Fourth Baptist’s pastor leads by faith activism

Joey Matthews | 10/30/2015, 8:52 p.m.
Dr. Emory Berry Jr. calls himself a “walking miracle.” The 38-year-old is celebrating his fifth anniversary as pastor at Fourth ...

Dr. Emory Berry Jr. calls himself a “walking miracle.”

The 38-year-old is celebrating his fifth anniversary as pastor at Fourth Baptist Church in Richmond.

When his mother was pregnant with him, doctors at a Miami hospital urged her to terminate her pregnancy because of health complications, he said. Instead, he said, his mother had faith that God would allow her to deliver the child safely and that he would make a difference in the world.

In an interview with the Free Press last week, Dr. Berry described that and other events that he said paved the way for his journey from his hometown of Miami to become the eighth pastor at the 600-member, 157-year-old church, which is the oldest African-American Baptist church in Church Hill.

A husband and father of two, Dr. Berry spoke of the more than 30 ministries the church uses to make a difference in the community. He talked about his vision to lead the church on the next phase of its spiritual journey.

“I want to be a church that is relevant in the 21st century,” he emphasized.

Twenty-three former enslaved people started the church on June 26, 1859, as Fourth African Baptist Church. They met at Leigh Street Baptist Church, then later moved to the church’s current site on Dec. 2, 1865. They built the structure with wood from abandoned military barracks from nearby Chimborazo Hill.

Dr. Berry stressed that community outreach is a priority for him and for the congregation.

“I want to stand before God one day and say our main priority was not about having the best choir or the best looking facility, but that we were more serious about changing people’s lives, not only spiritually, but socially,” he said.

Among its ministries, Fourth Baptist formed a partnership with Richmond Public Schools last year. About 20 volunteers from the church tutor students from nearby George Mason Elementary School after school Monday through Wednesday at the church at 2800 P St.

The church also operates a clothes and food pantry three days a week in a partnership with the Richmond Department of Social Services called “The Resource Center.”

Fourth Baptist also opens its doors to Boys and Girls Scout troops, has back-to-school giveaways and houses homeless people through CARITAS.

The church provides food for more than 200 people during Thanksgiving, offers financial literacy workshops, college preparation classes and parenting classes.

Dr. Berry said he wants to give back because others helped him along the way.

He remembers his second-grade teacher, Lillie Courtney, spending extra time teaching him to read after school because “I couldn’t comprehend what I was reading and was last in my class in reading.”

“By the end of the year, I was among the top readers in the class,” he said. “There’s no telling what kind of future I might have had if it hadn’t been for her.”

Dr. Berry said the tutoring paid big dividends when he finished in the top 10 percent academically of his high school class. He earned an academic scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he earned a degree in nutrition.