An Interview with John M. Perkins
John M. Perkins, the founder of CCDA, participated in the American Civil Rights Movement over four decades ago. In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to interview him for his unique (and 80-year-old) perspective on racial reconciliation. [Former] CCDA Digital Communications Manager Chris Like asks him a few questions about his life’s work among other things.
What inspired you to devote your life’s work to racial reconciliation?
The foundation for my work for reconciliation was based on my early discipleship back in 1957-59. The old man who discipled me was Mr. Wayne Leitch…His foundational work in my early days and the cross-cultural environment in which I was discipled in California were very unique.
The White missionaries in Monrovia were also influential in my life. They had been to Africa and Brazil and other places, and they firmly believed that Christianity meant equality. I never would have thought—growing up in Mississippi—that we would be reconciled to the extent that I’m talking about here, where we would receive each other as equal brothers. When I was converted in California, they received me as an equal brother within the family of God. Three years later, when I returned to segregated Mississippi, I thought that these [racist] people simply weren’t converted.
Early on, when I was first converted, I [also] read Frederick Douglass’ life story. He was an abolitionist and he said something that stuck with me. He said, “There is not one attribute of God that agrees with oppression.” He did not particularly like Christianity, the way it was being lived out, [but] that was the culture of [the] day. But the people who taught him how to read were Christians.
Another person who was an inspiration to me was Jackie Robinson. The way he broke down baseball had nothing to do with my Christian influence, but it had to do with the affirmation of my dignity, as a human being, and I was in the Afro-League. So, he was an important person in my life.
And then of course, Martin Luther King Jr. …enlightened us all.[But] it was my being beaten in the Brandon jail [for leading a boycott against segregation] that really broke me…defeated me. I think one needs to be broken, one needs to be defeated in pursuit of a vision. I don’t think it’s being broken for the sake of brokenness, but in the pursuit of one’s conviction. It is good for one to come to the place in life where their conviction is tested by persecution…
What are new challenges that you see today?
This generation has a lot of new voices coming in from all over. However, it’s not just Black and White anymore. I see this generation as the generation. God intended that every generation would see itself as the group that would do the will of God. We are a new people on this planet.
If [CCDA] was just a church planting organization, if we were just a social movement, we wouldn’t have the impact that we do. We are a unique group that is trying to merge here. I’ve seen a lot of groups come together with the goal of racial reconciliation, and some of them have done very well… [but] CCDA offers that fellowship without taking people out of what they are doing.
The challenge is back on us, it is for us to resolve that we will become the generation that is going to do it…[that is going to reconcile]. We have to be that church, and I believe we can do it. We know that it’s theologically right. This is the challenge now: to do it.
What are you reading right now?
I am so busy right now, teaching the Book of Acts, and what I’m doing is reading historical commentaries. I’m reading some by a scholar from a few years back, J. Vernon McGee. He has a great series of commentaries, and I’m reading a lot of them to look at what the Book of Acts was saying to the people of that time, comparing that to what I need to say to people today. What I’m finding is that there is a consistency, a number of parallels. I am also a daily magazine and paper reader. I read those to have a consciousness of what’s going on around me.
[How are you feeling these days?]
The first thing that I feel when I wake up in the morning is a sense of gratitude that God has given me another day. Because even with my age and the kind of aches and pains that I have had, when I get up in the morning, those aches sorta go away. I start the day grateful to be alive and awake. Living each day with gratitude removes anxiety. I think about the purpose that I now have and I consider what the Lord wants me to do today.
To me, that’s a great privilege, because many times we are caught up with all the things we have to do. But when you get to be 80 years old, there’s not a lot of expectations put on you. And so you can do the things that you think to be the Lord’s will.
Christian Community Development pioneer John M. Perkins is the founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries in Mendenhall, Mississippi, and the Christian Community Development Association. He is the author of several books, the latest of which, is Follow Me to Freedom: Leading As an Ordinary Radical. He has been recognized for his work with eight honorary doctorates from colleges and universities across the United States.