Rev. John Cherry, a former furniture salesman who grew a storefront ministry into a multimillion-dollar megachurch renowned worldwide, died Feb. 16 at a hospital in Fairfax, Va. He was 79.
Cherry preached his first sermon at the Trinity AME Zion Church in 1981 and over the next 18 years, he would build a dynamic ministry, opening schools medical clinics and credit unions in addition to a broadcast ministry in which he appeared on television every Sunday morning.
Cherry came into the national spotlight in 1995 during President Clinton’s State of the Union address when Clinton recognized the work of Cherry and his wife, Diana, to strengthen the institution of marriage through a number of programs and ministries.
Cherry, as pastor of Full Gospel AME Zion, continued to grow and acquire property in the Temple Hills community. But in 1999, he broke away from the 200-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination after he said he heard the voice of God say, “Get out of Zion.”
Bishop Milton Williams, who was then head of the Mid-Atlantic II District of AME Zion, and other leaders didn’t block Cherry from leaving but challenged him in court for taking with him millions in assets and a Lear jet.
The lengthy legal battle went all the way to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and while Cherry would eventually lose, he and the members formed the Heart Ministries, transforming a former Safeway supermarket in Clinton and eventually two other big-box retail sites in Camp Springs into schools and sanctuaries.
Cherry was a pioneering preacher who opened a medical clinic, a credit union and other services for his members, based on the biblical principles taken from Proverbs 28:27: “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.”
Cherry, born Jan. 20, 1940, in Choctaw County, Ala., as the seventh of eight siblings, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery, Alabama.
He went on to Alabama State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1966. He also earned numerous honorary doctorates over the years.
In 2006, Cherry installed his son as pastor of From the Heart Ministries. That year he planned to devote himself to a worldwide ministry, which included planting churches in South Africa, India and Italy.
Thousands packed From the Heart Ministries in Suitland on Feb. 26 that began with “Blessed Assurance” and ended with the eulogy preached by his son, Bishop John A. Cherry II, Episcopal pastor.
He is survived by his wife of 50 years, the Rev. Diana Cherry, and two children, John A. Cherry II and Sharon Mitchell, all of Clinton, Md.; a brother; a sister; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In a quote published in his funeral program, Cherry said he wanted to be remembered as “a man that simply obeyed God.”