Months after baptism, Jennifer Berry wins Miss America pageant
“Winning Miss America couldn’t be any better than this,” Berry told Kendall, a deacon’s wife who for 13 years has served as the traveling companion for Miss Oklahoma winners.
“I have never seen anyone so excited in my life,” Kendall said. “It was as if she had changed her crown for a halo and was just waiting for her next crown in heaven.”
But heaven will have to wait a bit longer.
Saturday night, the 22-year-old aspiring teacher from Tulsa was crowned Miss America, outlasting 51 other women to earn a $30,000 college scholarship and a yearlong speaking tour.
Skiatook pulpit minister Don Branscum, who baptized Berry on Oct. 17, was at a high school basketball game when his wife called him with the news of Berry’s win.
Branscum said he wasn’t totally surprised, since Berry had won the preliminary talent competition Wednesday night with a ballet en pointe performance to the song Within by William Joseph. She won first runner-up for the Quality of Life Award, based on her pageant platform of building intolerance of drunken driving, inspired by a high school friend who died in an alcohol-related car wreck.
“She’s just a beautiful person,” said Branscum, the minister at the 170-member church for 25 years. “She’s not only beautiful on the outside. She really is a beautiful person through and through – a very genuine, sincere person. You just won’t meet anyone sweeter.”
Not surprisingly, Berry was the talk of the congregation Sunday morning.
“I think everybody was just real excited for her,” Branscum said. “She told Debbie to be sure to have the church keep her in their prayers because it’s going to be a tough year. She’s a spiritually minded young lady already.”
As Miss Oklahoma’s traveling companion, Kendall chaperoned Berry to school assemblies throughout Oklahoma and traveled with her to the pageant in Las Vegas.
Back in October, Kendall, whose husband, David, is a deacon at the Skiatook church, said she shared with Berry how she had studied the Bible with a former Miss Oklahoma, Meighen Bradfield, resulting in Bradfield’s baptism.
“I had talked to Jennifer a lot about spirituality and how important it was in my life, but I hadn’t gone into it deep the way we did today,” Kendall wrote in an e-mail to friends the day of Berry’s baptism.
Berry told Kendall that she had gone to church when she was younger and had participated in several Bible studies, including one in college.
“She had always wanted to be baptized but never knew how to go about it,” Kendall wrote. “We discussed Acts 2:38, why we believed you had to be immersed and I gave her several examples out of the Bible. We talked about how Phillip and the Eunuch were on the road together … and that was all it took.”
As Miss America, Berry will travel roughly 20,000 miles per month. And Kendall is confident that Berry will take her faith will her.
In fact, Kendall said she noticed a devotional book – with a picture of Berry’s baptism tucked inside – beside the new Miss America’s bed the morning after the pageant.
“I think her faith will be more important than it has ever been,” Kendall said of the challenges Berry faces as Miss America. “All through the pageant, she would call me and tell me, ‘Debbie, pray for me. Really, pray for me. My energy is gone and I have to dance tonight.’
“Even after it was finished and won, she said, ‘Debbie, I never could have made it without your prayers. I said, ‘Well, God was taking care of you, Jennifer, and you knew he would.’”
Kendall downplayed her role in Berry’s conversion and stressed that “it was totally God directing her path to this decision.” But Branscum said Kendall “is serious about her faith and her relationship with the Lord, and she shares her faith everywhere she goes.”
Kendall said she remains on “cloud nine” after Berry’s pageant win.
“I’m thankful that God gave America a representative like that,” she said. “Her platform is intolerance of drunk driving. Not only will she take that, but she will also take the Lord on the road. And I think that’s even more important.”
SEE expanded story and interviews in the March print issue of the Chronicle.