The Rev. Peter Wherry, 53, came to Charlotte from Norfolk in March 2007 as pastor of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church, which had about 200 members.
Wherry calls Mayfield “the most remarkable group of people I’ve ever seen.” Among other ministries, members own and operate a HUD apartment complex for the elderly, and the church has been instrumental in North Carolina’s social-justice Moral Monday protest movement.
And they provide a Sunday music series, “Music at Mayfield,” in which Wherry, his wife, Wanda, and their son and daughter – both music conservatory graduates – gave a concert together.
Wherry grew up attending Catholic schools in the diocese of Buffalo, N.Y. In 1978, he enrolled at the Indiana University school of music in Bloomington, where he met his wife – “a prodigious lyric soprano” – while they worked together on a video about African-American composer Undine Smith Moore. The next year, they moved to Virginia, where both earned doctorate of ministry degrees from Virginia Union University.
Wherry paid his way through school as a performer in Broadway shows, including an international tour of “The Wiz,” where he played Tin Man.
He was ordained by the Tidewater Metro Baptist Ministers’ Conference in 1983. His pastoral assignments included a country church in Southampton County, Va., where he “pastored all the descendants of Nat Turner” (who led a famous 1831 slave rebellion in the county), and almost 17 years at Queen Street Baptist Church in Norfolk.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be in the clergy?
A. When I was about 3, I used to set up a TV tray at family gatherings, and the phone book would be my Bible, and an empty bottle of mouthwash would be my microphone. At career day when all the little kids got to dress up like what they wanted to be, I was a Jesuit priest. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a spiritual sense.
Q. When you’re not in the pulpit, where do you like to be?
A. Although I haven’t done lots of it here, I love to fish. More than anything else, I’m a bibliophile. I’m reading all the time.
Q. On your nightstand?
A. A recent biography of Winston Churchill. I love biography, learning how people dealt with adversity and success.
Q. When it comes to ministry, what is your passion?
A. My passion is seeing lives change. I don’t know that there’s any substitute for that.
Q. What do you enjoy most about Charlotte?
A. We love the quality of life in Charlotte. For example, we went uptown – I finally learned to say “uptown” instead of “downtown” – to the Belk Theater and saw “The Lion King.” Not only was it Broadway quality, but after it was over, we decided, “Well, we want a steak.” So we went out on the sidewalk and looked for a place and sat down under an umbrella outside and had a steak. At 10 at night! And then we got up, and in 12 or 15 minutes, we’re back where we live, quiet, almost farm-like.
Q. Your favorite quote?
A. I used a quote from (German Lutheran theologian) Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my latest book, “Preaching Funerals in the Black Church”: “The word arises out of the Bible, takes shape as the sermon, and enters into the congregation in order to bear it up. This self-movement of the word to the congregation should not be hindered by the preacher, but rather, he should acknowledge it. He should not allow his own efforts to get in its way. … Upon Christ, however, who is the proclaimed Word, should fall all of the need, the sin and death of the congregation.” I think that captures like a snapshot the preaching task. Sunday after Sunday, you are obligated not just to be present, but to be prescient, to be relevant. That challenge is a heavy yoke of responsibility, and it can be a real train wreck; you can mishandle human hearts, if you’re not intentional about it.
Q. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
A. “Good job. You didn’t embarrass me.”
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