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Autumn 2004 | Volume 27, Number 4 | Features

The Call to Reconciliation

New Center at SPU Draws Inspiration From the Life and Legacy of John Perkins

"Go and be reconciled to your brother.”It is a strong, simply worded exhortation that comes from Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells the crowds that it is wrong to present gifts to God while harboring hateful grudges toward the people who live next door. In The Message, the translation of this passage is equally pointed: “Go to this friend and make things right.”

John Perkins was keynote speaker for the President’s Symposium on Reconciliation, held October 20. The day also marked the official opening of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development at SPU.

Be reconciled. Make things right. Today, the same words come from the mouth of John Perkins, a man whom Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton calls “one of the important evangelical voices to come out of the civil rights movement.” Internationally known for his civil rights leadership and decades of groundbreaking work in Christian community development, Perkins is the author of nine books, including the autobiography Let Justice Roll Down (Regal Books). It is the story of his own reconciliation with God and neighbors, even the white Mississippi neighbors who beat and nearly killed him out of racial hatred only five years before the book was published in 1976.

Fast-forward nearly 30 years. On October 20, 2004, Perkins visited SPU for the President’s Symposium on Reconciliation and the opening of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. The Center is a first-of-its-kind partnership and what Perkins describes as “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.” The heart of Seattle Pacific’s diversity initiative, it will coordinate the University’s work to become a place of reconciliation and embrace.

Speaking at the Symposium, Gordon Murphy, executive director of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), characterized Perkins as a “national treasure” who has devoted his life to serving the poor. Tom Vander Ark of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recounted how Perkins, a longtime family friend, modeled compassion for the disenfranchised: “John taught us that to make a difference you need both anger and hope — anger that things are not right, and hope that they can be made right.” And Perkins’ youngest daughter, Elizabeth, told the audience that Seattle Pacific is now a partner in her father’s dream of racial reconciliation.

Following the Symposium and opening ceremony for the Perkins Center, SPU students, faculty, staff, and visitors participated in the Day of Common Learning, further exploring the topic of reconciliation in 16 seminars as varied as “The Challenge of Reconciling Leadership,” “Lessons From Vietnam,” “Cultural Reconciliation at the Movies,” and “John Newton: Amazing Grace in the Pulpit.” The day closed with Perkins addressing a standing-room-only crowd from the pulpit of nearby First Free Methodist Church.

To John Perkins, reconciliation is “the centerpiece of the gospel.” He lets his listeners know that he was born to talk about the subject. “It’s the all-inclusive message of the gospel,” he says with fervor. “But what’s happened to us is that we’ve made it secondary. We’ve so neglected it and played the race card wrong until reconciliation has become almost alien to us. Now we think all we’ve got to do is tack it on to the gospel, like it’s not so important.”

Reconciliation is so important to Perkins that it has permeated his life’s work. It fuels his ceaseless efforts to break down racial, cultural, and economic barriers so that opportunity is available to “all God’s people.” It influenced his founding of Mendenhall Ministries in Mendenhall, Mississippi; the Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, California; the CCDA in Chicago, Illinois; the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development in Jackson, Mississippi; and Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson. And it is the subject of many of his books, including He’s My Brother: Former Racial Foes Offer Strategy for Reconciliation (Chosen Books, 1994), Resurrecting Hope (Regal Books, 1995), and A Time to Heal (Baker Books, 1997).

Unfortunately, says Perkins, separatism still exists, even among Christians. “We’re seeking comfort within our ethnic groups,” he explains. “Sure, we get along with others, but we ought to really get to know them. God came into our hearts through love. Now we need to love those people out there. That’s why the Perkins Center at SPU is so exciting. It’s going to be a bridge.”

Today, Perkins and his wife of 53 years, Vera Mae, live in Jackson, Mississippi, where they are working at one of their newest ventures: the Spencer Perkins Center for Reconciliation and Youth Development. “We’re sitting on eight acres of land with activities for young people like basketball, baseball, Bible studies, leadership training, and work groups,” he says. “We’re committed to raising a generation of young people all over the country who have a sense of justice and reconciliation.”

Amazingly, all of this is happening just a few miles from the jail where Perkins was beaten severely more than 30 years ago. Some of his tormentors still live nearby. “Lying in a hospital bed at the time, I thought I would die unless I could forgive those who had hurt me,” he says. “I tried to cover up my hate, but every time I opened up my Bible, my eyes fell on that place that says unless you forgive others, God will not forgive you.”

For Perkins, the call to reconciliation is just as real today as it was then. “As Christians, we are commanded to love all people, he says. “In my life, there was no question about it — I knew I had to be a reconciler.”


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