Get to know American civil rights activist Dr John Perkins ahead of his visit to New Zealand this September.
In the world of Christian social work, Dr John Perkins is one of the greatest living inspirations on the planet. Switchfoot wrote a song about him, he has several honorary doctorates, and Christianity Today magazine calls him the ‘grandfather of Christian community development’.
The 82-year-old is coming to New Zealand in September for The Salvation Army’s Just Action Conference, but before he motivates us all with his southern, African-American charisma, let’s spend a little time getting to know this hero of the faith …
Just six months after he was born, John’s mother passed away from malnutrition. His father disappeared, leaving him to be raised by relatives that John describes as a ‘bootlegging family—people who live by stealing and selling things. That’s how I grew up.’
The other option available to African-Americans in his community was sharecropping, which John describes as an extension of the slavery that kept many black people in poverty. He says things only really changed in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. ‘In 1964, we got the Voting Rights Act, which made us human. And the legal system in the south had never prosecuted a white man for causing bodily harm against a black man until 1967.’
Racial oppression created an inferiority complex in John’s life that was heightened by the unprovoked killing of his elder brother by a white police officer in 1946. John’s brother had recently returned from WWII as a decorated soldier. John acknowledges that feelings of racial inferiority can lead to anger and violence, but says that in his case he was fortunate enough to encounter Jesus Christ instead.
After a decade living in California, where his family had encouraged him to move because of safety concerns, it was John’s son who introduced his father to church. ‘I began to see the behaviour of my son,’ he says of young Spencer who had been attending Sunday school. ‘I could see some qualities in him that I hadn’t been accustomed to seeing. He invited me to church and after going there for about six months, I really came to know Jesus Christ.
‘It was Galatians 2:20 that impacted me, where Paul said, “I’ve been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ in me.” Part of my drive in life prior to that—because I didn’t grow up with a mother and a father and an intact family—was searching for nurturing and love in life. And when I heard there was a God in Heaven who loved me enough to send his only begotten Son to die for me, then I wanted to really know that God.’
John quickly began spreading this gospel that had finally answered the longings of his heart. He witnessed in Californian prisons to many of his fellow black men who had also migrated from the south but still carried that same mentality of racial inferiority.
John describes the pre-civil rights America as a ‘system that was destroying two peoples—making white folks more bigoted and making blacks feel inferior’. He felt called to get to the root of these problems and relocated his family back to Mississippi to spread the gospel in his home neighbourhood.
However, when John got there, his planned approach to evangelism took an unexpected turn.
John and his wife, Vera Mae, expected to arrive in Mississippi and just teach the Bible. Yet they were confronted with a host of other community issues that demanded their attention.
‘We saw that somehow we had to integrate a more holistic approach to life—caring for the body, the soul and the spirit,’ says John. ‘We needed to preach a gospel that recognised the dignity of human beings.’
This meant that their simple Bible teaching ministry eventually morphed into a health centre, a leadership development programme, a thrift store, low-income housing, a training centre, a church, and other similar initiatives in neighbouring communities over the years. Alongside all this, John became a leader in the civil rights movement, realising that the political and cultural oppression of black people was a major hindrance to that ‘holistic approach to life’.
But this approach was not without opposition. John’s outspokenness on racial injustices led to him being arrested and jailed in February 1970. While behind bars, he was badly beaten, almost to the point of death.
On top of this, many of the churches that had supported him in his evangelism were wary of his civil rights agenda. ‘The church that sent me [to Mississippi] wanted [black people] to know about Jesus, but they didn’t want them to have the same rights as the white people,’ he explains. ‘Which is a contradiction if you believe that all people are created equal in the image of God.’
In those days, people who supported the civil rights movement were considered liberal—and being liberal essentially meant you were communist and set on overthrowing the government, John recalls. However, things started to change after he was beaten in prison and shared this story in his first book Let Justice Roll Down. More and more white Christians began to join the fight for racial reconciliation.
Forty years on, John is excited about the future of civil rights in the US. ‘I think we are winning that battle now. There are new, emerging young people who are beginning to truly value diversity.
‘We have a wonderful opportunity to preach the gospel that releases the power of God to do what Paul said it would it do. It can burn through these racial and cultural values and we can be reconciled to God and each other. We can become that Church that God wants us to become—that Church that recognises one race of many different ethnic groups.’
When quizzed about the key issues facing today’s Church, John warns that we mustn’t stop at evangelism but focus on actually discipling Christians. ‘We are at a very important moment if we can turn back to discipling people and expect them to create a witness for Jesus Christ,’ he exclaims, his voice and huge hand gestures highlighting his passion. ‘Evangelism is not enough!’
John is critical of Christians who come into communities with the idea of getting people’s souls saved but are then content to leave converts to live ‘any kind of life’. [We’ve] just evangelised people without seeing them as people with a responsibility to be salt and light, to be stewards of God’s earth and to carry the gospel to all human beings. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly.” We have evangelised the world too lightly. We have made them Christian without discipling them. And now we have a prosperity religion that serves God now for what we can get, instead of serving God in gratitude for his redemptive love—because we know he loves us and has provided for us all the things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).’
John believes that today’s Church has a poor understanding of Jesus as leader, treating him like a helper when we need him and otherwise exhibiting selfish and greedy motives. ‘We are not really biblical,’ he says, ‘because in [the US] we have shaded the Christian faith with a prosperity theology that enriches my life. It’s a heresy that we have just accepted as a reality.’ John believes discipleship is the antidote to this heresy.
John’s approach to community development (which he sees as a means of holistic discipleship) has become famous. It is based on the three Rs of relocation, reconciliation and redistribution.
One of the key problems in poor neighbourhoods is that as people become educated and improve their circumstances, they will often move out of that poorer neighbourhood. John says this can lead to ‘the people who have the gospel commuting in to do all this poverty stuff for people—doing stuff for them instead of living with them. Of course, that passage of Scripture [in Galatians 2:20], as I got to know it, [taught me that] the Christian life is really the outliving of the in-living Christ.’
John argues that we should follow Jesus’ example of living with people. ‘We need to be incarnated, to live among the people and develop the church there, in the community. If you want to plant a church, what you need to do is get some people to move in there and become friends, rather than just commute in and out. That was our idea to break down some of this “us and them”. You become the body of Christ. That’s the relocation, where their needs become our needs, and it brings about the second R: reconciliation.
‘If prejudice is the main word in segregation—and that means to pre-judge people before you know them—the only answer is to get to know them. Once you get to know you can love them and you can forgive. You can disciple them properly.’ This, says John, is true reconciliation.
The third R of redistribution was a carefully chosen word. John could have settled for ‘redevelopment’, which has more of a capitalist, conservative flavour. But one of the geniuses of his approach to community ministry is the ability to straddle the gap between right and left political mind-sets—and to successfully challenge both.
He says ‘redistribution’ worked as a word ‘because people thought we were communist when we would say it and it would shock them. That was good because when you talk about justice you have to shock people and challenge them. In our country, capitalism is to God, and communism and socialism to Satan, so [redistribution] threatens our capitalist way of life, and, well, it needs to be threatened some.
‘Capitalism has a good production system but a very weak redistribution system, so it ends up in the hands of the people who have the greatest advantage. We are doing that not only in our country nationally but we are also exploiting the labour forces of the world in order that we might get richer. [Instead,] Christians should be salt and light and have a message from God, a message of justice and equality.’
In the late 1950s, after first encountering Christ, John fell in love with studying the Bible and modelling his life and ministry around Jesus’ teaching. After talking with him, I am left with the distinct impression that no political model could ever dictate the way John lives his life. He takes his cues from Scripture and desperately wants to see the global Church doing the same.
By Hayden Shearman (abridged from War Cry 18 May 2013, p5-7)