Iowa Journalist Fall 2009

The University of Iowa

Professor takes giving alms
a step further

Built shortly after the abolition of slavery and known as one of the oldest frame buildings still standing in Iowa City, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) is where journalism Professor Venise Berry devotes much of her time.

As an active member of Bethel for more than 15 years, Berry is a choir member, a trustee and the co-chair of the Building Fundraising Committee. She writes weekly bulletins, makes presentations, coordinates fundraising benefits, including selling cookbooks and engraved bricks.


Giving Back to the Church Taking on an active role in fundraising, Berry devotes a large portion of her time to the Bethel church. Photo by Adrienne Klopfenstein

She is now organizing a benefit speech performance with actor Gregalan Williams, known for his roles in "Remember the Titans," "Baywatch," "The West Wing" and "Boston Public."

Berry is currently involved in helping the church expansion and renovation project, tentatively scheduled to finish April 2010, which will be one of the biggest undertakings Bethel has ever encountered.

Since its construction in 1868, the church has only had one renovation, in 1950. The church presently holds about 50 people, but the congregation has grown steadily and needs more room to fit everyone, as most Sunday services are filled to capacity.

Because of Bethel’s small size, many Iowa City residents must drive to other locations for church services.

"Many years ago, several people in the Iowa City community decided that rather than having to spend extra time on Sunday driving to Cedar Rapids to attend an A.M.E. church, we would come together, fix up the building and worship at Bethel A.M.E.," Berry said.

Along with Co-Chair Melvin O. Shaw, Berry leads a fundraising campaign to renovate the building and increase the size of the sanctuary.

"Venise has been integral, without a question," Shaw said. "She brings a certain energy to the project. She’s enthusiastic about reaching out to members of the community."

Berry, along with several other Bethel members, wanted to do the same project in the ’90s.

"Because of her efforts, the idea has born again," Shaw said.

The new Bethel renovation will include a 4,000-square-foot sanctuary that will hold up to 150 people. Because Bethel is a nationally recognized historical site, the renovation team works along with the Historical Society to maintain the historical integrity of the building throughout the renovation.

It took more than two years to get approval from the Historical Society and the City Board of Adjustment for the project.

But getting approvals weren’t the only hurdles Bethel has had to overcome. The members are still waiting for approval for a mortgage. They have enough money for the down payment, but because of the current credit crisis, they are having trouble getting approved for a loan.

Rev. Orlando Dial, former teacher and administrator in Waterloo and who has been the pastor at Bethel for almost 12 years, believes it is critical that Bethel be updated.

"There are still parts of the building that go back to the 1868," Dial said. "We outgrew it a long time ago. I don’t know how’ve we’ve been able to do what we do this long. It’s a testament that people even show up here."

According to Berry, the church was supposed to have broken ground already. The new church is supposed to be ready for Easter, and the members are doing everything in their power to make it a reality.

"We’re looking for a miracle right now," Berry said. "The Lord has gotta step in!"

Though the renovation project has been an immense venture and has taken longer than expected, Berry has found great meaning in serving her church.

"I believe the historic legacy of Bethel is an important component of the Iowa City community, especially for African Americans," Berry said.

"This church was built in Iowa City in 1868 by free African Americans just a few years after slavery. It stands as a testament to the supportive nature of the broader community and the state of Iowa itself."

Berry is extremely busy as a mother and professor, in both the J-MC School and the Department of African American Studies, but her work for the church is equally important to her.

"She is a busy professional," Shaw said. "She has a family, yet she makes time for this project, which is over four and a half years old."

Dial agrees and is amazed at how hard she works despite all her commitments.

"If she says she’s gonna do it, all you gotta do is get out of the way," Dial said. "She’s a doer. She seems to function better when she’s super busy. She gets more things done and she doesn’t need direction."

Berry goes the extra mile for her church, not because she has to, but because she wants to. She is inspired by her love for God and the membership at Bethel.

"Bethel members are an extension of my family," Berry said. "I know that they love and support me and my family and that makes me feel secure."

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