John M. Perkins has not had an easy life.
“I grew up in Mississippi. My brother was killed after World War II. My mother died of starvation,” Perkins said May 14 in Peoria, Illinois, at the South Side Mission banquet that drew Free Methodists from the North Central, Gateway and Wabash conferences through the leadership of Peoria First Free Methodist Church Senior Pastor B. Elliott Renfroe.
Perkins did not become a Christian until adulthood. “At 27, I came to know Jesus Christ because of my young son going to a Good News Club and hearing the central message of the gospel,” he told the crowd at the Peoria Civic Center.
Perkins is a third-grade dropout, but he has written more than 10 books while becoming a distinguished visiting professor at Seattle Pacific University that is home to the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. He has earned honorary doctorates from Seattle Pacific and Spring Arbor universities along with several colleges. He has served on the boards of Spring Arbor University and Christian organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals (which includes the Free Methodist Church – USA) and Prison Fellowship.
“God is raising up a new generation of leadership to lead — not just black leaders. Blacks can’t do it. Whites can’t do it. We need each other. We need to do it together, and if we do it together, you’ll see what happens when God is providing,” Perkins said. “Racial reconciliation is a terrible lie, because there’s only one race — the human race.”
Perkins’ comment in Peoria should not be interpreted as Perkins opposing reconciliation. In fact, Perkins is the founder of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for Justice, Reconciliation & Community Development. He and his wife, Vera Mae, moved in 1960 with their children from a comfortable life in California back to his home state of Mississippi where he believed God wanted them to serve. The family spent the next 12 years starting a day-care center, a youth program, a church, an adult education program, a cooperative farm, a thrift store, a housing repair ministry and a health center (fmchr.ch/spujp).
In his new book, “One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love,” Perkins writes, “I never imagined when I left Mississippi at the age of 16 that God would bring me back with a changed heart toward white people. I left Mississippi with hate in my heart. God brought me back with a heart that was overflowing with His love. I had been reconciled to Christ, and He prepared me to return to Mississippi to be reconciled to my white brothers and sisters. Even today when I think back on this, I am overwhelmed at the transforming power of God. God is the ultimate reconciler” (fmchr.ch/jponeblood).
In the book’s introduction, “The Purpose Driven Life” author and Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren notes that the 88-year-old African-American civil rights leader “has lived a life of ministry dedicated to the cause of reconciliation. He has literally inspired thousands of people to live out their lives in service of the gospel through evangelism and community development” (fmchr.ch/warrenob).
Perkins’ efforts to reconcile with white people might seem surprising, because his brother was killed by a white police officer, and white police officers jailed and nearly beat him to death in 1970 after he participated in a civil rights demonstration.
“We’ve got to walk in forgiveness,” said Perkins, who quoted 1 John 1:7 to the diverse Peoria audience, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
As a longtime peacemaker, Perkins continues to call the children of God to cross the lines of our divided society and work together.
“We can do this. We can share our resources — our lives together,” Perkins said. “We’re so selfish and individualistic that it’s addicted us to ourselves. You’ve got to have other folks in your life.”
Perkins called Christian leaders from across the United States together in 1989 and formed the Christian Community Development Association with a mission “to inspire, train and connect Christians who seek to bear witness to the kingdom of God by reclaiming and restoring under-resourced communities” (ccda.org).
Perkins’ message even has found an audience on rock music radio. Perkins inspired Switchfoot’s song “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues),” which reached No. 7 on Billboard magazine’s Alternative Songs chart and No. 15 on the Hot Rock Songs chart in October 2010. The lyrics state, “John Perkins said it right, ‘Love is the final fight.’” (Visit fmchr.ch/jmpblues for the song’s music video, which includes clips of Perkins speaking along with scenes from the civil rights movement.)
Perkins knows his remaining time on earth is short.
“I’ve got two sons in heaven,” Perkins said. “I’m looking forward to meeting my mother who died when I was 7 months old.”
Visit spu.edu/depts/perkins to learn more about Perkins and the work of the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development.
Jeff Finley is the executive editor of Light + Life, which he joined in 2011 after working as a reporter and an editor for Sun-Times Media. He also serves as a Wabash Conference delegate from John Wesley Free Methodist Church in Indianapolis.