The Perkins Center: creating a path for reconciliation
In the early summer months of 2000, violence erupted in the streets of Seattle. The incident was scarred by racial tensions, causing horrified surprise in some quarters. The reports were full of heartfelt handwringing. Could racial hatred actually be simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode in our beloved city? How could this be? Does anyone have a vision, not just to address these problems, but to offer a path toward reconciliation?
I remember stepping up to the podium that September for the annual State of the University Address. I came with great hope for SPU, of course, but I also came with a heavy heart. At one point in my speech, I sounded out as clearly as I knew how: “We must figure out, as a Christian university, how to come to the table with help for our city. What do we have to offer?” And if we couldn’t answer the question at that moment, as I most certainly could not, how should we begin searching in earnest for answers?
“John Perkins changed my life. His model and friendship gave me the gift of soul searching.
Where have I fallen short? What more might I contribute? How could I become an effective leader to pay close attention to the issues of race in our community?“
—Philip W. Eaton
We were all working hard in those early years of my tenure at SPU to articulate our vision of “engaging the culture, changing the world.” My charge that morning was, “OK, this is the way we engage the culture. If we do not address these racial tensions in our city, in our own university community, in our own lives, we know nothing about engaging the culture. This is our test. This is a key measure of our language.”
In the months that followed, a group of students began coming to my office with a request. They were planning a trip to Jackson, Mississippi, over Christmas break to support the work of John Perkins in his neighborhood. Tali Hairston, then in the Office of Campus Ministries, was leading the group. They invited me to go along. I told the students I just had too much on my schedule already. They persisted, revisiting my office a number of times.
Finally, I cleared my plate and said, “Yes, I’d love to go with you to Jackson.” And off we went. This trip turned out to be one of those conversion moments for me; one of those times where God calls us to see things in very different ways. I vividly remember sitting with the students each morning, in fact, early in the morning, at the feet of the great John Perkins.
He opened the Scriptures for me with power and freshness. John Perkins had known suffering, violence in his family, crushing poverty in his community, all of it powered by racism. Nevertheless, John poured out a vision of reconciliation, healing, and joy — despite the suffering — a vision deeply anchored in the transforming love of Jesus Christ.
How could this man who had suffered so much not be bitter? He had so much to be angry about, and yet, here he was teaching us about joy. He was “a new creature,” he would often say over the years, because Jesus loved him, along with all the children of the world.
“Could I possibly become some small part of a dream for reconciliation on our campus and in our city?”
—Philip W. Eaton
During that visit to Jackson, I began thinking, I wonder if John would be willing to come to our campus, maybe regularly, to help us shape a vision for reconciliation for our campus, perhaps a vision we could model for the city of Seattle? Could we create a regular lecture series once a year, maybe more, where he could come and teach the Scriptures, alongside our own biblical scholars perhaps? And then the outlines began to take shape: Maybe we might even establish a center in John’s name! John and Tali and I sat in a conference room in Jackson over that week and dreamed and schemed what such a center for reconciliation might look like.
I remember sitting one night in my rental car, having dropped off John at his home after dinner. It was raining, dark, and quiet, drops pelting against the window. I began to feel this heavy tug on my heart, recognizing that I was sitting in a place where blood was spilled in the soil beneath me. Some of it was John Perkins’ blood. I felt overwhelmed to be sitting in this hallowed place. Could I possibly become some small part of a dream for reconciliation on our campus and in our city? We had much to learn yet, but that’s where it all began, out of our great need to know so much more in matters of race and violence and hatred and how to craft a powerful, healing vision for reconciliation.
We didn’t have all the answers when we began, that’s for sure, but we plunged in. Soon after our Jackson trip, we hosted on our campus a conference on reconciliation, through the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for 13 Christian universities, all led by their presidents. We hosted a President’s Symposium and Day of Common Learning focused on reconciliation.
“We had much to learn yet, but that’s where it all began, out of our great need to know so much more in matters of race and violence and hatred and how to craft a powerful, healing vision for reconciliation.”
—Philip W. Eaton
We invited 400 students from historically underrepresented minority groups for a national conference on our campus. We found funding to shoot a film of Perkins’ life, Let Justice Roll On. We worked hard to hire people of color on the faculty. We recruited heavily for students of color, dramatically changing our percentage. We received a gift for scholarships from Gary and Barbara Ames. There were so many people — students, faculty, staff, trustees, alums, community leaders — who eagerly came alongside these efforts. The campus was energized. Our desire was change for our own lives, for our campus climate, for the lives of our students, for our city, and the world.
John Perkins changed my life. His model and friendship gave me the gift of soul searching. Where have I fallen short? What more might I contribute? How could I become an effective leader to pay close attention to the issues of race in our community? Who were the people among us, and in our city, from whom I had much to learn?
I watch from the sidelines now, but I am pleased to see the heart of the vision of the Perkins Center carries on to this day. I know the leaders of SPU today still carry that same desire to bring John Perkins’ kind of gospel into the campus community and into the city. I pray for them often this will be so.
In the end, this is what we learned from John Perkins: It is reconciliation, not hatred and division. It is love, not bitterness. Never turning away from suffering, it is joy out of sorrow.
In February 1996, Philip W. Eaton was appointed the ninth president of Seattle Paciﬁc University. He is now president emeritus. His most recent book is Sing Us a Song of Joy: Saying What We Believe in an Age of Unbelief. He serves on a number of boards, continues to write, speak, teach, consult, mentor young leaders, and give leadership in the church. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Pasadena, California, enjoying the sunshine and loving their three married children and seven wonderful grandchildren.