When John A. Cherry attended a meeting of pastors at the White House, he left early to minister to couples with troubled marriages at what was then his African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Prince George’s County, Md., President Bill Clinton told the nation in his 1995 State of the Union address.
Clinton praised Rev. Cherry — a guest at the Capitol that evening — as an example of what Americans “ought to be doing,” noting that Rev. Cherry was building a new sanctuary in one of Prince George’s poorer neighborhoods so he could help those who needed it most.
Rev. Cherry, 79, who went on to break from the AME Zion Church — a move that sparked a lawsuit over control of millions of dollars in church assets — and turn his congregation into a megachurch with global reach, died Feb. 16 at a hospital in Fairfax County, Va. The cause was complications from a routine procedure, said his wife, the Rev. Diana Cherry.
A charismatic former furniture salesman, he grew his congregation from 24 people worshiping in a Suitland, Md., storefront to a multimillion-dollar megachurch with more than 27,000 members worldwide. From the Heart Church Ministries, now run by Rev. Cherry’s son and daughter-in-law, is headquartered in Suitland and has 26 branches globally.
“He could sit down with any president, anywhere,” said former Prince George’s County executive Rushern L. Baker III (D). “But he was also a local preacher who cared about the people.”
Rev. Cherry, whose father and grandfather were AME Zion pastors, said he used drugs and had a troubled marriage before a conversion experience in 1981 called him to the ministry. He said he wanted to help black men engage in their communities and families. The months-long premarriage counseling sessions he ran were strict.
“He was a stickler,” said Michael Freeman, the founder and pastor of Spirit of Faith Christian Center in Temple Hills, Md. “Once he made his commitment to God, he was known for his faithfulness to his wife and family. He decided to be a consummate example.”
Rev. Cherry had been an AME Zion pastor for 18 years when, one night in 1999, he said, the voice of God told him, “Get out of Zion, get out now.” He took the message to mean he needed to break from the AME Zion movement.
At the time, The Washington Post reported, Rev. Cherry was engaged in conflict with AME Zion leaders. He called them “purple dogs” for the color of their garb and what he perceived as their meddling in his work.
He spoke in tongues and practiced what he called healing by touch — rituals that evoked Pentecostal worship and that some AME Zion pastors denounced.
AME Zion leaders, Rev. Cherry reportedly said in a sermon at the time, are “robbing” the congregation by not teaching about tongues. “You have the right to be filled with the spirit of God!” he said, according to a Post account. “You have the right to speak in other tongues! You have a right to be healed!”
In short order, he changed the church’s name from Full Gospel AME Zion Church to From the Heart, and many of the congregation’s members voted to follow his lead. In addition to taking thousands of AME Zion faithful, Rev. Cherry also claimed nearly $40 million in assets including a Learjet, school buildings and sanctuaries. AME Zion sued Rev. Cherry, and a lengthy court battle ensued.
A Prince George’s circuit judge ruled in 2006 that Rev. Cherry should return tens of millions of dollars in real estate assets but allowed From the Heart to retain ownership of some personal property, including the jet, furniture, cars and television equipment.
The case was seen as having far-reaching implications in the debate over who controls church assets. (The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed that ruling in 2008, noting that Rev. Cherry had agreed to abide by the denomination’s “customs and polity.”)
John Abron Cherry was born in Choctaw County, Ala., on Jan. 20, 1940, and he was the seventh of eight siblings.
In addition to his wife of 49 years, the former Diana Young, survivors include two children, John A. Cherry II and Sharon Mitchell, all of Clinton, Md.; a brother; a sister; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In Prince George’s, where churches hold immense political power, Rev. Cherry’s congregation was a regular stop for candidates on the campaign trail. He installed his son as pastor of From the Heart in 2006. Rev. Cherry, then 66, said he planned to devote himself to his worldwide ministry, which includes churches in South Africa, India and Italy. Within his ministry, he was known by the title of bishop.
“It’s like sweet and sour,” he said in an interview at the time. “The people here, I have grown up with them. I married them. I baptized them. I buried their pastors. They have been interwoven in my life, and I in theirs.”