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Autumn 2004 | Volume 27, Number 4 | Features

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 form.

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.

Mr. 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.

My family 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 Center’s 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.


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