Skip to main content

Features

For John Perkins, it's black and white

On his 50th wedding anniversary, supporters of a civil-rights giant are honoring the life of a man committed to racial reconciliation.

Thirty-four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., news headlines still reflect racial tension: A 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church-bombing case ended just last month with the conviction of a defiant 71-year-old ex-Klansman who claimed he was going to jail "for nothing." His former wife testified he "lit the fuse" of the bomb that killed four girls: three 14 years old, one 11. Last year, rioters looted Cincinnati streets after police shot an unarmed black man; in Pennsylvania, a mayor wept as he was handcuffed for allegedly giving the order to murder blacks during 1960 race riots. But hope for peace is rising in one of the states most divided during the civil-rights era-Mississippi, where one man has united whites and blacks under the banner of Christ-based community renewal.

The unlikely herald of this separate peace is John Perkins, a third-grade dropout born on a sharecropper's farm in 1930. After watching Mississippi police fatally shoot his older brother in 1946, he fled the state and returned 14 years later only to be brutally beaten by police for participating in a civil-rights march (see sidebar). Despite those painful memories, Mr. Perkins has called for racial reconciliation in line with the teaching of Christ, and that old message has helped Mr. Perkins cross new political lines. His life story was distributed to every Mississippi public school and published by the Anti-Defamation League as part of a racial reconciliation manual. This week, Mr. Perkins's friends and supporters are holding the "Perkins Jubilee," to mark his 72nd birthday, 43rd year in ministry, and the 50th anniversary of his wedding to wife Vera Mae.

Only when men understand that all are sinners equally in need of forgiveness can justice replace racial power struggles, Mr. Perkins says: "Justice asks the question, Who owns the earth? God owns the earth, not blacks or whites. We are all equal stewards of his creation." Under the banner of stewardship, Mr. Perkins retraced his steps through south Mississippi, founding three community centers that unite Christians to care for the poor. WORLD visited those centers on three consecutive days.

John Perkins Foundation Jackson, Miss.

Mr. Perkins carries out his ideas for faith-based social reform on a former slave plantation that he transformed into a seven-acre community center with a children's park, outdoor chapel, and yellow clapboard offices surrounded by white picket fences. In monthly seminars and through the Christian Community Development Association (a nationwide network of 500 Christian organizations), he trains Christians to transform their own communities.

7:30 a.m.: Mr. Perkins leads a morning Bible study for college-student volunteers. "Why were you born? Ask yourself that," he commands, staring at 12 students assembled around a wooden table. "When I was young, I began to ask why I was born-why my mother died and I survived," he tells the students. "I believe that God intended for me to provide leadership for the poor." Then he issues a challenge: Provide leadership that spurs people to action instead of leaving them in a trap of dependency.

"The black church hasn't responded to that challenge. We have too many 'victim leaders' who say we should blame others," he says, adding that the only way to escape the blame trap is to understand that blacks, whites, and people of other races all require forgiveness.

9 a.m.: After Bible study, Mr. Perkins takes WORLD on a tour of the neighborhood. Rows of vine-covered oak trees do little to protect small brick homes from the sweltering 90-degree heat. Families without air-conditioning sit on couches they have squeezed onto front porches. In the center of the neighborhood is a plywood chapel recently erected by volunteers. Mr. Perkins designed the chapel as part of a community playground in memory of his oldest son Spencer, who died four years ago of a sudden heart attack. "His new birth began my new life," muses Mr. Perkins, explaining that his son's salvation led to his conversion (see sidebar). For that reason, Mr. Perkins includes children's Bible clubs in every community program. "Black-on-black crime has its roots in self-hatred. But we can help children's self-esteem by introducing them to Christ."

12 p.m.: Back at the Perkinses' blue-and-yellow Victorian "guest house," some 20 business owners and pastors hunch over plates of lasagna for the Urban Economic Renewal Leadership luncheon-Mr. Perkins's way of creating dialogue between local clergy and business leaders. The guest list includes several pastors, a computer consultant, the owner of a paralegal firm, and head of Jackson State University's business department. "It's great that Habitat for Humanity comes to build houses, but how come you see mostly white people building them? Where in the heck are all the black people?" asks Ben Minnifield, a young magazine publisher who identifies himself as Mr. Perkins's protégé. "Part of being a believer is becoming a better steward." At least one guest leaves inspired. The paralegal, Georgia McCune, says she plans to pass out fliers at her church inviting people to financial-planning classes.

4 p.m.: Good News Bible club begins at the Voice of Calvary Fellowship Church, founded by Mr. Perkins in 1970. Some 30 children assemble on the stage of an old-fashioned sanctuary decorated with varnished pews and purple stained-glass windows. The meeting begins with energetic worship and then a recitation of the weekly Bible verse. Afterward, their teacher, Pete Almeida ("Mr. Pete") reads about a boy who feels guilty for his sin-stealing. "What is sin?" one student asks. "Sin is anything that we say or do that displeases God," respond 20 other students in unison.

Voice of Calvary Jackson, Miss.

A cream-colored brick house with a sign depicting a black hand and a white hand clasped together: that's the Voice of Calvary (VOC) community organization that Mr. Perkins founded in 1972. VOC now uses its $1 million budget to provide summer youth camps, housing-development programs, and health care for low-income residents in the West Jackson area. In an effort to foster indigenous leadership, Mr. Perkins requires the center to raise its own support and form an independent board of directors in the community.

9 a.m.: At the VOC Family Health Center, patients listen to gospel music as they wait in a lobby decorated with cherry-wood furniture and leather-covered chairs. A wooden "prayer box" on the coffee table invites visitors to write down personal prayer requests so the staff can pray for them. The clinic treats some 5,000 low-income, uninsured patients a year.

This morning the waiting room bustles with seven patients, including Paulette Wilkerson, whose young adult son was fatally shot this year. Mrs. Wilkerson, who was financially dependent on her son, came to the clinic for help in overcoming depression and insomnia. A family practitioner prescribes Prozac and Psalm 91. Writing a verse down on a prescription pad, she instructs Mrs. Wilkerson to recite it three times a day. "There is more to us than flesh and blood," the doctor says. "Sometimes if we address the spiritual root of the problem, the physical symptoms are alleviated."

3 p.m.: A pink fluorescent poster displaying the Bible verse Romans 3:23-"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"-welcomes visitors to VOC's People's Housing and Family Development office. Four full-time employees purchase old homes to remodel and sell to poor families. Nine out of 10 local residents rent their homes, and by creating more homeowners, VOC hopes to encourage more stewardship within the community. "People see neighborhoods deteriorate after white flight and assume it's a racial problem," says VOC director, Phillip Reed. "But it's not a racial problem; it's an ownership problem. When a neighborhood goes from owners to renters, there is less stability and less responsibility."

Two blocks north in the dilapidated neighborhood of Olin Park, men wearing sleeveless T-shirts and carrying bag-covered beer bottles wander past a row of tottering gray shacks. At the end of the row stands one bright yellow house with perfectly shaped shrubbery. It belongs to Mrs. Willie Tobias, an 85-year-old woman who became a homeowner for the first time two years ago. "I like having my own home, but it also means I've got to fix everything myself," says Mrs. Tobias, who sought VOC's help after she could no longer afford to pay her previous landowner.

VOC helps new owners like Mrs. Tobias take responsibility by requiring them to attend eight-hour homeowner seminars and monthly financial-counseling sessions. New homeowners can also earn credit points by joining a neighborhood association or keeping a specified amount in their savings account. For 200 points (awarded in 25-point increments) they receive $200 to pay off debts. Since its inception, Voice of Calvary has remodeled and sold more than 200 homes to Jackson-area families.

6:30 p.m.: Mr. Reed drives 40 miles south to the Hinds County prison farm, where some 200 prisoners earn their keep by raising vegetables and providing manual labor. Every Tuesday he leads a 12-week, biblically based financial course for prisoners. Dressed in green uniforms with locker-room keys dangling from their necks, 10 inmates file into wooden chapel pews at 7 p.m. They begin with a recitation of 1 Corinthians 4:2, a verse about stewardship. All 10 then drop to their knees for prayer: "Oh Lord Jesus, thank you for providing these men to help me," prays an inmate.

The course represents the first cooperative effort between the county and John Perkins to put a dent in the recidivism rate-the frequency with which ex-convicts commit new crimes that send them back to prison. "Our system often sets people up to fail," said Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin. "We were sending people who just served a 10-year prison sentence back to the street with nothing but $50 in their pocket and no support system. There's a lot of folk that pay lip service to the gospel-they like to come in and preach to a captive audience, but once they're released their interest in the inmates ends." Last year, the sheriff approached Mr. Perkins with a proposal: County officials would host a voluntary Bible study, if the Perkins Foundation would provide mentors and a support system for newly released prisoners.

Dubbing it "Inside Out," they launched the first pilot program last April. Volunteer Bible study leaders use workbooks and tapes donated by Crown Ministries to teach prisoners how to manage their money. Those who graduate from the 12-week course are paired with church mentors who help them find a job and a home once they leave prison.

In July, 30-year-old Phillip Brown became the program's first graduate. A few weeks before his release, dressed in a crisp white chef's uniform, he shared his story: His trouble began in college where he incurred overwhelming debt with credit cards. Caught in a vicious cycle, he borrowed money to pay the debt and then gambled on Delta riverboats hoping to win money to pay off those loans. Finally, in desperation, he sold drugs to support his wife and 10-month-daughter. He was arrested five years ago for selling drugs to an undercover detective.

"I knew selling drugs was wrong," says Mr. Brown. "But this is the first time I've ever heard that debt was wrong," he says. "All I knew was what I saw-my family and friends had debt and my church didn't teach about it." Upon release from prison, Mr. Brown will receive a church mentor and move into a new home provided by the Perkins Foundation, making mortgage payments on a gradually increasing basis.

Mendenhall Ministries: Mendenhall, Miss.

Hidden in the Piney woods of Simpson County, Mendenhall resembles an antebellum relic. A railroad track next to weathered feed stores still divides the town's black and white residents. On the black side, tiny trailers and wooden homes are scattered along twisting gravel roads. On the white side, quaint red-brick homes surround the town's two-block Main Street, which begins at the railroad and ends at the 1900s-era county seat with a dome-shaped clock tower.

Forty years ago, Mr. Perkins crossed the white side of the tracks to lead a civil-rights march and spent the next few days in jail. Afterward, he turned his first Mendenhall community center into a nationwide model for Christ-based reconciliation. Today, Mendenhall Ministries still provides day care, medical treatment, housing programs, and legal services for some 2,500 residents. It also funds Genesis One-one of the area's only affordable private schools.

9 a.m.: On a two-acre baseball field that serves as the community's only public playground, Genesis One elementary students compete in Hula Hoop contests as part of their end-of-the-year field day. Inside a classroom decorated with handpainted fish murals and alphabet letters printed next to Bible verses, preschoolers begin their morning with a Bible study and a 20-minute phonics lesson.

Housed in yellow concrete buildings with brightly painted blue doors, the school serves as a refuge for 100 preschool through eighth-grade students. Since the town's largest industrial plant moved to Mexico three years ago, many parents drive 40 miles for jobs in Jackson. Without Genesis One, their children would become latchkey kids.

Although tuition is $3,000, most students receive scholarships subsidized through donations to the ministry. Still, parents who cannot afford tuition can sign up for the "parent-work" program. "We are helping them to understand the correlation between work and meeting their needs," says Timothy Keys, president of Mendenhall Ministries. "That way they are not just sitting back and waiting to receive something." Genesis One also provides "summer enrichment programs" that offer job-skills training to teenagers and sports camps for children.

1:30 p.m.: After stopping for some sweet-sauce-covered hot dogs-compliments of field-day volunteers-Mendenhall ministry worker Bea Ross shows WORLD what's on the south side of the tracks-a mixture of rickety shacks and metal trailers interspersed with brightly painted wooden homes that the ministry helped build. "That was the city's answer to requests for a children's recreation center," she says, pointing to a slab of concrete with a basketball goal stuck at the end. As a result, the ministry built a large metal gym with a full-size basketball court, weight room, and snack bar. Open year-round for the community, it doubles twice a month as a community thrift shop. Children's hand-painted murals adorn the gym walls. One picture depicts two stick figures, one black and one white, holding hands as they stand on a railroad track. The track is covered with blood flowing from a nail-pierced hand hovering above the stick figures.

3 p.m.: A dusty white pickup truck with a license plate that says BEEF and a passenger seat full of cabbage pulls in front of Genesis One. Out jumps Chris Schupe-a young, lanky farmer not yet 30 wearing a camouflage baseball hat, blue overalls, and sandcaked boots. As manager of the 120-acre Mendenhall Bible Farm, located six miles from the school, Mr. Schupe raises food for Genesis One school lunches and poor families who pay a small fee for weekly vegetable baskets. He also doubles as a youth mentor.

Today, he picks up Steven, an 11-year-old student who has already experienced more suffering than most people know in a lifetime: Before receiving assistance from Mendenhall Ministries' volunteers, who built him and his single mother a new home, Steven lost an older brother to a house fire. Another brother went to jail for burglary. But for three hours a day, Steven finds solace working with Mr. Schupe.

After a short Bible study, they stroll together through rows of sun-glistened corn stalks and tomatoes. Steven is defensive around strangers, crossing his arms and looking away when asked a question. But when someone compliments the corn, he whispers a shy "thank you," as if taking responsibly for the entire crop. Later, he points to a docile-eyed Jersey cow. "I got a trophy for her," he says. Farm work helps children understand the connection between work and production, explains Mr. Schupe: "Because you are working with creation and living things, there is a rhythm that allows kids to see visible results-if they plant crops well they see them grow, but if they do something wrong they see them die."

6 p.m.: Neighborhood residents gather at the Mendenhall Bible Church for an evening Bible study led by Mr. Perkins's first protégé, Pastor Art Fletcher. Pastor Fletcher says he's simply following the example set 40 years ago when Mr. Perkins spoke at his preparatory school. Back then, Mr. Perkins didn't just speak and leave; he moved into the boys' dormitory and began teaching the 16-year-old Mr. Fletcher about Christ. "What caught my attention was that he talked about a relationship with a person," recalls Pastor Fletcher, now 58. "Before, all I knew was church membership, baptism, and Southern segregation. But when John talked about salvation, I knew that was what I needed-it was the word of God and it was the truth."

- Candi Cushman is an associate editor with Focus on the Family's Citizen magazine

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman