Poverty, segregation, Christ, and the path toward racial healing
John Perkins, whose 91st birthday arrives on June 16, is one of the few still-living evangelical leaders of the civil rights movement. Police in Mississippi killed his older brother in 1946 and almost killed him in 1970. Hate could have consumed him. Christ intervened.
This year on March 11, Mississippi’s largest Southern Baptist church—Pinelake, a predominantly white church—donated $200,000 to establish a scholarship at Jackson State University in honor of John and Vera Mae Perkins, who married 70 years ago. Last year, as religious and racial hatred raged through Americans, John Perkins was WORLD’s Daniel of the Year.
He’s also a great teacher. I first sat in John’s Bible studies almost three decades ago and still remember them as the most vivid I’ve experienced. Here are edited excerpts of two recent interviews I did with him.
Tell us something about your hard childhood. My mother died of starvation when I was 7 months old. I lived only because a black lady brought me a quart of milk. It was hard. But some rich folks have the same loneliness. There are lots of needy people, broken human beings. We’re ready to come to Christ only when we come to an end of ourselves. We have to say, “I’m broken.”
You didn’t get much of an education. No incentive in my whole broken house. Work in the fields as soon as you can. Third grade dropout.
You were poor, but when you moved to Southern California, you had opportunities to work. I started off as a janitor and became a leader. I saw some good programs. There was a credit union with incentives for people to save for education.
What would you do to our welfare system? We need more incentives to work. Now we have a few, but it’s too little too late. We need redistribution, not reparations. Redistribute by community groups training people for good jobs—a redistribution engine based on more of a work ethic and economic growth.
Better schools would help … I visited some special middle schools in Boston and asked the students why they’re there. They were there because they’re poor but have good brains.
Do we have a lot of racism in America? To say people are racist is to say there’s more than one human race. There’s not. We are one blood. But we forget that. We sing God loves all the children of the world, but we don’t mean it. We say all people are created equal. We get fuzzy about that and cry about that, but we don’t mean it. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”: We don’t mean it.
Some white police killing blacks? Yes, but we’re still killing more of ourselves.
When you can cut the racial tension with a knife, do people start carrying knives? Black folk are broken just as much as white folk, and white folk are broken just as much as black folk. But we’ve lost tolerance. You can’t even get anybody to answer a pollster now. But maybe that’s why voting in secret is good. I don’t want my neighbor thinking I hate him because I vote against his idea.
Churches still tend to be segregated. The National Baptist denomination, black, made some kind of alliance with the Southern Baptist churches, white. They said they’d have revivals to shout out to God. They were both having revival at the same time, a black revival and a white revival. Two separate revivals. I said, “Am I going crazy? We shouldn’t be having separate revivals.” The more we get together the more we can do together. We meet to learn from each other but also to share each other’s gifts.
Lots of black kids are aborted. Are churches doing enough to teach about that? We need to offer help so when somebody meets a young lady and says I’ll take you to the abortion center, she has an alternative. But if she has an abortion, we still love her. Right after she does it I don’t tell her she’s a murderer.
I think back to the hopes of the 1990s. Promise Keepers took a stand against racism. What happened to that? The founder of Promise Keepers was a football coach. He was used to having blacks to win a championship, and he got converted. Promise Keepers wanted multicultural churches. It was ahead of its time. Maybe if we emerge from our dark cloud now we can get back on that path again.
What would progress look like now? Progress to me is the multicultural church. We need to be intentional about getting together. We’ve got a racial language. We’ve lost a love language. Churches grow better when they enter into the pain of society. We weaken the church when we turn it into a prosperity gospel.
What should Christians be doing? We need to understand what is nonnegotiable in the Bible. Start there and organize your teaching around the main purpose. Then go out into all the world and teach the gospel. That’s what they did in Acts. They didn’t sit at home waiting for food to come by chariot. They went out to homes and started classes. They taught we are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Christ lives in me but I am still living in the flesh. I live by the grace of the Son of God. That is the fruit of the Spirit.
Still living in the flesh—we need to realize our own brokenness? I tell people they’re broken, but I can’t do that if I don’t tell them I’m broken too. Otherwise, they’ll think I’m better than them, or think I think so. And a lot of people who have broken the mold and then get some intelligence about it become very effective Christians.
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