Jennifer Berry’s journey to the ministry has been a diverse one. From acting to activism, her recent appointment as pastor at New Paltz United Methodist Church comes after years devoted to other avenues in life; earning an undergrad degree in drama and working with the American Civil Liberties Union. But there is a common thread, Berry says, that runs through everything she’s done. “It comes off as if I’ve done all these different things, but really I’ve only ever done one thing; which is to try and tell the stories that keep people up at night, thinking, ‘I can’t have that be true, so what am I going to do?’”
Berry replaces former New Paltz United Methodist pastor Bette Sohm, who on July 1 began a new appointment at a church in Northport on Long Island.
“The bishop and district superintendents work together to match a church and a pastor that they feel will be successful together,” Berry explains. “I was appointed to New Paltz because this is a progressive church, and I am an ardently progressive pastor and activist. This church is deeply entrenched in community, and in service, and that makes me a good fit.”
Her appointment here was also “in direct response,” she says, to her experiences of the past year. There was the feeling, Berry notes, that New Paltz would be good for her personally, and be a good fit for her daughters: Moira, 11, and Kalinda (Kali), 10.
At this time last year, Berry had a part-time position as pastor in Ellenville, able to work fewer hours because her fiancé had a successful carpentry business. But with his devastating loss in January to a rare form of cancer — diagnosed just a month earlier — and then going through the healing process after a car accident in February, Berry was at a crossroads when the position in New Paltz opened up.
And it wasn’t even the first time her life was upended unexpectedly. Her younger daughter, Kali, contracted a life-threatening illness at six months, one that required major medical intervention that is now, happily, under control with continued care.
A recent popular song has made a bit of a cliché out of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger,’ but there’s a lot of truth in those clichés sometimes. And in speaking with Berry recently, who is articulate and focused in her compassion for others, it’s not hard to imagine why the Methodist Church chose her to lead the congregation in New Paltz. It’s clear that she is a woman who has a wellspring of strength to draw upon.
Born in Elmhurst, Queens, Berry grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her mother was an election judge, and from the age of eight or nine, Berry would accompany her to the polls and tally the votes on a huge chalkboard in the polling place; literally a smoke-filled room, as she remembers it. “I was definitely influenced positively by my mom. She was a bit eccentric; she didn’t bring me up by the rulebook. I didn’t have a bedtime, and I spent a lot of time watching the news and the Tom Snyder [Tomorrow] show. So my cultural references predate what they should, and that’s very much because of how I was raised.”
As a child, Berry joined a children’s theater company, and by high school was doing paid acting work in dinner theater. She graduated from Temple University, majoring in drama, and began to pursue the acting life. But the lack of roles for brown-skinned women was frustrating, and in those days, color-blind casting was nonexistent. Berry says she realized that if she was to continue acting as a career, she was looking at a life of tours and dinner theater productions of West Side Story and Miss Saigon. “And I’d be lucky if I got the lead. I thought, ‘that’s not a career.’ So I left.”
Already active in politics, Berry began working in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, writing speeches and doing publicity. She wrote speeches for the mayor of Philadelphia, and then landed a job at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, commuting to New York City from Philadelphia to work on issues of individual rights and liberties, including cases dealing with racial profiling and racial disparities in the sentencing of minor drug offenders.
Berry found the work meaningful but ultimately exhausting. “When you work in politically steeped NGOs or when you work for the government, commenting on or working toward legislation, everything becomes a win/loss tally sheet,” she says. “‘We won that one, we lost that one…’ And I didn’t care about the wins and losses for their own sake. I was there because there were real people we were working to help. And I had this gnawing urgency that every day we dilly-dallied, and horse-traded, people suffered.”
Berry says it got to the point where she realized she just couldn’t be immersed in that system anymore. “I wondered how long I could continue to feel that sense of urgency. I wasn’t willing to not be there for that reason, and I also couldn’t stay. Even when everybody I was around was doing the right thing. ‘Great, this win is the right win,’ you think, but it’s exhausting. It’s heart-wrenching. And at some point it becomes the only way to get it done; if you’re sitting there ‘bleeding out’ because you’re feeling, you’re not getting the work done.”
At the same time, as a lifelong Methodist, Berry was becoming more involved at the First United Methodist Church in Philadelphia where she was a lay leader; that is, head of the administrative board and a preacher.
“I was searching for ‘the why,’” she says. “And for me, that was church, and also wasn’t church. All too often, church was skating right by the ‘why.’ I’m listening every Sunday, I’m reading the Gospel, and I’m thinking, this is not ambiguous! This is really clear. Go where people need, go where people hurt, sit there, stay there and there’s liberation and joy in that. This is not a confusing message; it’s very consistent and very straightforward, and I can do that. I want to do that. And if we all did that, we wouldn’t need to play the wins-and-losses game politically, right? It wouldn’t be about party politics.”
Berry began to contemplate going into the seminary. “I had thought about it, off and on, for quite a while,” she says. And at a time when her marriage was ending, in a moment of clarity that she attributes to hearing the voice of God telling her to “go to Drew,” she made the decision to attend Drew University, a theological seminary in Madison, New Jersey. During the three-year program, Berry lived in an apartment for graduate students with her two daughters. While serving as a student pastor in New Jersey, feeling somewhat alone, she prayed for a “Joseph” to come into her life, and met Chad Joseph Currier, a Jewish carpenter who became her fiancé in October 2017 before passing away three months later.
When asked what her focus would be as pastor in New Paltz, Berry says that she doesn’t think a pastor new to a church should come with an agenda. “There are things that I bring, and things that we’ll find here, and together we’ll weave what that will look like. But knowing what I already know of this church and knowing what I do, we will be creating new spaces for not so much worship, as exploration.”
Given the world we’re living in, she says, and what we hear in the news, “it’s important to have community discussions about why we have to act as people of faith. What does our faith tell us about how to respond? Why might people be faithless in a world such as this? We need to have those very honest conversations, and have them in multiple places.”
Berry envisions doing something called “pub theology” nights, holding discussions outside of the church, in local restaurants out in the community where church leaders are encouraged to go.
She also wants to “integrate in new and different ways with the college,” particularly with international students, many of whom are regular attendees at the New Paltz church. “The Methodist Church has been very vehement in their support of sanctuary for people who come to this country,” she notes, “and caring about how they’re treated. So one of our first tasks is to figure out how the current immigration crisis is affecting international students at the college.”
For more information about New Paltz United Methodist Church and its efforts, call (845) 255-5210 or visit http://newpaltzumc.org/.