My wife Metta and I had an extraordinary experience this Fall. We spent twenty-one days with 87 year old civil rights leader, pastor, and author, John Perkins, in Jackson, Mississippi’s capitol city.
Almost every morning Dr. Perkins, whose daughters call him Dr. P, and I were together for several hours. Metta joined our discussions over lunch and we both attended Dr. P’s 5:30 a.m. Tuesday bible study. The first week of our time together I read to him the draft of his latest book scheduled to be published in April. This was in anticipation of a telephone conference with his co-author. The next two weeks we spent talking through his estate plan, prior to his meeting with his Jackson estate planning legal counsel.
I came to realize in my time with Dr. Perkins how much he has given to the black community and modeled to all of us the love of Jesus. During his lifetime, individually or through the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) he founded, he built medical clinics, youth centers, created business co-operatives, and housing for families. Dr. Perkins has tried to live out what Jesus told us to do. He quotes A. W. Tozer, “God is love, and just as God is love, God is justice.”
Author or co-author of over 10 books, including two published this year, guest of Presidents in the White House, speaker at numerous colleges and universities, and recipient of some 13 honorary degrees, he is a man who has wisdom to share with all of us about justice, true reconciliation, community development, and the transformation of lives through a relationship with Jesus. These are the issues that continue to be the focus of his life.
John Perkins has an active, sharp mind and a deep love for all people. He has hope for an outcome in the relationships between white and black people better than the tragedies we have seen in recent times, with the church bombing in Charleston, the hatred displayed in Charlottesville, and in the outcomes of the trials of white men who have killed black men.
He remains hopeful that love will become the hallmark of relationships between whites and blacks. He has formed many deep friendships with both white and black people. He prizes those relationships and nurtures them. He writes in his recent book, Dream With Me, “but love is still the final fight, and unless we have these communities of love, we will never see this dream realized.” He is particularly hopeful about what he sees and hears with young people in his visits on college and university campuses.
What is amazing about John Perkin’s story is how he has come to this place of love with the life he was handed. His mother died in 1930 from pellagra, a protein deficiency equivalent to malnutrition, when he was 6 months old. His father abandoned him. His grandmother raised him. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade. He worked on a plantation as a farmer. When he was sixteen, his brother, Clyde, after returning home to Mississippi from service in World War II, was shot twice in the abdomen by a deputy marshal, who decided he and his companions were being too noisy, while they were waiting in the colored line of a movie theatre. Clyde died in his little brother’s arms enroute to a hospital.
After his brother’s death, he was sent to live with relatives in California, fearing he too could be killed. When he later met and married Vera Mae, they settled in Pasadena where he believed he could bury loss of Clyde and be away for a time “from the pressure of “malice and hatred.” It was there that he heard the gospel of “an in-living Christ,” and dedicated himself to follow Jesus. After a whole hearted study of the Bible, he decided to lead the kind of life Paul talked about. He was mentored by white and black brothers and sisters in the faith, who made a deep impression on him.
He heard a call to return to Mississippi in 1960. He became involved in civil rights demonstrations. In 1970 he was arrested, jailed, and brutally beaten in jail by a deputy sheriff in Brandon, MS. Almost two thirds of his stomach had to be removed because of his injuries.
His answer as to how he has been able to show love and forgiveness in the face of so much injustice and physical abuse is, “Jesus’ love is our model for love. Citing Phil.2:15, he says, “If we truly love all people, we shine among them like stars in the sky.” I look at John Perkins’ life and see the power of Jesus” to make all things new.” I also see the impact of mentors in his life, which Jesus must have called out to help him.
John Perkins was first introduced to the Bible by his oldest son, Spencer, who met Jesus through a Good News Club. Spencer, who died at age 44 of a massive heart attack, John says, had a great impact on who he would become. Spencer wrote a book, More Than Equals, with his white friend, Chris Ellis. In it they share their own commitment to race reconciliation. They lived for a number of years in an intentional Christian community as brothers. Now, revised and expanded, the book urges white Christians to embrace their black brothers and sisters and ‘act like family” to them.
John Perkins believes the church has been silent too long and needs to lead the way in reconciliation between white and black people. After years of slavery, segregation, and separate and unequal rights, he says it’s time for the church to respond.
Knowing how I have, during my lifetime, often ignored the struggle for equality and justice of my black brothers and sisters, I am now persuaded to lament and make amends for what I have allowed to happen without meaningful response. I need to hear the stories of our black brothers and sisters in this community and “act like family” to them. I feel a need to set aside a precise period for this and to seek the forgiveness of my black brothers and sisters and our Lord.
I hope that you may come with me to this place. If for no other reason, as a response to the recent violence and expressions of hate against blacks, out of gratitude to them for the precious gift of hope our black brothers and sisters have given, despite their long suffering, No better example of that hope, love and forgiveness is there than the response of the Charleston church members last year.
I am grateful for the opportunity of being with Dr. P to work with him. My wife Metta encouraged each of his 3 daughters with their work running the Perkins Foundation. They were sad to see her leave. With her passion and kindness she forged a warm relationship with Dr. P and his daughters , as did I. He calls me brother and friend. We experienced a grateful family, who expressed that gratitude with a warm embrace of both of us. We returned it lovingly.
On our return from Jackson, in the mail I reviewed, was the Fall, 2017 edition of the University of Virginia Law School magazine, (the law school in Charlottesville I attended, as well as one of John Perkins’ grandsons).The cover bears the title, “Hope And Resolve After The Protests.” Inside the magazine Dean Risa Goluboff writes that she as Chair of a working group of deans and other community members appointed by the University President, will consider how best to help our community heal. She says:
“We must recover from violence, from bigotry, from vulnerability.
We must heal. We must also act…”
Full article by Bethany member Milt Smith, featured in the January/February 2018 Briefs.
Show us the way, Lord!