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.

He said he intended to go to medical school and already had taken the medical school entrance exam, but had a change of heart during his junior year after he was stricken with viral meningitis. Doctors also found a cyst on his brain.

While he recovered, Dr. Berry said the health scares caused him “to do an inventory on my life.”

“After a lot of prayer, I felt in my spirit that God said, ‘I’ve got work for you to do.’ I knew what that meant. He wanted me to go into the ministry. I decided I may not be a physician for the body, but I would be a physician of the soul,” he said.

Dr. Berry went on to earn a master’s in divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta in 2006.

He earned a doctorate in ministry from Virginia Union University’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology in 2014.

Dr. Berry was serving as director of Christian education at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Miami when a former member at Fourth Baptist who attended Sweet Home recommended he apply for the job in Richmond. Rev. Michael Jones, Fourth Baptist’s pastor at the time, had resigned to begin Village of Faith Ministries in Henrico County. Nearly 200 applicants sought the position, Dr. Berry said.

When he was hired in 2010 at age 32, Dr. Berry became the youngest pastor ever to lead the church. Dr. Berry said he embraces the title of being a minister for “social justice.”

“Jesus spent more time outside the temple than in it,” he said. “He focused on caring about the last, the least, the lost, leftover and looked over.”

Dr. Berry said he seeks to minister so that all people feel welcome.

“We have people with doctorates and GEDs, business owners and minimum wage workers,” he said.

Dr. Berry believes it’s also important for him to work outside the church to make a difference in the community. He serves on the board of Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration, whose mission is to aid ex-offenders and advocate for changes to the criminal justice system that disparately affects people of color.

Dr. Berry also chairs the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast for the Baptist Ministers’ Conference of Richmond and Vicinity and serves on the board of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia and the Richmond Christian Leadership Institute.

He will be honored for making a difference in the community when the Richmond Branch NAACP presents him with its Trailblazer Award Saturday, Nov. 7, at its Freedom Fund Awards Gala 2015.

“I want the legacy of Fourth Baptist to be that we are a church that is engaged in the community and that we are out there doing the heavy lifting in the community,” he said.