Right now, Johnny Berry is thinking about how to water plants in space.
He works at NASA, coordinating communication between the scientists who design experiments and astronauts who do them. This December, Berry and his team are sending a project called XROOTS—Exposed Root On-Orbit Test System—to the International Space Station. There, circling 248 miles above Earth, the astronauts will test out new ways of watering plants in zero gravity.
NASA hopes to send humans back to the moon in the next few years and then follow that with a manned mission to Mars, laying the foundation for future Martian exploration and possibly, some day, settlement. If that happens, the astronauts will need vegetables, and Berry is working behind the scenes on that piece of the space exploration plan.
It’s all part of a long-range plan, which Berry, a 38-year-old Pentecostal from Alabama, sees as part of God’s plan.
“As I see more and more of science,” he said, “and more and more of the order that is science, I see more and more how amazing God is in my life and how he is looking at all the smallest details and making sure they’re running perfectly all at the same time.”
But though God is a God of order, that doesn’t mean providence moves in a straight line. Not in Berry’s life, anyway. He’s actually pretty surprised to find himself working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He didn’t go to the right school or even start out in the right major. Had things gone differently, he might have been a doctor. He could just as likely have become a preacher.
Only a few short years ago, he was a teacher.
But now Berry finds himself in a mostly secular workplace, a believer with a front-row seat to some of the deepest and most complex experiments in the universe. In it all, he sees the fingerprints of God.
“I know that where I am is an opportunity that he has opened up for me,” Berry says. “He wants to use it for his glory in some way. The question for me is, ‘God, what do you want to do, and how do you want to use me?’ ”
He can trace that way of thinking to things that happened to him when he was a teenager. His father died when he was 13, and as his older siblings moved out of the house, feelings of loneliness enveloped him. But then a new youth pastor at the Assemblies of God church in Opelika, Alabama, sent him on a new trajectory.
Dan Chaplick helped Berry see his potential as someone who was hungry for knowledge and eager to serve people. Believing God was calling him into ministry, Berry went to Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida, to double major in youth and pastoral ministries. When he wasn’t in class, he was busy serving in churches.
But he was miserable. “I hated it,” he says now. “I wanted to do something different, and I didn’t really know what that was.”
He hesitantly decided to pursue a biology/premed degree.
“As Johnny tested the waters of different academic and career options, the one constant was his recognition and belief that God had a plan far beyond what Johnny even understood in that moment,” said Gordon D. Miller, dean of Southeastern’s school of honors. “Johnny doggedly persevered.”
As he neared the end of his degree, Berry began to question what God would have for him. As he prayed about it, he felt called to pursue a career in teaching. He thought he wanted to be a Christian role model to students. But before getting his first teaching job, he pursued a master’s in ministerial leadership.
Looking back, Berry says it was like there was a war inside him between his love for God and his love of science. He had a fear that going too far into science would lead him away from God, even though he knew that science was a way to understand how God works.
In his first paper for his first class in ministerial leadership, he did an exegetical study of Genesis 1:1. A light bulb went on in his head.
“It was a beautiful moment for me personally, where I realized I can serve God, and I can go into whatever depth he wants me to go into,” he said. “I can still look at the beauty of the natural world all around me and seek to understand at its absolute core how it works.”
Liberated, he became a high school math and science teacher. He loved it and might have continued that career had it not been for a post on LinkedIn that caught his eye.
An old friend had taken a job with NASA and was moving to Huntsville. Berry reached out and offered some advice on how to connect with people in the area and, as a joke, added a line at the end saying if NASA were ever hiring to let him know.
The friend wrote back: “Send me your résumé, because there’s a position you’d be great for.”
Berry thought it was a joke. Or she misunderstood his experience and credentials. But she wrote him again a few weeks later and repeated the request: “I need your résumé now because they’re about to close the position.”
“I do not have a résumé that’s ready for NASA,” he responded.
She told him to send it anyway, and to his surprise, he got a phone call. With his friend’s help and a lot of prayer, he was offered a position. After fasting, praying, and getting advice from friends, he became convinced this was the job God wanted him to take.
Now, as a specialist operations controller, he helps plan astronauts’ days and prepare them to run through experiments, such as new ways of watetering, that will help advance space exploration.
“We know six months before they ever start what they’re going to be doing. We know what science experiment they’re going to be working on,” he said. “Your hope is that what happens in front of you happens the way you were expecting it to happen.”
When it doesn’t, his role is to get it back on track. Knowing that there is a God who is ordering his days and turning chaos into order brings him peace in these times.
“Outside of my faith, I don’t know I could do the job I do,” he said. “There’s so much pressure to do the job and to do it at this extremely high level. That expectation all the time can really wear on you.”
Aimee Franklin, chair of the natural sciences department at Southeastern, recently invited Berry back to speak to students. She says he’s a good example of how graduates should follow God’s leading in their careers.
“You don’t have to have it figured out as soon as you graduate,” she says. “The path isn’t always from A to B. Sometimes it moves around.”
Chaplick, who believes Berry was a big part of why God brought him to Opelika as a youth pastor, is proud when he looks at where God has taken Berry.
“Today I see a man who has come into his own—a man who is caring, loving, compassionate, relatable, and real,” he says.
Berry thanks God for it all.
“God, you really are a God of order,” he prays. “You are a God who has ordered my life.”
Adam MacInnis is a reporter in Canada.
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