orthodox Church has to share with us is that we no longer have to invent the theology that we so long for, but it’s already been in place from the beginning of the Church, and it’s been developed throughout the history of the Church.

Mr. Maddex: Wow. Well, there’s so much more, wonderful things to the story, and we don’t have time to go into all of it now, but you need to hear this story. And, Joel Smith, that’s one of the reasons why you’re working on this documentary, now called A Hard Promise to Keep. So how did you find each other? Do you remember that one?

Mr. Smith: I do remember, and I was thinking about it the other day. We attend St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and we had not been Orthodox very long. It’s been 10 or 11 years ago now, I guess, and it was around December. We had gone as a teen SOYO group. We were going and doing some Christmas caroling. I remember, I was going back and I was talking to Howard Finley, and Howard had known about my desire to use my gifts and ability within the Orthodox Church and to find the kind of story that would express what we were so grateful to have found. Howard found me and he said, “I have talked to a guy this week, and this is the project you’ve been looking for.” And he told me the story of Fr. Moses.

And if I recall correctly, Father, I called you and we talked a little bit, and then I made the trip to Ash Grove. We sat down, and over a period of a weekend, spent a lot of time together and talked, and we connected, and it just really seemed to click. In fact, I don’t know if you remember, Father, but toward the end of our time together, we were in the museum, and I asked you. I said, “Father”; I kind of laid out what I was thinking about this project and that kind of thing. I said, “Father, is this something… Is this what you want?” Do you remember what you said, Father?

Fr. Moses: No, I don’t. Tell me.

Mr. Smith: Well, what you said was, “You know, Joel, we have the same vision. This is what I want. We want the same things.” We really connected and clicked in a way that really just set us off on this journey together.

Fr. Moses: Yes. You wanted to tell the story so it could help other people in their struggle, and I wanted to share my story so it could help other people.

Mr. Maddex: And you got started on it, I understand, but then it got put on a back shelf for a while. Did you have any footage that you actually produced from the very beginnings of this project?

Mr. Smith: Yeah, I think all totaled, in interview content alone, we have somewhere in the neighborhood of about 20 hours of footage. Some of that is actually Fr. Moses presenting in front of schools. Actually, in several places across the country, we have him also sharing, and in his own church and in other places, camps and that kind of thing. There is actually a lot of content that we have gathered very early on, and made some progress on.

Mr. Maddex: Are there any favorite stories that you remember from some of the early footage that you shot?

Mr. Smith: Yeah, there definitely are. I think one in particular that is my favorite, and when people ask about A Hard Promise to Keep, it’s one that I will frequently tell them—and, Father, I’ll ask you to tell it. What I call it is “A Pimp with Integrity,” and I think it really sums up why Fr. Moses has such a unique gift and ability to share a story and to help us see things in such a different perspective. Father, would you share a little bit of that again, what I call “A Pimp with Integrity”?

Fr. Moses: I was living in a little town called Columbia, Missouri. It was the place where I sold drugs from. I had just been released from jail, and I had a new-found belief in Jesus. It was also mingled with my desire to make money and to not give up my lifestyle. So I was pretty double-minded. And there was a man named Yancy Bolton. He was a pimp, and he came to my house and he wanted to buy some drugs. And he had two women with him, and these were women who were prostitutes. They were very beautiful women. At one point they started becoming a little giddy, and they started, as he would say, “misbehaving,” and Yancy took up a coat hanger and started beating those women. I was scandalized. I’d never… I knew what he was. I’d never seen this side to him before.

I told him that I didn’t like what he was doing, that he should stop that, and it was just wrong. I said it’s not pleasing to the Lord as well. And Yancy turned to me and said, “Karl,” which was my name; he said, “Karl, if you become the type of Christian that I am a pimp, then I will do what you say.” That’s when I knew that Yancy had a different understanding of what integrity was. That integrity meant being in line with what you proposed to be, and he was completely a pimp and I was only a partial Christian.

Mr. Maddex: Wow. Yeah, that’s powerful.

Mr. Smith: And, John, I think for me, that story really illustrates what is so important and unique about Fr. Moses’ story, because he really has a way of taking something as everyday as a conversation with someone and puts it in a context where you go: “Hmm, that’s interesting.” And then, all of a sudden, you realize: “Ooh. That’s me. I do things I shouldn’t do. I act ways that are not pleasing to God.” And I think that’s what really speaks to me about Fr. Moses and the way that he shares these really simple stories, is that everybody really can identify with him. And you know: Wow, hey, I need to pay attention here, because something important is going on.

Mr. Maddex: So what’s the urgency, Joel? You definitely have given the impression that you’re ready to move on this. You really want to get the ball rolling, move beyond these 20 hours you’ve recorded, and get this documentary film produced. Why? What do you hope to accomplish with this.

Mr. Smith: Well, I think there are several reasons that there’s a renewed urgency for me. One, the time is right. Fr. Moses and I have had many conversations about why it’s taking so long. To his credit, he is incredibly patient. There are lots of reasons why it’s taken so long. There’s so much content that’s so incredible, and that you really want to share everything. So it’s really been hard to get down to that core, the essence. But kind of having come through that, the bottom line about urgency is really that the time is right.

All is not well with the world, especially now. All of the ethnic tensions, all of the, as Fr. Moses would say, all of the slippery slopes that as a country we are beginning to slide down. As an Orthodox Christian, I look at that, and one of the reasons that we became Orthodox is because we wanted certainty. We wanted, as Fr. Moses said a little earlier, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to invent our own doctrine. So I think the time is right, absolutely. And I think people need to hear, and I think people long to hear the truth, in a way that they’ve never thought of it before, but that makes it no less truthful.

To me, the urgency is the time is right, and really people need to hear. And, I guess, Father, we’ve talked a little bit, and we’re getting old. We can’t wait forever, can we?

Fr. Moses: No, we can’t wait forever. And one of the reasons we can’t wait forever is because of the tensions you spoke of, these ethnic tensions that exist. At the same time, that’s coupled with the message that “all is well”—and all is not well. I think if we don’t… We want to give a little gift to the world, that all is not well, and that through the grace of God we can become better.

Mr. Maddex: So, Joel, spin forward now, and imagine the time when this film is produced and you’re thinking about the people that need to see this film. Who are they?

Mr. Smith: I think the people that need to see this film are people who, like Fr. Moses, have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, people who’ve come to the end of their ropes and they’ve said, “I have nowhere else to go. I don’t know what else to do. Where will I turn?” I think people who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, that they don’t have a home, they don’t have a place, they don’t have a purpose or a meaning. I think anyone who is not satisfied where they are spiritually. People who are searching for the truth, truth that’s not subjective, truth that’s not based on a personality, but truth that is based on Christ and his Church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I think it’s anybody who stood and or stands at a crisis of faith, and people who simply want something more. That’s really who A Hard Promise to Keep is for. It’s for those people who are not pleased with where they are and are not pleased with where they’re going, and want some certainty in their lives.

Mr. Maddex: Would you add anything to that, Father, in terms of a target audience? Who should see this film?

Fr. Moses: I think anybody should see this film, particularly young African-American people should see this film, because they are at tremendous risk. When we look around the country, we see—this doesn’t refer to everyone, but for the most part—African-American people are in bad shape. I fear that one of the reasons that we have situations like the ones that we have in Ferguson, Missouri, that’s going on, even being renewed right now, is simply because we don’t know about the ancient faith. When people say, “Just trust in God,” that has no definition; that has no meaning. And I think that this film might lead people to the place, to the Orthodox Church, where they can find meaning, to their questions of “Why am I here?” and “Why are we so mistreated?”

Mr. Maddex: And such a rich African heritage for this faith, isn’t that the case?

Fr. Moses: That’s very much the case, yes.

Mr. Smith: It very much is, and we’ve had many conversations about where the African-American church is today and where it’s come from. What most of us may not think about… As Orthodox Christians, we tend to think about Orthodox Christianity, at least in North America, it’s very ethnic in the sense that the Greeks brought it over, and the Serbs and the Russians and the Antiochians, and that kind of thing, but they came to America, and there was no Orthodox Church. Father and I have talked about this many times. If we really want to find out who we are and where we’re going, we have to understand where we’ve been, because it really helps us understand where we are going, by God’s grace.

Mr. Maddex: I understand there’s also a companion piece being prepared, to go along with the film?

Mr. Smith: Absolutely. Very early on, we decided that it would be important to not merely have a film about Fr. Moses’ life, but what a great opportunity to provide a book as well. And we have made actually quite a bit of headway there, so there is a book as well that we are working on that is a part of this project, and it will really share those stories in print form that we’re sharing in a film form as well.

Mr. Maddex: Let’s talk a little bit about the phases that need to be experienced in order for this film to become a reality. Walk us through, phase by phase, if you would.

Mr. Smith: Yeah, so the process right now, John, is the project has been dormant for a while, and coming into the new year, I really wanted that to change. I wanted to intentionally move this forward. We want to build a group of like-minded people around us who want to see this story told. Those may be Protestants, they may be Orthodox, they may be African-American, they may be any other ethnicity, but we really wanted to build a group of like-minded people who could come along with us and help us tell the story. That, in essence, of this longer campaign or project, if you would, is that first phase. Our goal is five thousand people who will simply say, “We want to be a part of this, and we will share our names. We will sign on the dotted line and say: We believe in this story and we want to help share this story because it’s important.”

Then, from there, the second phase would be to launch a Kickstarter campaign, where we can lay out the film in more detail, what it will take to finish this film, and then say, “Will you help us do this? Will you come alongside us and make this film a reality?” Really, then, from there, to get the film shot and release it. Really, in those four phases—phase one, again, to build a group of five thousand to say, “We will share our names, we want to be a part, and we want to see that this story is told,” and then that second phase again, to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help us fund the film, and then finally to shoot it, and to release it. So that is really where we’re going. This is not a short-term fix. This is a long-term commitment that I have, and it is our hope and prayer that there will be others who will come alongside us, especially in the Orthodox Church, and say, “This is a story that needs to be told.”

Mr. Maddex: As you think about that first phase of just gathering five thousand names, you’re not even necessarily saying five thousand donors. You’re saying five thousand names of people who just want to be kept informed and help share the story on social media with their friends and maybe participate in ways other than donations, although donations at some point are going to be required.

Mr. Smith: Absolutely, and I think that’s important. We really wanted to just… We didn’t want to launch out and say, “Hey, give us money.” We want to say, “Do you believe in this? Do you think this is important? And will you come alongside of us?” Lots of different way that people can help, but initially what we’re asking for is simply to go online, to ahardpromise.com, and say, “Yes, I will share my name to help you share this story.” Again, you’re not committing to give a dollar, and there is no expectation that that happen, but you’re merely saying, “I like this. I want to see more content like this in the Orthodox Church, because I, too, believe in this Church that we are a part of, and we believe it is a means of salvation, and there are those who so desperately need to find that.”

So really all we’re asking is that people go to hardpromise.com and simply sign up and say, “Yes, I will share my name to help you share the story.” I will say, John, that those who do that, as a thank-you for that, we’re offering them a free chapter from the book. So if you go there and share your name, you will immediately be able to download a free chapter from the book. We’re just looking for people who will share their heart for this film and other Orthodox films that we hope and pray will really lead the way for other films like this, because there are very few, if any, films like this in the Orthodox Church.

Mr. Maddex: And you and I, as one of our board members, have been talking about the expansion and development of Ancient Faith Films for quite some time. And there is a tie-in here, isn’t there?

Mr. Smith: There is indeed. What we hope, Lord willing, is that this film will be the first major release from Ancient Faith Films. What that will do is not only be a great tool to help us get this film ready, but in essence it will raise the water level and will raise all ships in the harbor. So we really hope that this film will really help us gather those people in the Orthodox Church and Ancient Faith listeners who say, “Yes, we really believe that this is that next area that the Orthodox Church can expand.” I mean, John, how many years ago has it been now since you started Ancient Faith Radio?

Mr. Maddex: Well, we started Ancient Faith Radio in 2004, so we’re moving into the 11th year now.

Mr. Smith: How incredible: if you look back at where Ancient Faith Radio has come, and Ancient Faith Ministries joining with Conciliar, if you look at where God has brought us, and if you look at how the base of Ancient Faith has grown and the number of people every day who listen to what started out as an internet radio station—wow. Where will Ancient Faith Films be in ten years, when we have this conversation again? I think, and it is my prayer, that a film like this can really serve to rally those that are like-minded to get behind something that will, again, not be just for A Hard Promise to Keep, but will be for many films in the future.

Mr. Maddex: Very simply, go to hardpromise—all one word—hardpromise.com. There’s a sample video that you can already watch, a very wonderful production that will give you a feel for the story; and then an opportunity for you to share your name, and as Joel said, as a thank-you, you’ll then be able to download a free chapter from the upcoming book, A Hard Promise to Keep; and then we would just ask you to share with your friends. Just let others know: “Hey, have you heard about this? Here’s the website. Jump on board! Give them your name. Let us, together, make this a reality, and pray that God will use our efforts for his glory.”

Fr. Moses, anything you’d like to share as we bring this to a close?

Fr. Moses: Well, I would only like to share that I was at the All-American Council, which is an Orthodox Church in America gathering, in Atlanta, Georgia, most recently, and I met a young man there, an African-American man there, and he said, “I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time, Fr. Moses, ever since I listened to your interview on Ancient Faith Radio, all those years ago, before I became Orthodox. And I listened to it over and over, and as a result of listening to Ancient Faith Radio, I have become Orthodox. And I’ve always wondered: could I come to your church for a visit?” Well, the following week, he and his fiancé came to visit me at Unexpected Joy Church in Ash Grove, Missouri.

Mr. Maddex: Oh, my.

Fr. Moses: I think that answers the question.

Mr. Maddex: That gives me goosebumps.

Fr. Moses: For your edification.

Mr. Maddex: Thanks be to God, and thanks for sharing that wonderful story. You have the St. Moses the Black Conference coming in October.

Fr. Moses: October 7, 8, and 9.

Mr. Maddex: And there’s a link on our page right here for you to click on, and you can find out more about that conference as well.

Fr. Moses Berry and Joel Smith, our guests today, talking about the film that’s in development right now, A Hard Promise to Keep. Find out more at hardpromise.com, and be sure to share your name at that point and learn more about this project. Joel and Fr. Moses, thank you both.

Fr. Moses and Mr. Smith: Thank you, John.