NEWS FEATURE: John Perkins Speaks Out on Race, Poverty

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c. 2004 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The Rev. John M. Perkins, 74, chairman emeritus of the Christian Community Development Association and civil rights veteran, grew up amid serious poverty in Mississippi. As a teen, he moved to California where he was converted in a Holiness church. Perkins returned to his home state, where he was ordained by a Missionary Baptist church. He fought for civil rights and later worked on racial reconciliation and community development. The man with less than a fifth grade education now has seven honorary degrees and has authored or contributed to more than 15 books. Perkins, who recently received the “Amos Award” from the Call to Renewal anti-poverty group in Washington, spoke with Religion News Service about his life and work.

Q: Call to Renewal, the group that has honored you, called poverty a religious issue. Do you think many people in this nation _ and especially in its pews _ view poverty in this way?

A: I do believe that it is a faith issue. It is an issue that we as Christians should take on as our number one task. I believe that true religion …is this: to visit the fatherless and the widows. … The Bible calls us to respond to that, so it is a religious issue. I think most religious people believe … but it’s a matter of how then do they implement that. … We believe that people can be so downcast and poor that they need us to come along beside of them and to share our lives and to share our resources in a way that empowers them to take some control of their lives.

Q. You have modeled something that you believe in strongly: not giving charitably at a distance but living among those in need. Why is that so important?

A. I think it’s important because we have that pattern in the Bible in the whole sense of Jesus’ Incarnation. He could have sent angels out and they could have blown trumpets and he could have said `I love all of the people of the world.’ But the Bible says but `The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ … So I believe in incarnation. I believe it’s a theological thing. I believe it cuts down on the class system. I think the class system can be just as divisive as racism … so it brings you back in with the people and instead of you patronizing the people, doing it for them, you’re doing it with them in the community.

Q. After suffering the cruel beating that you had at the hands of policemen during the civil rights movement, you felt led to begin a movement of racial reconciliation. How do you explain that transformation?

A. I saw the sickness of racism and then I also could see that I had some of that in me and if I would hate them back I would be no better off than them. And I also began to remember that what had lifted me out of my past sins … had been based on God loving me and other people loving me and … if we were really going to change Mississippi we had to change both black and white. …

Q. Evangelical groups in the past decade _ from Promise Keepers to the Southern Baptist Convention _ have made statements encouraging racial reconciliation. In your opinion, have evangelicals succeeded in ongoing efforts to reconcile people across racial lines?

A. There is a multichurch, multiracial, interracial church planting movement that is just beginning to take root. I think Promise Keepers probably helped to inspire that.

I think that there is some movement taking place. … It’s not quite radical enough because I don’t think that people understand the hurt and the wounds and the damage of racism both in us as blacks but also … I don’t even think the white folks understand how it affected them. …

That’s a slow process and that’s why the (multiracial) movement has such possibilities … because then we’d be intentional and we would be in relationship to each other and we’d be in a continued learning mode.

And we’d continue pulling out of us those deep-seated personal wounds that’ll be coming to the surface and pretty soon we’d create a community where we really could relate to each other in a healthy way.


Q. What challenges lie ahead for your Christian Community Development Association? I wonder in particular if the White House’s faith-based initiative relates to your association members or if they prefer to work without government assistance.

A. We would not speak against our members within the association getting government assistance. We want to help them to understand it. We would want to help them to realize that it could be a trap but also how to handle it and utilize it, keep good books; don’t make a scandal out of it. … I don’t think that we need to get dependent on government funding.

Q. I’ve read that you have worked with county officials in Mississippi to help inmates leaving prison reduce their chances of returning to a life of crime. Is that an example of what you view as Christian community development, where there is a cooperation sometimes with the government?

A. I’m not anti-government. … I’m going … to work with one of my councilmen who are trying to combat black-on-black crime in Jackson and we probably disagree greatly in terms of some of our political stands but here we agree that this black-on-black crime and killing our young folk is destructive and so we got to get together.

Q: Now, at age 74, are you slowing down or do you still have more you’d like to accomplish?

A. I’m not slowing down. But what I do want to do is pass on what I have learned out of these many years of struggle. I want to pass that on to the next generation and the way I’m doing that is through these community development retreats and workshops that I’m doing back in Mississippi.

… What I want to leave here as my legend is this Christian Community Development Association keeping people working together. …

If I get a building (named after me), they’ll change that building, it’ll burn down, something will happen to it but if you plant that, in terms of an association, in the lives of people as long as lives go on, people will remember that … I was a person who was concerned about us passing on these skills.


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