By MARILYN TINNIN
Civil Rights activist, Bible teacher, community developer, author, and modern folk hero, Dr. John M. Perkins turns 86 this year. The co-founder of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation (JVMPF) and the founder of the Christian Community Development Association, has been in the business of ministering to the poor, spreading the true gospel of Jesus Christ, working toward authentic racial reconciliation, and creating neighborhood revival models here and around the world for 56 years. With 14 books to his credit, 13 Honorary Doctorate degrees, and a resume that includes serving on the Board of Directors for World Vision and Prison Fellowship, there are few men on earth who have worked as tirelessly or with as much selfless passion for others as John Perkins.
As outspoken and sharp as ever, he is training three of his eight children, daughters Priscilla, Elizabeth, and Deborah, to help him “finish strong” and to carry on the work that he has given his life to. Dr. Perkins’ grew up dirt poor during the days of “Jim Crow” and decades before the Civil Rights movement was born. His life story, A Time to Heal by Stephen Berk, is well worth a read. Dr. Perkins left Mississippi as a teenager and built a prosperous life in California. He probably would have stayed there forever except that the Lord got hold of him in much the same way He got hold of Moses. As Moses had to return to Egypt, John Perkins had to return to Mississippi.
John, along with his wife, Vera Mae, and their growing family came back to Mississippi in 1960. He wanted to be part of a solution to the poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of vision he knew existed among his fellow African-Americans in the Deep South. He also wanted to work on genuine reconciliation between White and Black because the way he understood the gospel seemed tremendously at odds with the social structure here. He believed then as now that transformed neighborhoods begin with transformed hearts, and transformed hearts lead to productivity and measurable results.
He has since been called a visionary. He is that, but he is also incredibly pragmatic. Christian Community Development, the John Perkins’ model, began as a grassroots movement. The people who actually have a stake in the community are trained in how to contribute and lead, and in turn, train the next generation to do the same. It has been tried with great success in urban neighborhoods in Seattle, Pasadena, Peoria, and around the world. Christians of different races, diverse economic means, bound by their love for Christ and their desire to restore a deteriorating neighborhood, have brought renewal and raised up indigenous leaders whose continued presence maintains stability and gradually changes a demographic.
John and Vera Mae began their first experiment in 1960 in Mendenhall. They knew that to be effective, they needed a holistic approach. Within twelve years, they had managed to build a church, a gymnasium, a health clinic, a day-care center, a thrift store, a youth program, a housing repair ministry, and an adult education program. Mendenhall Ministries continues to thrive today under leadership John helped train.
Such transformation takes more than funds. Money by itself does very little long term. It does take enormous energy and commitment. It takes building long-term relationships and real working together. It takes years, and it takes living the gospel like the First Century church. Although results are not quick, when the children in a poverty-stricken environment are nurtured, loved, mentored, and shown that there is opportunity for a better life filled with purpose and meaning, they begin to progress in a positive direction. You could say they blossom. After school programs, summer camps, leadership training and development are all a part of the Perkins model.
As daughter Priscilla says, “Reconciliation is not an event. It is a lifestyle.”
At the present time, a large group of members from several area churches—Pinelake, Broadmoor, and New Horizon—are committed supporters of the JVMPF and are learning from John how to do Christian Community Development. As our culture becomes more secular and our families become more fractured, Dr. Perkins’ Christian Community Development model is something that will be incredibly valuable for church leaders to understand if they are going to confront the challenges that the culture will continue to create.
The Perkins Center at 1917 Robinson Street in Jackson is home to a compound with the capabilities of hosting large groups for the day or overnight. Daughter Elizabeth says, “What we want to do now is to be that training center that brings together people who live in a specific neighborhood and help them see a vision for building their neighborhoods. We want the people who live there to lead.” Not only can they host a large group, they can also travel to other places to teach others how to do Christian Community Development.
Over the next 18 months, as his daughters take over more and more within the foundation, Dr. Perkins will continue speaking engagements all over the country teaching others about his Christian Community Development model and preaching the Gospel. He points out to me Jesus’ words in Luke 2:11. “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to ALL people.” He emphasizes the “all.”
And then he gives me one last nugget of his wisdom with credit to Henry Ford. “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
For more information, visit jvmpf.org.