She was the LGBT community’s very own Mahalia Jackson. Rev. Delores Berry was a traveling evangelist who crisscrossed the country – and indeed the world – singing her special brand of liberation gospel and letting the rainbow children of the world know that God loved them just as they are. A beacon of light and hope for over three decades, Berry made her transition Aug. 8 after being in ill health for quite some time. She was 66.
Rev. Delores Berry
Berry first joined the Metropolitan Community Church in Baltimore, Maryland in 1974. Ten years later she met her partner Judy Kiser and in 1987 they formed the Delores Perry Evangelist Ministry and took to the road. Side by side they drove thousands upon thousands of miles to spread the word.
I first encountered Berry in 1996. I was living in Miami and she was visiting the fledgling MCC church on South Beach. I was instantly taken by her powerful voice and visionary message. I saw her again the next night at a small restaurant on Lincoln Road the name of which has long since been removed from my memory. But I remember that night. Berry sang and spoke and she laughed so easily and freely. She radiated love and light. Just a few years later I was back in Michigan and writing for Between The Lines when I saw she was scheduled to appear at MCC Detroit. I reached out and made plans to interview her for the paper. We met at the church and I interviewed her sitting next to her in a pew. She asked nearly as many questions about me as I did about her. She prayed with me before I left and shared that she considered herself prophetic, though she didn’t want me to mention that in my story. Her concert was a success and I considered myself lucky once again to have the job that I had.
In the following years, I saw Berry several times when she returned to Michigan. Having grown up a fundamentalist Baptist, I felt she was so brave and bold. She’d change the lyrics to traditional songs in a heartbeat. The song “Give Me That Old Time Religion” became “Don’t Give Me That Old Time Religion” and Mahalia’s “God Put A Rainbow in the Sky” took on new meaning. She changed up “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and inserted lines such as “I looked over Jordan and what did I see? A bunch of lipstick lesbian angels coming after me.”
She did this in 2011, the last time I saw her. She was in town to once again sing at MCC Detroit and had made a special appearance at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It was the year of the tragic Shelley Hilliard murder and Hilliard’s charred torso had been found just days earlier in an abandoned field on Detroit’s east side.
“We’ve just heard a short list of the holocaust that is happening in our community,” Berry said after the names of those lost to violence over the past year had been read. “Don’t let this scare you. I have always believed that God wanted us to experience some Heaven on Earth. Don’t let anyone take your Heaven from you.”
In recent years, Berry had slowed down. She lost her beloved Judy last year. I kept up with her health issues through updates she posted on Facebook. From her hospital bed she posted all the latest news as it came in. She was struggling with a urinary tract infection she couldn’t seem to get rid of and her kidneys weren’t functioning properly.
She posted for the last time on Aug. 2 when she updated her profile picture to an image of she and Judy as children that had been taken from two separate photos and superimposed together. Since her passing, her Facebook page has been flooded with tributes and remembrances. It is clear she touched many, many lives throughout the years.
“Her contributions to the ministry and life of MCC have been profound,” read in part a statement released by the MCC Council of Elders. “Those with whom she prayed were changed and blessed. Those who heard her sing found joy. Those who heard her preach encountered her remarkable ability to bring the Word to life.”
If I close my eyes I can see her in Heaven teaching new verses to the angels. Rest well, sweet Delores.