February 18: Remembering Rev. Dr. John A. Cherry

Rev. Dr. John A. Cherry was a graduate of Alabama State University, and the first person I’d ever known with a Ph.D. — white, Black or otherwise. He was the only person I knew who spoke Greek and Hebrew, and he gave the Greek and Hebrew etymologies of words in the Bible when he taught to add further context to their meaning. His daddy had marched with Dr. King, and many of his recounted memories of his childhood in Alabama were my very first teachings in civil rights as a little girl. President Bill Clinton called him out during a State of the Union Address, in 1995, for his ministry focus of strengthening and repairing families, and he and the governor of Maryland at the time knew each other personally. He wrote and arranged music.

He was the smartest person I’d ever met, and somehow, he was still fun and relatable and human.

Most of the reflections I’ve seen of him since we learned of his passing have focused on the spiritual — and that makes sense, because he was a pastor, and he helped lay the spritual foundation for so many of us. He wasn’t just ours here in Maryland, he belonged to the whole world; he took a small church established in his living room and turned it into a worldwide operation with 24 churches in 11 countries across 5 continents.

But so much of the person I am is because of him. His “educational moments” during the announcements at church taught me about politics and history and economics. He urged us as a congregation to write to our elected officials to express our opinions on legislation, and that was my first introduction into civics, my first understanding of how, in a democracy, the government was supposed to be accountable to the constituency. His unrelenting focus on the state of Black males in this country led to what would be an enduring professional focus on the Black male “crisis” in my career.

When he started talking about building an infrastructure to network our resources, care for each so that none would suffer lack, and most importantly, keep our money within our community, I had never heard of the Kwanzaa principle of Ujamaa. But the idea of the cooperative economics platform he wanted us to build inspired in me an immense pride that remains. And so does that emphasis on working within and supporting and prioritizing buying from my own community.

Rev. Dr. John A. Cherry was larger than life and one of very few of my heroes who has never let me down. In conversations I’ve had with others who grew up under his influence in the last day, we all have agreed we thought he was immortal. At the very least, I thought he would out-live me. He laid the foundation for all of our spiritual growths, but he was also, as someone said, there for every educational and personal milestone. He was all of our grandfathers.

For the last week, before I even knew there was anything wrong, I’ve heard his voice crooning “Blessed Assurance” — his favorite song — in my head, smiling, head tilted to the side. That’s how I’ll always remember him, and I can’t wait to see him again in his Heavenly robe, leading the choir in some new song he’s written just for a Heavenly audience.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com