“Pastor” is a title Jason Berry can’t shake. Not that he minds.
He was a pastor, after all, for 14 years, most recently at Elim Baptist Church in Anoka. But in January 2013, Berry, 42, stepped away from the pulpit to run Anoka Community Mission, a faith-based, social needs nonprofit that he founded the month before. The mission is rooted in providing affordable care to children and support to their families through various outreaches that offer food, clothing, toys, diapers and other household items.
“I get to do the work of Christ without debating church politics,” Berry said.
A midnight moment led to this change in direction. Since the 1960s, Elim Baptist Church had run a child care center but decided several years ago to focus on other ministries. Berry said that in early 2012 he awoke and realized during prayer that he should take up and expand the work of the center. He stepped down as pastor and shepherded the center through its transition from the church to his new nonprofit, located at 440 Pierce St.
Each coat of paint, piece of furniture and room renovation, Berry says, came with its own “miracle.” As he walks around the 21,000-square-foot facility, which once housed a racquetball court and fitness center, Berry recounts those miracles by memory, telling of unsolicited donations, unexpected at-cost purchases and inexplicable coincidences.
When the mission acquired its building, two steady tenants came with it, and they help cover the mortgage and insurance costs.
“It’s always been exactly what we need when we needed it,” Berry said.
Children ages 6 weeks to 12 years are cared for at the state-licensed early education and child care center, called Little Blessings of Anoka. Most of the children call him “Pastor Jason.” In 2013, Little Blessings started with 23 kids. Four years later, Berry and his 15-person staff now serve 70 children.
Families are invited to join the kids for any snack or meal. Much of the fare comes donated from area restaurants. On a recent morning, Tim Woodworth dropped off sandwiches from the Potbelly Sandwich Shop he runs in nearby Coon Rapids.
“I count it very important to do my part in supporting [Berry],” Woodworth said.
Berry’s wife, Angela Berry, and his two children are also involved in the center. His wife, who works as an actuary, helps run the mission’s finances. His 9-year-old son’s interest in coins led to Coins for Kids, an outreach that takes rejected international currency collected in piggy banks at area businesses to support the mission’s work. It’s an outreach Berry said he hopes will expand and eventually help pay for a new roof.
It takes about $400,000 to run Anoka Community Mission each year. Berry said he receives no salary.
“He’s the real deal,” said Eva Dammann, the mission’s operations coordinator, who has worked at the child care center since 2002, when it was still at Elim Baptist Church.
Berry has one 24-hour window each week that he considers himself “off” from work. It’s not uncommon for him to pitch in playing drums at various churches during that time.
What does he do for fun?
It takes being asked twice before he comes up with a sizable list: playing board games with his family, being with his kids, playing fetch with their dog, Moose, and visiting area coffee shops for fresh brew and casual chats with friends.
The former pastor also volunteers as the chaplain for the Coon Rapids fire department, a role that involves overnight calls and hours spent on the scene of medical emergencies with grieving families.
“He’s really good at comforting them,” said Assistant Fire Chief Aaron Johnston, who also calls the volunteer chaplain “pastor.”
Berry said he has big dreams for the Anoka Community Mission.
“We want to be providing evening and overnight child care for late-shift families,” Berry said.
Eventually, he would like to open more sites across the Twin Cities.
“I pray that we’re able to help more and more families,” Berry said.
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