A Letter to the Seattle Pacific University Community
Transformed by the Reconciling Love of Jesus Christ
TO HAVE THE JOHN PERKINS CENTER for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development at Seattle Pacific University named after me is an honor that I never imagined. It demonstrates the
fulfillment of a lifelong dream, because it puts new life into the wings of holistic Christian missions.
|John Perkins sits on the
front porch of the Antioch House,
built in 1894 and used today to
house ministry guests.
My deepest desire has
been that the reconciling love that God displayed on the cross would spread into all the world, and that somehow I could
participate in that mission. The Perkins Center will allow me
to take part in my own dream of extending the love of Jesus around the world to break down racial, economic, and cultural barriers.
I grew up in rural Mississippi without
a father, and my mother died when
I was only 7 months old. I longed for
the deep love that most parents instinctively
give their children. In addition,
I longed for value, purpose, and acceptance
as the youngest in a household of 11 children now headed by my grandmother.
It was not until 1957 that I actually felt a pure sense of love. In a small
holiness mission in Pasadena, California, I turned my life over
to the Lord Jesus Christ. That moment is etched in my memory
as the very first time in my life that I felt love in its purest
How unworthy I felt. My kinfolk were the outlaws of our
county. How, then, could I return love to this awesome God?
I felt loved, and I wanted to love this God back. Wayne Leitch,
an elderly white man who taught child evangelism, offered
to disciple me. He helped me understand that to love God meant
to love people, especially those who are lost in this world.
No white person had ever before shown that they cared about
me. This kind old man was demonstrating exactly what Jesus
had suffered and died for on the cross. I was experiencing the
reconciling love that would impact the rest of my life.
Leitch poured all that he knew about the Bible into me, a
third-grade dropout. His efforts blessed my life tremendously.
In 1958, I began visiting prison camps in the mountains of Southern
California. I shared my testimony and held Bible studies. When
I looked into the eyes of those young black men, I realized
that if not for the grace of God, I could have been one of them.
I knew that if God wanted to love me, he surely wanted to love
these troubled young men who were just like me. I had seen eyes
like these before. This sparked the first yearning in
my heart to go back home to Mississippi.
Why would a black man, who was
doing quite well for himself despite his lack of education,
even fathom wanting to go back to the downtrodden South? For
some reason, I looked at these men in cages who were trapped
and thought of all of the people I knew back home who were
trapped not only in sin, but also in a constant cycle of poverty
and hopelessness. I felt God calling me home to stand with the
poor and oppressed blacks in Mississippi.
In 1960, my wife, Vera
Mae, and I packed up our five young children (Spencer, Joanie,
Phillip, Derek, and baby Deborah) and drove across the country
to Mississippi. Little did I know that the drive was just
a precursor of things to come. As we got closer to Mississippi,
the inns and restaurants read “Whites Only.” At night, Vera
Mae and the children slept inside the car while I slept on the hood. We
arrived amid the dark and difficult days of the civil rights
movement in Mississippi. One of the things that would change
the course of my life would be one of the friends I chose to
make during that racially charged time in history.
and I moved to the small town of Mendenhall, which was like
most Southern towns, divided by railroad tracks with whites
on the nicer side of the tracks and blacks living in a low-lying
area called the “Quarters.”
The name stemmed from slave quarters during slavery. Vera Mae and I began
to minister in our neighborhood.
Soon I met the pastor from the
First Baptist Church, uptown. We instantly hit it off and became
friends. We began to meet regularly. We shared our past experiences
and thought that maybe somehow, together, we could make some
positive change in this town. We were both enthused about the
possibility of working together. My dear brother felt God calling
his church body to commit to helping me in my small ministry.
He took his desire back to his church, where he was overwhelmingly
rejected and even shunned for bringing up such a preposterous
idea. This brought the young pastor back to the reality of his upbringing
and surroundings. My friend was so hurt and so depressed over being
rejected that he committed suicide. I knew right then what I
would spend the rest of my life doing.
My life would consist
of building bridges and tearing down walls. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. said it so eloquently later, “that man should not be judged by the color of his skin, but
by the content of his character.” In addition to sitting down together
at the table of brotherhood, I dreamed that we should get up and work together
to create a world where there would not only be racial reconciliation,
but also economic equality so that all men and women who desired to achieve
the American dream would have the opportunity.
I began to fight for my
dream the only way I knew how, by preaching the gospel and by
getting involved politically. I began to organize the black
people in my county. We held strategy meetings late into the
night to determine our direction. Throughout the week, we would
boycott stores and restaurants that had been especially
racist. On Saturdays, my small staff and I would pick up students
from nearby Jackson State University and Tougaloo College to
help make signs and march with us uptown.
I was a peaceful man,
but this time I did not forget my surroundings. I remembered
my dear friend the young pastor, and my brother dying in my
arms after being shot by the sheriff when I was 16 years old.
Yet, little could I imagine how deep the hate was that lingered
in some people’s hearts and souls toward me. When I think of it now, thousands
died in the Civil War to keep change from occurring. What they would do
to me would be nothing.
One night, Reverend Curry Brown, Joe Paul Buckley,
and I drove to the Brandon jail to post bond for volunteer
Doug Huemmer and some college students who had been arrested.
The authorities hauled us off to jail, too. That night will
live in infamy in our minds, as well as in the minds of our
families. We were beaten and tortured all night long. I was
most severely beaten, well within an inch of my life. They did
unspeakable things to me, including playing a game of Russian
roulette. During it all, I suffered a heart attack. As they
brutalized me, I began to hate them, but I also saw what hate
had done to them. As they continued their abuse, I think that
God pushed me past hatred to his response to those who would
hate you: LOVE.
When I got up from my sick bed, I had a testimony
that shattered hate like a blazing sword. Jesus was the only
way that one could burn through racial and cultural barriers.
What I noticed after all of my preaching, however, was that
love was not all there was to it. People were not getting
fixed. I still saw our teens dropping out of school, getting
pregnant, going to prison, and worse yet, the most educated
people leaving the state.
I found an answer in Jesus’ visit to Samaria.
Specifically, I began to understand the need for community development.
People have three intrinsic needs: the need to be loved, the need for security,
and the need to belong. Jesus was able to break through the racial barriers
with the broken Samarian woman by building a relationship with her and
her community, and helping her with her basic needs. This is the example
of what communities should be doing. Thus, the philosophy of Christian
community development began to emerge. I called it the “felt-need concept” because
I thought that meeting people at their most basic felt need is how one
establishes the deepest relationships.
This message began to be accepted
in ministries and churches around America and, indeed,
the world. In 1989, Dr. Wayne Gordon and I began the Christian
Community Development Association (CCDA), a network of more
than 2,000 ministries and churches working in this field. Seattle
Pacific University is bringing my work into a new arena, truly
into a new era. My hope is that all who enter the John Perkins
doors will exit to serve Christ with others of different races and cultures.
Words cannot express my deep and sincere gratitude for this
great honor. I am truly humbled by this noble tribute.
Please know that I always want to be available to help
you proclaim the reconciling love of Jesus Christ through the
John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training,
and Community Development at SPU.
My dream for the Perkins Center
is that it will be the means by which students are trained
to carry a holistic gospel, a gospel that saves, reconciles,
and empowers people, especially the poor and oppressed of the
world. That students will share God’s love
and demonstrate that love by the way they live. That reconciliation will
become a part of the ethos, the total life of the University, which can
then inspire and become the flagship model for other colleges and universities.
And that through the graduates of Seattle Pacific the world will see authentic
Christianity lived out for generations to come.
— BY JOHN M. PERKINS
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