By Marilyn Tinnin
Sara Williams Berry was cut from the same cloth as that rock star wife and mother we meet in the 31st chapter of Proverbs. I read once that she—the Proverbs 31 paragon of womanhood—was likely a composite of several women. After all, nobody can do that many things so well. But then, I recently got to sit down and talk to Sara Berry, and I am not so sure about that composite idea. I really considered titling this “Rock Star.”
The mother of seven—yes, seven—children is a Corinth native who now calls Tupelo home. The wife of Dr. Mont Berry, she is also an author, a teacher, and the CEO of two active companies she founded who somehow manages to participate full time in the world of two preschoolers, a middle schooler, two high schoolers, and two collegiate daughters who live in Birmingham these days.
You would think she has to have a Type A personality to be so accomplished or that she must be a very driven individual, and you would be wrong. To hear her story is to trace a blueprint that nobody but God could possibly have arranged. As she says, “I don’t think you could have seven children and be Type A too much! You would either go crazy or drive everybody else to the funny farm!”
Things are laid back in the Berry household, and there is no sense of chaos. Busy can still mean peaceful. What Sara clearly has a handle on better than anyone else I know is purpose. There is really nothing on the daily calendar that is outside the realm of purpose. In Sara’s case, the overall purpose to everything is to follow God’s instructions in every season of life. And sometimes that means you go with the flow even when you are not sure about the destination.
As she answered my interview questions that day, her very winsome and unassuming manner bled through to reveal this. Even as a young girl who loved God so much, she did not have an agenda of all the things she intended to do in the journey that stretched out before her. She just followed the path as it unfolded for her by, “doing the next right thing that was in front of me.” That is the way she approaches every single day and it is very free and very uncomplicated and very close to the heart of God.
When that next right thing meant adopting that seventh child after Sara had declared, “We are done,” she welcomed God’s design without overthinking in the human realm. Although she and Mont had agreed early on that they wanted a large family, she says, “We have definitely surpassed our early talks but it has all been a blessing. You know, seven is the biblical number for completion and perfection!”
The CEO Mom
Before Sara became a stay-at-home mom, she had adored her teaching career. She taught second, third, and fourth graders from Jackson to Memphis to Nashville to Ecuador and Costa Rica. Whether in the classroom or as a children’s ministry leader, Sara combined her love for children and her love for teaching them.
Writing children’s curriculum was one of many things Sara began to do with no specific goal in mind. “I would just have an idea and it really didn’t matter if I had a platform for it or not,” she says. At first she wrote lessons for her own children.
When their first child began school, she and Mont chose a Christian school and they were so pleased with it, so it was one of those surprise God-stirrings when Sara began to feel called to public school.
“I can remember being on my knees arguing with the Lord and knowing that was really what we were supposed to do.” When she surrendered her will, an idea came to her that was the first step toward her character development curriculum. Integrity Time led to her first publishing company, which led to a second Christian publishing company, Bethel Road Publications.
It simply began when Sara asked her daughter’s teacher if she could come into the classroom once a week to do a lesson on character. The children really took to it, and as the year progressed, one little girl stopped Sara in the hall, flashed a big smile and said, “You know what I learned? Keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking lies. I told my mamma, I told my daddy, and I told my brother!”
It was in that moment Sara says she thought, “I have a purpose here!” And as is her practice, she just did the next right thing in front of herself! Other classroom teachers heard about the lessons Sara was creating. Other mothers began to ask her for the materials. She was just printing them out as fast as she could write them. By the next year, the whole school was involved in her Integrity lessons and Sara was training other moms.
Today, this twelve grade series has won national awards, is taught in 18 states and seven foreign countries. Sara gives credit to her many talented friends who had skills in graphic design and song writing who helped create this interactive, entertaining, but values based curriculum. And it all began when she simply obeyed God’s call to volunteer in her daughter’s classroom.
A Unique Adoption Story
In 2010, with five healthy biological children, Sara and Mont adopted now five-year-old Sally from China. Adoption was something they had always planned to do even while babies were arriving every few years in their own household. The timing had to wait until Mont’s training was over, until his practice was established, until they were really settled, and that took years. Their fifth child, Joshua was about to start grade school when they were able to bring baby Sally home from China. For Sara, her cup was full and her dream was complete. Six children were plenty! And she was past forty! Sally would be their last baby.
Or so she thought.
The first clue that God had other plans came while Mont and Sara were on a mission trip to China and an old woman pulled her aside, cupped her hands around Sara’s face and said, “You are the mother of nations!” Did that happen because her name is Sara? It was, of course, the Sarah of Genesis who was called by God to be the mother of nations. Sara says it was just a “crazy experience,” but at the same time she knew it was not insignificant, and that there was some nugget she was to glean from those words. She mentioned it in passing to her family.
A few weeks later came Mother’s Day 2013. The Berrys were in church taking up their usual entire pew when Sara looked down the row and saw that her daughter Katie was crying. All Sara could think about was, “Why is Katie weeping in church on Mother’s Day?” She motioned to her daughter to follow her and they slipped out.
Katie told her mother, “All I can think about is that you are the mother of nations and that you don’t need to—that we’re not done yet. You need to be open to that.” Adopt another child?
Sara says she took that with a grain of salt but also with a little fear and trembling. Katie had a very tender and discerning spirit. Sara knew there was something here and that she should pay attention. Three months later, Katie called from college and said, “Mom I had the strangest dream. I dreamed we adopted again and it was a little boy from China and he was younger than Sally. Mom, it was just so real.” More fear and trembling for Sara!
Three days later Sara received an email from RainbowKids.com. This was the very agency that had introduced them to Sally. She opened the email to see a picture of a darling baby boy who looked so much like Sally had looked the first time she saw her. She clicked on the photo to read about him, and she thought, “Oh no,” at first. “Really, Lord?”
This baby had a condition called meningocele, which is in the spina bifida family, and it was likely that he would never walk. The most chilling thing about that revelation was that Sally had the very same defect at birth and a surgery at LeBonheur right after her adoption had given her a totally clean bill of health. She was now a typical little girl who could run and jump with the best of them.
Although Sara felt some apprehension and ambivalence about another adoption, she knew she had to mention it to Mont. “I needed a miraculous sign if God wanted us to adopt this little boy. For one thing, I was old, you know,” Sara says with a laugh. “Maybe Mont would say, ‘I don’t think this is for us,’ and that would be the end of it. Instead he said, ‘Sara, I can’t think of a single reason why we wouldn’t. We can afford it. We still have energy. We’re already back in the young kid mode with Sally. Nobody is going crazy and everybody is settled and stable and they all want to do this.’”
Later that day—maybe still looking for one more sign—Sara mentioned this little boy to her second daughter, Ellie. When Sara added that the orphanage was not sure he would ever be able to walk, Ellie said, “Oh, Mom, that should make us want him even more.”
Sara made the phone call to the adoption agency. It took just one day to assign Charlie to the Berrys and fifteen months of paper work before they could bring him home. Three times the adoption agency called the Berrys and said, “Are you sure you want this kid? We really don’t think he is ever going to be able to walk.” Each time the Berrys said, “Yes.”
“But I was so scared, I mean really scared,” Sara says. “We had never had to deal with a special needs child. What was this going to mean?”
All through that season of waiting, the Berrys and their friends were praying that Charlie would walk and all the while closing those prayers with, “But we trust you.”
A few days before Sara and Mont left for China, Sara confided to a friend that the story in Acts 3 was something she just could not get out of her head. Peter and John met a lame man as they were headed to the temple to pray. Peter spoke to him and said, “…In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And the scripture goes on to say the man was healed and was “walking and leaping, and praising God.” Sara told her friend, “For some reason that phrase walking and leaping and praising God keeps spinning in my head over and over. I just think that is this child’s story, too.”
Sara and Mont arrived in China in time for the “Gotcha Day” celebration. “Gotcha Day“ is a phrase that denotes the anniversary of the day on which a new member joins a family in the adoption process. All the little girls and boys filed in to meet their new American parents, but Charlie was carried in and placed in Sara’s arms. He was very small for his age and very afraid. Sara tried to stand him on her lap and he just plopped down flat.
Sara says, “I’m thinking, it’s okay, God called us to this, and we are going to be able to do this.”
As they headed back to their hotel they began to discuss the specialists they would see, the equipment—wheelchairs, walkers, etc.—they would need to purchase right away, and were considering all the things they could do to help this precious son of theirs have the very best life he could possibly have.
Sara’s mind was still whirling with the words “walking, leaping, praising God.” When they stopped at a bank and Mont and their interpreter went inside to do a currency exchange, Sara sat in the van and hugged her little boy who was still quite unhappy in his new surroundings. She said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.” He kicked his legs a little, and she thought, “At least he can have movement.”
A few minutes later as they were back in their hotel room preparing to leave, they set Charlie on the floor with some toys while they packed their suitcases. Sara was calling their children back home to tell them they had gotten Charlie, describing every detail of this new family member when Sara heard Mont from the other room shout, “Oh, my gosh!” He grabbed his phone and began to video the scene in front of them.
Charlie was standing! Then, he walked to the chair, then to a table. The translator was saying, “Give him some candy! Give him some candy!” There is rustling of paper in the video as Mont holds out the candy saying “Charlie, Charlie.” And Charlie starts running toward his new dad with arms outstretched for the candy!
Sara, as you might expect, is on the floor—laughing, crying, and definitely praising God. It is quite a video!
On this early May morning as I sit with Sara in her living room, we are both misty-eyed. She warned me at the beginning, “I’ll just tell you what happened and you decide what you want to use.”
“It was so crazy and powerful,” she says. “And I know God does not work like that all of the time, but He certainly can. And He did.”
Oh, He certainly did! I meet Charlie who immediately hugs me, tells his mother he doesn’t want to take a nap today, and goes running out to play. He loves people, he loves everything about life, and he loves music. Remembering that Sara has lots of praise music on her iPhone, he frequently brings it to her and says while he points to his heart, “Oh my soul. Oh my soul.” He wants her to play the “10,000 Reasons” song by Matt Redman. “It’s just very precious,” Sara says.
Humility is admirable, but even Super Woman does have her tired days. She says there are days she is very tired. “But it is such a blessing and such a privilege.”
Looking back at the patchwork that has been her story she can relate each milestone of her life to some very dear “soul” lesson God wanted her to understand in a deep way.
“I think I learned more about God when I got married because Christ sees us as his bride. And then I learned so much more about God when I had children because it made me understand his love for me as a child of God. But probably the clearest picture I’ve ever had of God is when we adopted because we have been adopted into the family of God—as sons.”
She told me that in biblical times an adopted child could never be disowned, but birth children could be. Just knowing that adopted children don’t look like their adopted parents is a whole other story because as Sara says, “We don’t always look much like God. But he still calls us his, you know. Sally and Charlie were a long way off, but they were in terrible conditions, and we just had to go there in order to bring them home.”
What a clear picture of Christ and such a picture of our Father God’s amazing grace and mercy. Sara says, “So the parallels of adoption have grown my faith like nothing else. Some people wonder if you can really love an adopted child as much as your biological child. Gosh. Yes, you can. Adopting is probably the best thing we’ve ever done for our family because seeing how the hearts of my birth children have embraced and understood and adored and loved their adopted siblings has just been amazing in every way.”
A Little Wisdom
At 48 and back in preschool, Sara laughs at herself. She says the younger moms are gracious to her as she digs into her purse for her “readers” in order to fill out the most routine forms. She speaks of adapting to the different seasons of life without being overwhelmed explaining that she is content to trust the Lord and not her own strength. “I’m juggling the preschool programs and getting them there and then going to visit my girls in Birmingham and trying to be real present for them in college and do all the sporting events because our boys all play sports. It is a wild and crazy life and we don’t do it perfectly by any means, but—our kids know we love them. And I hope that the chaos has a little bit taught them that the world does not spin around them. I think that is a healthy lesson for kids.”
Sara has a few traditions that her children are likely to never forget. One is the daily scripture they get on their way out the door every morning. The morning rush can be wild when everyone has to be at an appointed place at an early hour. Sara says she is not a “morning person” or the mom who gets up early to scramble eggs and make biscuits. She says, “I may be throwing a power bar at them on the way out the door, but for years, we have had this one tradition. I have a document in my computer of just Bible verses that I hope over their growing up years they will learn. I print them out and cut them in strips and every day out the door they get a scripture to put in their pocket and take with them. I used to hand write them, but then I got too many kids to do that! My husband laughs that I am the mom who might forget to give them lunch money, but I don’t forget their Bible verses.”
Her tidbits for young mothers today are: “(1) Pray. Don’t forget to pray because when we pray, we are relying on His strength and not our own. The times I think in my parenting or being a wife, you know, when I get off track is when I am trying to do it myself or I’m trying to present a picture or set goals that are unrealistic. (2) Don’t sweat the small stuff because when it comes down to it, there are very few things that are truly important. (3). Love and trust God above everything else. It is easy to make an idol of our husbands, our children, or even the lives we want to portray. But putting God first is just vital.”
Despite her resume of accomplishments, Sara says she just doesn’t think of herself as an author or a CEO or anybody special. The great desire of her heart is to pass on to these children God has entrusted to her every treasure about Him that He has been pleased to teach her. She has been a willing vessel and the more she has been faithful to give and to pass on to the next generation, the more God has continued to fill her cup—to overflowing.
Read more about Sara Berry at Integritytime.com, Bethel Road Publications, and find all of her current books on Amazon.com