SPU’S Perkins Center Joins Partners in a Movement to Transform Seattle
Tali Hairston, director of SPU’s Perkins Center, sees power in collaboration and innovation.
By Jefferey Overstreet
Eight-year-old William holds up the story he’s just written:
“It’s called ‘The End of the Earth,’” he says.
Reading aloud, William describes the rampage of a ferocious ogre. All of the world’s armies rise up against it, but their bullets are as harmless as jellybeans. Writing himself into the story,
William shoots the destroyer with a “freeze ray.” It fails. The
ogre tears the world to shreds. “The end!” William shouts.
He’s not the only child in this church-basement classroom who is giving shape to his fears through storytelling. At the Urban Impact summertime day camp at Rainier Avenue Free Methodist Church, many of the crayon-illustrated adventures imagined by the students are apocalyptic.
That might come as a surprise. World-smashing ogres don’t stomp through the streets of Seattle’s Rainier Valley. These vibrant neighborhoods are an inspiration to many. Spread out within view of magnificent Mount Rainier, they represent a post-Civil-Rights-Era success story — a rich, racially diverse community in which nearly two-thirds of the residents are either African-American or Asian.
But look closer and you’ll see that the Rainier Valley has become a region of contrasts: million-dollar homes alongside low-income housing projects; bountiful farmers’ markets near barren industrial zones; progressive social programs in neighborhoods with schools ill-equipped for today’s youth; thriving neighborhoods marred by rising violence.
In 2008, gang-related violence claimed at least nine lives in Seattle, and many police officers, prosecutors, and public officials say that gang violence is escalating at record levels. A month before day camp began, 15-year-old Pierre was shot and killed two blocks from Rainier Avenue Free Methodist Church. And while children learned and played at day camp, a 26-year-old named Terren had reconstructive surgery on his face at Harborview Medical Center following a drive-by shooting.
If children such as William are going to have any hope of
fulfilling their potential, experts say, one thing they will need is role models who demonstrate positive relationships. The day camp’s dedicated staff members — some of them Seattle Pacific University graduates — strive to do just that. Walk inside the church,
and you’ll find them teaching music, math, and writing to children from Somali, Vietnamese, Latino, European, and African-American cultures, some of them immigrants. The children are crossing racial, ethnic, and cultural borders, learning to work and play together, dismantling attitudes that fuel the violence around them.
William, 8, presents his first manuscript at Urban Impact day camp.
The Power of Many
Is the strategy working? Violence wins in William’s story, but some of his classmates imagine different conclusions. In their stories, characters stand united against monsters. They form partnerships, combining powers of flight, fire, water, and invisibility. Teamwork saves the day.
And those stories are coming true. If enhanced satellite imagery could show God at work in Seattle, you might see a blaze of activity — bright lights spread across troubled neighborhoods like
constellations in the night sky. These are “outposts” for change and reconciliation shining in a city trying to cope with realities faced by every major urban center in America. Connect the lights, and you’ll also find that Urban Impact is one of many organizations that have joined forces with SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development.
Community partnership is changing Seattle, says Perkins Center Director Tali Hairston — and influencing the way
Seattle Pacific students learn to engage the culture around them. “Our vision at the Center,” says Hairston, “is to empower generations of global urban leaders, organizations, and institutions to work together for change by modeling reconciliation and contributing to the community’s health and wholeness.”
Hairston grew up in the Rainier Valley and knows the potential for motivating young leaders there. He was mentored by Harvey Drake, pastor of Emerald City Bible Fellowship and president of Urban Impact, and Drake’s passion for transforming communities inspired him. Hairston came to Seattle Pacific with a vision, and now he’s returning — with the full resources of the University — to his neighborhood, wanting to see it thrive.
Breaking New Ground
For SPU President Philip Eaton, the Perkins Center is not just another ministry. When John Perkins traveled to SPU in 2004 to mark the opening of the Center, it was the fulfillment of a dream for both men.
“It began when Tali Hairston and I went to Jackson, Mississippi, on a SPRINT mission trip at the prodding, pushing, and persistence of a group of wonderful students,” says Eaton. “I had the privilege of taking part in a Bible study taught by John
Perkins, and it was a pivotal moment in my life.”
The trip led to an influential partnership. “Tali, John, and I spoke together and dreamed some big dreams,” Eaton continues.
“We imagined what might happen if we joined Dr. Perkins in this journey of reconciliation: educating leaders, transforming communities, and working to bring about true biblical reconciliation that crosses all the boundaries that divide us. And we imagined what might happen if we did this with the particular mission and resources of a university, especially one that is committed to engaging the culture and changing the world. At the same time, local leaders Gary and Barbara Ames stepped forward with a major gift to fund ethnic minority scholarships.”
The launch of the Perkins Center at SPU, said Perkins in 2004, “put new life into the wings of holistic Christian missions.”
In the spirit of Perkins’ ministry, the Perkins Center provides a neutral ground where leaders from different churches, communities, and cultures can plan the work of reconciliation. Hairston sees power in this approach. “We’re not coming from within the church as a denominational movement. We’re a university, an ecumenical endeavor, covering many levels of institutional, cultural, and leadership engagement. That allows us to be more innovative.”
This “ecumenical endeavor” provides essential resources to churches who have been working to kindle reconciliation in the community since before Hairston ever came to SPU. Fifteen years ago, Drake met with five other black pastors to discuss how they might work together and with urban and suburban white pastors. Today, they meet regularly for prayer and collaboration as a multiracial coalition of more than 50 Seattle pastors.
From Drake’s perspective, the Perkins Center plays a key role in the coalition’s efforts. “By virtue of its stance and reputation in the community, SPU can call people to things that some of us cannot,” he says. “And the University has the clout to bring people in that we can’t bring in ourselves. … I don’t know many
universities that focus on reconciliation and community
development. I’m grateful for SPU’s partnership.”
The Perkins Legacy
It was John Perkins who inspired Drake and Paul Olver, pastor of Rainier Avenue Free Methodist Church, to merge their outreach programs and form Urban Impact. “Harvey Drake and I were both setting out to implement Perkins’ model of ministry,” explains Olver. “That’s what gave us this common ground. He’s a very inspiring figure. When John Perkins comes to town, people come together.”
Olver says that SPU’s Perkins Center has “opened up a platform” for ministry organizations to take Perkins’ message and methods to a broader audience. “Partnerships with John Perkins and Seattle Pacific bring greater credibility and legitimacy to our efforts,” he says.
Through Perkins’ eyes, reconciliation is about much more than resolving racial conflicts — it’s about people restoring a right relationship with God, and a right relationship with
their neighbors. Perkins describes the components of his
vision as the “Three Rs”: reconciliation, relocation, and
redistribution. These three fundamentals now form the
foundation for Christian community development efforts
across the country.
Prince Charles Davis, program director for Emerald City Outreach Ministries, heard Perkins speak at SPU. “Knowing
the ‘Three Rs’ … that’s one thing. Hearing them from the founder, and knowing what he’s gone through, has inspired
and motivated us,” he says.
“The difference in John Perkins’ approach is that it is holistic,” explains Drake. “Civil rights efforts address issues plaguing a community, but in a Christian community development movement you address both the physical and the spiritual issues. Sharing the gospel is as important as helping a kid make the grade or getting somebody off drugs. Without the gospel, you don’t see the kind of heart change that will bring about transformation.”,br>
Drake’s passion for transformation has always been personal, but never more than now. Terren, the young man injured in the summer drive-by shooting, is his son.
Students Serving in an “Unchurched” City
In the United States, Washington state has the highest percentage of people who say they have no religion, and Seattle — one of the nation’s most beautiful and progressive cities — is also one of the most “unchurched.”
So no one expects SPU’s Perkins Center to have a safe or easy time of it. “The Christian community here is a smaller percentage of the total,” Olver observes. “So we really need to work together, or we’re going to be fighting over scraps.”
“We wanted to apply Seattle’s innovative, entrepreneurial mindset to some very difficult issues,” says Hairston. “That’s what Seattle does. That’s what we’re doing.”
That mindset is all about partnerships. Says Olver: “There are some amazing people in this community who have a broader vision for the kingdom. They’re not trying to start their own thing, but rather enhance other people’s ministries.”
Some of those people are Seattle Pacific students who are working on the front lines. Cora Olson, a senior sociology major at SPU, found an opportunity through a Perkins Center program called Urban Involvement. For two years, she worked as a mentor and tutor in a center for refugees, immigrants, and low-income families. The agency isn’t a Christian organization, but Urban Involvement helped prepare Olson to model Christ’s love in that context of cross-cultural service.
Olson insists, “Seattle may be an unchurched city, but it’s still a city that is on God’s heart. I don’t think God is worried about statistics or percentages.”
Charity? Don’t call it that. In Olson’s work with elementary and middle-school students from Somalia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and elsewhere, she’s practicing an important aspect of Perkins’ vision for reconciliation: lasting personal relationships.
“The Perkins Center teaches that the key to reconciliation is relationship,” she says. “Ongoing relationship. Christ came and developed relationships with people, and he sacrificed his own life in order to deepen our relationship with God. He wants a relationship, and he’s willing to sacrifice to create that relationship.” ,br>
To cultivate relationships with her students, Olson even learned a little Arabic.
Through a partnership with World Relief, SPU students learn the stories of area refugees.
Churches in Collaboration
If only Martin Luther King Jr. could have seen this: Caucasian, Asian, Samoan, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and African-American Christians, all worshipping together in one Seattle congregation. As diverse in denominational affiliation as they were in cultural background, these congregants represented Evangelical Covenant, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, and nondenominational churches.
And John Perkins was there. In 2007, the Perkins Center helped organize three multicultural, multidenominational gatherings.
“It can be pretty confusing to bring different cultures together for worship,” Hairston laughs. “Who sings? What do we sing? How do we sing it? We agree to sing in the style of the congregation hosting each event, because this is the context we find ourselves in. This is the approach that reconciliation takes: It’s incarnational.”
Perkins’ visits to SPU and local churches have been an inspiration for many to invest in different forms of ministry. As more and more “guests” come to the Perkins Center table, an exciting future of new collaborations is taking shape — one church at a time.
When Lynne Faris Blessing, associate pastor at Seattle’s Bethany Presbyterian Church, attended these gatherings,
she spoke with other pastors and leaders, such as Pastor Allen
Belton of University Presbyterian Church, who shared her desire to further the work of reconciliation in Seattle. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What is your church doing? Could we collaborate?’” she recalls. “The Holy Spirit fanned that flame and got us excited about pulling together as a community.” With cooperation from the Perkins Center, Faris Blessing and Belton went on to form the Puget Sound Alliance for Racial Reconciliation and Justice.
“The local congregation is the place where reconciliation happens,” says Hairston. “We’re committed to working with local pastors, boards of elders, the Presbytery, and the Free Methodist Conference. Instead of flying at 30,000 feet and not touching the ground, we’ve decided that we may start at 30,000 feet, but we touch the ground at the local church.”
New Generations of Reconcilers
“It takes 15 years to see a new generation raised up,” says Drake, a member of SPU’s Board of Trustees. “If we want to make change, we need to start now.”
Christian leaders in Seattle are already investing in future generations of reconcilers. The Perkins Center sponsors an ongoing intensive Urban Youth Leadership Academy that focuses entirely on equipping young people from Seattle to be leaders in the ministry of reconciliation in their own neighborhoods.
In September, the Perkins Center joined World Vision, The Salvation Army, Scripture Union, and Union Gospel Mission to host “Arise 2:19,” a conference for community leaders who work in diverse contexts, equipping and training them to mentor a multiracial, multicultural population of urban youth in Seattle. The event drew its name from Lamentations 2:19: “Arise, cry aloud in the night at the beginning of the night watches; pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord; lift your hands to him for the life of your little ones who are faint because of hunger at the head of every street.”
The work of reconciliation ultimately boils down to this, says Hairston. “There is nothing more important we can do than equip young people who will lead in the transformation of
Back at Day Camp
Meanwhile, back at Urban Impact’s summertime day camp,
two SPU graduates, Kerri Kline ’08 and Kerry Sutton ’08,
collect the storybooks and supervise the play of some of these future leaders. “I didn’t have positive role models until middle school,” Sutton remembers. “My dad didn’t teach me how to be a man. I made a lot of mistakes … but I learned from my Young Life leaders. These kids don’t have a lot of positive role models. Especially the young men. So that’s my focus.”
Nicole, a mother of three, arrives to pick up her sons. Working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at two different jobs, and caring for her ailing mother, she is grateful that her boys have a safe place to spend the day — especially the youngest, who is autistic. “They‘re learning how to overcome obstacles here,” she says. “They’re learning that everybody’s different. … They’re learning how to work together.” Her oldest has already made the transition from day-camper to student intern.
In a way, events like this are a continuation of John Perkins’ life story. His vision is helping young people such as William and his friends find right relationship with God and others, overcome the forces that threaten their futures, and go on to serve their community.
While the children practice a dance in the sanctuary, a neighborhood teenager named Jayvon lounges in a pew and watches from beneath the brim of his baseball cap. He says he’s seen one of the children walking down Othello Street late at night. Shaking his head, he notes, “Othello is a dangerous place.”
He pauses, then adds, “I wish stuff like this had been offered to me when I was little.”
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