Pastor Fanya Burford-Berry joined Our Saviour's as interim pastor in April and leads Our Saviour's high school ministry, Ignition. But her ministry to young people extends back more than a decade before she entered seminary in 2012. Pastor Fanya graduated from the University of St. Francis in Joliet with a bachelor's in secondary education and history in 1996 and worked as a teacher before taking on a full-time youth minister role at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville. In this interview, she talks about her calling to ministry, what it means to be able to connect with young people during their critical adolescent years, and the greatest opportunities and imperatives she sees for the greater Church in this moment.
Can you tell me about your calling to be a teacher and then transitioning that calling specifically into ministry?
Oh, my goodness, I remember as a little girl putting my dolls on the floor and then acting like I was a teacher with my dolls. That was my most basic memory of being called to be a teacher. That was a career choice I desired from a very early age.
But when I think back also on my family’s history, most of my people come from the state of Mississippi, and when I started talking to my relatives, a lot of my relatives are teachers and preachers. That’s sort of something that’s in the blood of our family, teaching and preaching.
You are what you know, right? And so that is where I think my call is, and it kept on moving when I expressed my desire to be a teacher in a congregation called Sacred Heart in Joliet. They said: “Oh, you want to be a teacher? How about you teach the religious education program here?” So I started out working with third-graders on a volunteer basis, and then when I got into college, my priest said, “Why don’t you become the Confirmation teacher?” So I started doing that, and then parallel to that work, I was in school to be a teacher at the University of St. Francis in Joliet.
When you tell people your dreams, people will help you achieve those dreams, and that’s what’s so great about the people of God—they help you with your calling. And then as I progressed more, the pastor who was my priest said, “You know what? You should go to seminary.” And I was just like, “No, not me.” I was like, “That means I need to be a nun—no; that is not happening; I am not becoming a nun.”
Middle and high school can be this pivotal and challenging but also opportunity-rich time, including for faith formation. What does it mean to you to be working with students who are this age?
What I love about working with middle and high school students in particular is they have questions; they’re excited about life; they have wonder and curiosity. They’re still children, but they’re trying to gain their sense of identity as young adults. I know my middle school years were very important to me as far as awakening my views of the world—it just seemed like something happened.
In sixth grade we moved from Moline, Illinois, to Chicago, and at that point in time in my life, I had always been in schools that were predominantly White. And then I switched over to going to a school that was predominantly Black, with Black teachers, and their care for us in seventh and eighth grade and how they ignited a thirst for learning in me and in my sister, as well, really just was so impactful. Those middle-school years are so valuable because there’s push and pull. I remember our teachers talking about going to Black colleges and getting us excited about going to them and taking us to museums and helping us learn about our history—something happens where you were in a cloud, and all of a sudden you can see clearly when you reach those years.
And then it keeps on building as you begin to better understand and appreciate, I think, religion and culture and people—especially when young people are talked to as if they have a brain, when they aren’t talked down to, when adults around them and teachers around them say, “You need to think about these things; you need to wrestle with these things.”
I think that’s what’s such a great thing about working with kids this age, because you can say, “It’s your time to wrestle—do it.” But that’s if we give them permission, and a lot of times we don’t want to give them permission to do it, because it’s hard when they start questioning. We might not have the answers, and we want to be seen as the experts. We can say, “We don’t know, but let’s work on that question or that issue together.”
What, to you, creates belonging in church today, especially for young people?
I can only speak from my experience, but what created belonging for me when I chose to become a Catholic, in that particular parish—each church congregation’s cares are different. What each congregation does to express their faith in Jesus is what creates a sense of belonging. I went to Sacred Heart (in Joliet), and Sacred Heart at the time was a Catholic church that is pluralistic—we had Black, we had White, we had Latin, and it was very intentional that we chose to worship with songs of the African American experience. And the White people and the Latin people who were there also were very intentional in saying, “This is what we want; this is how we will express our faith.”
Eventually what happened was, after a while, when more of our Latinx brothers and sisters came, then we started to incorporate more of their music as well, as well as Our Lady of Guadalupe and All Saints Day. We were very intentional about making sure we honored all of the cultures that presented in our congregation because we truly believed that all cultures represent the body of Christ.
And then we were steeped in Gospel, steeped in the Bible, but Jesus charges us to do work of justice, so we were a congregation that worshiped and prayed together, but then after we worshiped and prayed together, we said, “What are the concerns of our brothers and sisters that we need to address?”
That’s what’s so great about Our Saviour’s—you do a lot of mission work and ministries, with Haiti Scholars, Slovakia, with Baby Care—you are trying to do works of justice and mercy.
You have plans to go back to school for your doctorate in community psychology. Why is that a particular passion for you?
I’m passionate about community psychology because I believe mental health is such a big issue in this day and age, especially after Covid, especially in the community that I live in, which is predominantly Black and Brown. We can’t afford just to see a therapist one-on-one, so we need to figure out ways to provide mental health in congregational settings.
My hope is to work in a congregation or some setting in Chicago—the Holy Spirit, you never know where she’s going to lead you. How do we make community psychology so it’s public, not private? Because mental health is a public issue, not a private issue. There’s so much need to do it and to do it well and to talk about it so that people are not ashamed to talk about issues.
You’ve had the opportunity to serve in Catholic churches, within the Lutheran church—what are some of the greatest opportunities and imperatives that you see in this moment for the Church?
For the Church in general, honestly, it’s to advocate for the dignity of work. Absolutely. I think that’s a big opportunity. I feel like in the pandemic we learned that those people we thought were not essential—fast-food workers, certified nursing assistants, grocery-store workers—those we thought just were not essential when we didn’t have a pandemic now became essential. And now we have a crisis of not having enough people who are working, but I feel like it’s a crisis of underinvestment in different communities. We could have, as the Church, been a little bit more like, “Every vocation has worth.”
We should not look down upon different types of careers; we should have been saying more like, “This person is doing this job; they deserve a living wage; they deserve to have shelter and food and not have to show up to food pantries.” I was executive director of a food pantry, and we had a food pantry, a preschool, an after-school program and a computer program for adults. And during our food pantry, a teller from Chase would come and get food. And we would think, “This is a teller from Chase,” right? A big banking institution, and she’s getting food from a food pantry because tellers are underpaid. We need to be more vocal about the dignity of work.
The other aspect is rest. I feel like our society is just running 24/7 on a hamster wheel, and we don’t even honor, within Church, the second commandment well—giving sabbath, allowing that to happen. We expect people to work themselves to exhaustion, and that is not of God. So I think those are two issues we need to wrestle with right now.