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Winter 2009 | Volume 32, Number 1 | Features

Perkins’ Story Inspires Student Response to Community Needs

By Hope McPherson []

Johanna Portinga
Johanna Portinga gets a manicure from two of the children at Oasis Children’s Ministry in Shoreline, where she is team leader.

Since the mid-1970s, whether tutoring youngsters at Union Gospel Mission Kids’ Club and Mekong Kids Learning Center, or sharing a meal with homeless families at the Sacred Heart Shelter, Seattle Pacific University students have served in a host of Seattle-area organizations through Urban Involvement.

Now a program of SPU’s John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development, Urban Involvement gives feet and hands (and listening ears) to what John Perkins began living out when he accepted Christ in 1957 at the age of 27 and later chronicled in his autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down.

“Perkins’ story highlights the importance of a holistic, Christ-centered response to poverty and injustice on the part of Christians everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status, culture, or ethnic background,” says Owen Sallee, 1999 SPU alumnus, and coordinator for Urban Involvement. “Perkins’ story is important for Seattle Pacific students because it highlights the practical application of heartfelt faith to issues of community well-being and social justice.”

For the last four years, students Cora Olson and Johanna Portinga have seen Perkins’ approach to Christian community development in action. Olson, a senior majoring in sociology, discovered many options for engagement in the community when she came to Seattle Pacific. “I’ve studied Let Justice Roll Down and others of John Perkins’ writings and am a part of Urban Involvement student leadership in the Perkins Center,” says the Salem, Oregon, native. “His principles — such as relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution — are truths that don’t know the bounds of culture or time. These are truths that Christ modeled.”

A senior psychology major, Johanna Portinga has worked with Urban Involvement for three years, two of them as team leader for Oasis Children’s Ministry at Shoreline Free Methodist Church in Shoreline, Washington. “During my college years, I’ve seen several misconceptions of poverty, and these misconceptions often lead to prejudice,” says Portinga, a native of Welch, Minnesota. “In response, I’ve gotten involved with ministries around campus that work to inform the community about poverty and Christlike responses to those suffering from homelessness.”

Today, Portinga’s Urban Involvement experience is even shaping her future career. “My dream is to work with people on the streets who suffer from forms of psychosis,” she explains. “I’ve learned that there is never a simple answer to ‘fixing problems’ in society. … This was evident in the book Let Justice Roll Down, because John Perkins was always coming up with creative ways to engage local leadership.”

Because Perkins is the “face” of SPU’s reconciliation initiative, SPU students read his autobiography in other contexts, too. In Winter Quarter 2008, economics and theology came together in the course “Community Economic Development.” As part of the class, adjunct faculty member Romanita Hairston led students in an exploration of Perkins’ economic development models.

This autumn, Professor of Theological Studies Kerry Dearborn taught Let Justice Roll Down to incoming freshmen in her University Seminar, “The Quest: Pilgrimage of Faith Through Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and Perkins.” “My goal was to introduce students to an internationally respected Christian leader whose life reflects God’s call to be an agent of change and forgiveness no matter the hardship and cost,” she says.

“I also wanted new students to know who John Perkins is as a key figure here at SPU.”

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