John Perkins continues the conversation
— even in retirement
“The problem of reconciliation in our country and in our churches is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin in the minds of men. This is a God-sized problem. It is one that only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide.” — John Perkins, “One Blood”
“I don’t need all these letters asking me to come and speak,” says 88-year-old John Perkins, sitting in the library of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation on Robinson Street, where he and his family have ministered to west Jackson for decades.
It’s about time for Perkins to rest a bit. For 58 years he has championed civil rights, Christian community development and racial reconciliation and justice by establishing nonprofits, writing several books and, yes, speaking all over the place.
It’s not that Perkins is sick of talking. When well-meaning journalists come visit him, Perkins himself conducts the interview, talking for 30 minutes or more before pausing to say, “Now you can ask me any question you want …”
No, Perkins has a greater responsibility now — his wife, Vera Mae. He needs to spend more time taking care of her at home instead of jetting off to give speeches at universities.
“When Vera Mae had congestive heart failure (12 years ago), I was devastated. She was my partner. I didn’t make any decisions unless she say yeah. She’s been living these last 12 years for me.”
So Perkins has officially resigned from public life, including his membership on the board of the Perkins Foundation, which his daughters Elizabeth, Priscilla and Deborah are now running (his daughter Joanie Potter sits on the board). He’s given up decision-making responsibilities at the Christian Community Development Association, which he co-founded.
“I think this public announcement is gonna make me feel better. … freer,” he said.
“(I’m) wanting to give up the burden of being in charge of other people. I feel a deep burden of having to carry the pain of others in my chest.”
When he was only seven months old, Perkins’ mother died of starvation.
“Now she’s waiting to meet her son (in heaven),” he said.
Perkins’ father abandoned him when he was a child.
“He followed him down the railroad tracks, and his dad got mad at him and told him to go home,” Elizabeth said. “He saw his father when he got grown, but as a child that was his last memory.”
As the grandson of sharecroppers in New Hebron, Perkins experienced plenty of racism toward himself — but then his brother Clyde was killed by a police officer.
This all happened by the time Perkins was 17.
“I imagined the devil with a pitchfork keeping black kids out (of the kingdom),” Perkins said. “(I thought Jesus) hadn’t died for me …”
Perkins moved to southern California in 1947, married Vera Mae, started a family and served in Korea. Then at age 27, he heard the gospel in a fresh way — not from a pastor, but from his son Spencer, who had been attending a Good News Club.
“What got me (was), He loves the little children,” Perkins said. “There were guards keeping kids out of school in Arkansas, Alabama. (But) what we read in the Bible was so different.”
With the love of Christ in his heart and a fire for justice in his belly, Perkins brought his family back to Mendenhall, near New Hebron, in 1960. He wanted to do what was then a strange combination of things: Share the gospel, and work toward racial equality.
“Our system made poor people … separate but unequal. It creates self-hatred, and we tolerate it. Now we shoot ‘em, we profile ‘em. That’s systems (that do that), not just individuals.”
On the other hand, “(I) don’t want to destroy people, or get even,” he said. He wants to change the status quo with love, not with hate.
Perkins stayed busy in the ‘60s: He established what is now Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson; supported voter registration efforts in Simpson County; led a boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall.
His family went on the journey with him. “We went to the white schools in Mendenhall, and we were the first to integrate the schools. We were kinda like sacrificial lambs,” Elizabeth said.
“Every time my mom would take us (to school), the cops would pull her over and hope she had forgotten her driver’s license so they could take her to jail.”
A 1970 protest march in Mendenhall led to Perkins’ own arrest. White police officers beat him and others — “we was tortured,” he said — at the Brandon jail.
This moment came to define much of Perkins’ later ministry: If he’d had a grenade in that jail, he would’ve pulled the pin and killed himself and everyone else, he said. His hatred for those officers — and theirs toward him — was so extreme it scared him.
He has since forgiven those officers and even spoken in Mendenhall and Brandon. Since then, he has preached a gospel of reconciliation that encompasses far more than civil rights or economic opportunity.
The Perkinses relocated to Jackson. Voice of Calvary* started operating thrift stores, health clinics, a housing cooperative and Bible classes. Perkins began writing books and traveling all over to speak.
In 1982, the Perkinses moved back to California. They started the John M. Perkins Foundation (now the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation) for Reconciliation and Development, and the Christian Community Development Association.
In 1996, the Perkinses moved back to Jackson. In 1998, Spencer Perkins — the son who had brought his own father to the faith — died. The Perkins Foundation started a youth center in honor of Spencer.
In all these efforts — economic, spiritual, educational and more — the Perkins family has sought to bring people together for the cause of Christ, and to offer opportunities to those who need them.
Love and friendship
But none of this is possible without friendship. And that’s what Perkins wants to emphasize in this last chapter of his life.
Oh, he’ll still be able to teach seminary courses online. He’s writing books. He might speak every once in a while, if you’re within driving distance and he really wants to.
But he mentions multiple times — not on accident, either — his 5:30 a.m. Bible study on Tuesdays. He wants people to attend it. He wants folks from all over the country and beyond to come to Jackson and get to know the people here. He wants Jacksonians to go serve people in the Delta.
He wants people of different races and backgrounds to eat together.
“Eating together is the best place to do reconciliation. All your senses are alive. That’s why (Jesus instituted) the Lord’s Supper. But we’ve got to know the gospel,” he said.
“The best book to read about what (Christian friendship) looks like is 1st John. It hooks us up to how we walk together in that (fellowship). ‘We have fellowship with God, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all our sins.’”
Perkins would much rather talk about that saving work of Christ — and how it should affect people — than his favorite political candidates. Though of course he still holds his opinions.
“We’re tying our religion to an ideology (these days),” he said. “You can’t say nothing (negative) in big (white) churches about Trump, and you can’t say nothing in black churches about a Democrat.
“I’m not gonna be fighting Republican and Democrat and liberal and conservative. All of that is just hatred. It’s broken and fallen.
“We’re losing the language of love. We’re losing the language of affirmation.”
And, generally, you can’t love or affirm someone very well if you’re not friends.
“What did Abraham find when he found God? … God made him His friend. The disciples Jesus found, they were looking for a Messiah to throw off the Roman Empire. What did they find? A friend.
“‘What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,’” Perkins quoted.
“So He calls us to be friends. … That the world would know we are one by our love for one another. … It’s gonna take divine power. It’s gonna take divine practice.”
But when it works? It really works. Even from a practical standpoint, friends have been a huge help to Perkins in his ministry.
“It ain’t many people living full-time Christian work for 58 years and not have to beg for money,” he noted. For instance, a couple of friends in California have given him a new car every time he’s needed one for more than three decades.
(“But that also makes me want to give it up. You feel more responsibility when people trust you. I don’t want to be in charge of organizations anymore,” he said.)
“I want to thank all the people of Mississippi, black and white, for 58 years of leadership,” Perkins said. “I want them to know if I have harmed or hurt anybody, to find it in their heart to forgive me.”
Don’t get it wrong: This isn’t a “Goodbye, world” speech. Perkins doesn’t appear to be leaving us anytime soon.
But when he does, he’ll be overjoyed to meet a new friend: his mother, who died in poverty before he could get to know her.
“I know what I want her to say (when I get there). What did I do for people like her? That motivates me.”
*The Perkins family no longer runs Voice of Calvary Ministries.
For more information about the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation, please visit www.jvmpf.org. For more information on Dr. Perkins’ Tuesday morning Bible study, call the foundation at 601-354-1563.