Editor’s Note: There are not many living people so revered in the faith as minister and civil rights activist Dr. John M. Perkins. Spiritual father to many, the mention of his name alone incites admiration across generations. He has devoted his life to sharing a “whole gospel for the whole man,” galvanizing the church to engage in civil rights and community development, and offering a prophetic, reconciliatory witness to a divided world. In order for the church to take on a renewed mantle of reconciliation, the long view of justice held by Dr. Perkins is more imperative than ever. His daughter, Elizabeth Perkins, says it best: “He believes so much in this new generation that he is now lifting us onto his shoulders so we can get a better view and begin to face the challenges of our day.”
We’d like to thank Dr. Perkins for not only going before us and courageously embodying the whole gospel, but for taking the time to share with us wisdom for a new generation of reformers. Through the lens of his final years of life, we wanted to know: What is he holding on to? What are the pillars of a life well-lived, and what is the torch he desires to pass on to the church?
“I could feel a great churning inside me. But it wasn’t anger I felt. It was anguish, pity, grief. Yes, and love. So deep and so strong, I couldn’t contain it. It just filled me up and spilled out of me.”
Beaten and bloodied and slipping in and out of consciousness, John Perkins didn’t know whether he would live or die. For hours the blows kept coming in kicks and punches to the head, ribs, and groin.
Eli Eli lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
It only got worse as the night went on. The officers of Brandon jail, between swigs of moonshine, took a fork and shoved it into Perkins’ nose and throat.
Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
By the time the jailers upstairs got their hands on Perkins for their own turn of the whip, his entire body had gone numb. He doesn’t remember much, except the pool of blood that collected on the floor around his listless form.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It’s 48 years later, nearly to the day, when I meet Dr. John Perkins. His is a joyful exuberance, a childlike whimsy, tethered by the sober conscience of a man who has looked evil in the eye. Neither countenance seems to compete with the other; he’s able to hold both with grace and grit.
“I’ve got something to say to y’all,” he says, leaning in close. I brace myself to receive a truffle of wisdom; he pauses for a moment. “…I had something very important to say but it slipped. I’m 87, and that’s gonna happen to you when you get past 80—[things] begin to slip.”
We share a laugh as we settle into some leather chairs in the library of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation in Jackson, Mississippi. The jail where he once tasted death is only 16 miles away. If the traumatic landscape ever still haunts him, he doesn’t let on. But that’s something of a theme in Perkins’ life, occupying places with a legacy of pain.
“There was a king in the Old Testament who, when he was caught in the midst of fire, said, ‘Lord I don’t know what to do but my eyes are on you.’ I need to find [that] joy in suffering. The earliest Christians saw suffering for Christ as a joyful experience. I wrestle with that every day.”
“Clyde’s been shot.” The words didn’t seem real to 16-year-old Perkins. How could they be? His brother Clyde was immortal to him. A dozen years Perkins’ senior, Clyde was something like a father figure, filling that parental hole left after their mother died of starvation and their father abandoned them shortly after.
“The marshal shot him.” That reality weighed on Perkins long after Clyde’s death, a reminder that “whites in authority were always justified no matter what they did, no questions asked.” Upon realizing that as a black boy in rural Mississippi he would never be safe, Perkins boarded a train to California and didn’t look back.
“The earliest Christians saw suffering for Christ as a joyful experience. I wrestle with that every day.”
“In Southern California I could see glimpses of hope that were once blocked off to me. I could live now,” he wrote in his 1976 memoir, Let Justice Roll Down.
Perkins flourished in Monrovia, California, finding stable jobs commensurate to the white man’s wages. He fell in love with a woman named Vera Mae, married her, and together they started a family. In 1957 his son Spencer invited him to church, where Perkins would discover a real God who loved him—“God for a black man.”
Perkins moved into this new awakening just as he did with anything else—as whole-heartedly as he possibly could. He devoted his spare time to Bible studies, training classes, child evangelism programs, and other fellowship. One opportunity led him to become a witness to boys in prison camps. During this time of communion with the incarcerated, God beckoned Perkins to return to the South, where many of the systemic problems black men faced were rooted.
“God wanted me back in Mississippi, to identify with my people there, and to help them break the cycle of despair—not by encouraging them to leave, but by showing them new life right where they were,” he wrote.
Once back in the South Perkins noticed a vacuum between the evangelical faith with which he aligned and the civil rights movement of the day. On one side, he saw prominent activists leaving God out of the picture, thereby neglecting crucial spiritual elements. On the other, he saw Christian leaders—some of whom he had done ministry with—shun their witness in favor of the status quo. It broke John to see his brothers in Christ “insist on a Sunday religion that didn’t sharpen their sense of justice.”
“How sad that so few individuals equally committed to Jesus Christ ever became a part of [the civil rights] movement. For what all that political activity needed—and lacked—was spiritual input,” Perkins wrote. “Even now, I do not understand why so many evangelicals find a sense of commitment to civil rights and to Jesus Christ an “either-or” proposition.
It was that commitment to the whole gospel that informed Perkins’ contentious involvement with civil rights issues and the economic and spiritual development of poor black communities in Mississippi. It was that same commitment that put him at odds with local authorities and landed him in the Brandon jail after attempting to post bail for some of his fellow civil rights demonstrators.
And perhaps it’s this same commitment that brought us together today, speaking about a new age for many of the same troubles.
“Are we going backwards?” I ask.
“There’s been massive progress, but we haven’t solved the problem,” Perkins says. “A mistake was in trying to give black folk dignity with a small spoon…And dignity, it’s about taking the fence down, not just opening the door.”
“This is gonna be the theme of the rest of my life,” Perkins says. “I’m gonna repack this within the gospel, and that’s gonna be my theme: the dignity of humanity. How do we affirm dignity, that God is God and human beings were [made] to reflect God in the world?”
“Dignity, it’s about taking the fence down, not just opening the door.”
1 Corinthians 12:24-26 paints a picture of a church that is equally as diverse as it is robust: “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
That’s where John Perkins has spent his life: championing the broken parts and awakening the privileged to have “equal concern” for those on the margins.
In 1989, Perkins founded the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), a wide network of believers who “seek to bear witness to the Kingdom of God by reclaiming and restoring under-resourced communities.” In sum, justice through stewardship.
“Justice really is a stewardship issue,” Perkins says. “How do we steward God’s earth and God’s provision and how do we do that in a way that life has the best chance? [Justice] comes from humanity’s dignity. The biblical account is that God made man, created this humanity in his own image to reflect God in the world. He created him with the mission to go into all the world and reflect Him. That talks about the preciousness of the creator’s love for this humanity.
“What motivation, what passion that came from that God would do all of that? It came from Him wanting us to love each other, to do justice. I think Micah 6:8 puts it together better than anything else: ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’”
“God created man with the mission to go into all the world and reflect Him. That talks about the preciousness of the creator’s love for this humanity.”
Despite the evil to which he has borne witness, despite the ever-widening racial divide in the United States, Perkins remains profoundly hopeful. In his eyes, a new generation has been given the mantle of justice and thus the opportunity to reclaim the witness of the evangelical church.
“The word ‘evangelical’ comes from ‘a host of angels.’ The leader of the choir says, ‘Behold I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people.’ You hear me? To ALL people. I’m gonna defend this, I’m gonna defend all people. Life matters. All life matters.”
There’s a particular grace to the way that Perkins exhorts the church, a rare tenderness that one might argue is lacking in the discourse of this age. His is a paternal ability to gently turn our gaze toward a more holistic gospel without shaming us for our historical failings.
Where does that come from? I wondered. I asked Perkins how he kept his heart from growing bitter.
The answer was more simple than I thought: “Deep love.”
“I’m discovering that deep love comes from [first] loving God. In the last year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is very, very difficult in this world to love our neighbors as ourselves. I’m sort of believing that I’ve got to concentrate on loving God, and…it’s [in] my gratitude for his love, [He] in turn gives me that will at least to want to love my neighbor. I want to do that more creatively with the end of my life.”
We near the end of our allotted two hours together. “What else you got?” he asks, leaning in, readying himself for more questions.
“Any final words?” I ask, awed by his stamina.
“Yes,” he says without missing a beat. “Just say, I tried to be a friend of God and a friend of humanity.”