Like countless others, I was introduced to John M. Perkins through track 4 on Switchfoot's Hello Hurricane—or so I thought. As it turns out, I was re-introduced to John Perkins through that album and for that I am extremely grateful. Last year, Abort73's annual board meeting took place on November 12, in Los Angeles. The day before, Switchfoot began their Hello Hurricane tour in Hollywood. I took in the debut at the Roxy and saw them again when they came through Chicago. In both instances, Jon Foreman took some time to talk about John Perkins - a civil rights activist from Mississippi who has had a profound influence at getting the American, evangelical church to connect a love for Christ with a love for the oppressed.
I recently read John's book, Let Justice Roll Down—a largely autobiographical look at his early life and ministry. It's not a new book. It was first published in 1976, the year after I was born, but in light of the evangelical church's reawakening to social justice issues, it has gained a new audience. For my part, I was immediately struck by a rather startling connection. In the opening acknowledgments of the book, and later on in chapter 10, John thanks Dr. Jack MacArthur and Calvary Bible Church of Burbank for being the first church to give financial support to his ministry in Mendenhall, MS. Calvary Bible Church of Burbank, though no longer pastored by Jack MacArthur, was also the first church to pledge monthly, financial support to Abort73 – some 50 years later!
A second connection to John Perkins came, not through the book, but when I went online to learn more of what he was doing today. I soon discovered that in 1982, the Perkins family moved back to Southern California and began a new ministry in Pasadena—in a neighborhood that, at that time, had the highest daytime crime rate in California. They bought some former crack houses and converted them into the Harambee Christian Center. Ten years later, during the summers of 1992 and 1993, I would work at the Hamambee Center—a partnership set up through the high school ministry at Grace Community Church, a church that was and is pastored by Jack MacArthur's son, John. Small world.
More research revealed that John's son, Derek, was Harambee's on-site director while I was there, and in probing my memory further, I'm almost certain that John, himself, spent time with us as well. I can recall the group of us sitting on the floor in the pre-school room, listening in awe to an older, soft-spoken man who had a remarkably commanding presence. Little did I know, then, all that went into that presence. John Perkins has seen and endured what few others have. No wonder his picture looked so familiar to me. If only I'd had the sense to pick his brain further!
Thankfully, some of what I failed to glean back in high school is available through this book. Here are the quotes that stood out to me the most:
- "You see, in all my years growing up in Mississippi, I had never heard the simple truth of the gospel: the fact that Jesus Christ could set me free and live His life in me. I grew up knowing nothing about Jesus Christ." (55)
- "I had lived in the South. I had drunk at separate drinking fountains. I had ridden in the back of the bus. And never in the South had I heard one white Christian speak out against the way whites treated blacks as second-class citizens." (56)
- "There were churches for black folks all around, but the religion they got there was not for learning; it was just for getting emotional and for socializing." (84)
- "In the black community, 'local effort' almost always meant the churches, because they were the only, or strongest, social organizations." (85)
- "For quite a while it was possible that the state would close down the entire public school system simply to avoid integrating it… the schools didn't close down. They worked out some bureaucratic compromises that 'unified' the previous separate school districts. Segregation continued, of course, by assigning pupils to various schools in the new districts that were integrated only in an administrative way." (88)
- "God would have to multiply the few contacts I had. I had no fancy brochures, no movies or slides of our work. I could only open myself up to those who would listen, and tell them of the needs in Mississippi." (92)
- "We could usually find church and mission groups willing to give us Bibles for this ministry. Finding financial support to attack hunger and economic ills wasn't so easy. But we could always get Bibles." (94)
- "I do not understand why so many evangelicals find a sense of commitment to civil rights and to Jesus Christ an "either-or" proposition. One of the greatest tragedies of the civil rights movement is that evangelicals surrendered their leadership in the movement by default to those with either a bankrupt theology or no theology at all, simply because the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians ignored a great and crucial opportunity in history for genuine ethical action. The evangelical church–whose basic theology is the same as mine–had not gone on to preach whole gospel." (99)
- "In the tensions of those times, some of the civil rights workers who came south and who had no particular Bible background did turn to drinking for relaxation. And some of the younger women with no religious convictions had a casual attitude toward sex. So in some evangelical churches around the country, it became common to cite lurid reports of workers engaged in binges or orgies and then use these to argue that all civil rights activity was 'godless' and should be condemned." (102)
- "Surely the job of working for justice is at least as important as being a good businessman. But how many calls did we hear in the '60's for Christian civil rights activity from those evangelicals who promoted such other things as Christian businessmen, Christians in entertainment, or Christian athletes? There are obviously immoral men and women in all those fields, but that doesn't cause church people to reject those activities as they did the movement for human justice. So all the focus on the questionable conduct of some–and only some–civil rights workers was, as I see it, just a pretext to avoid getting involved, an excuse to avoid the crying question: What should the Church do–what should I do–for the cause of human justice?" (103)
- "Some of my white supporters thought I was using my time and their money for something different from their idea of 'religion.' There were comments like, 'The whole idea of you going back there was to get people saved. Don't you think you are getting away from that?'" (104)
- "Some evangelicals did not argue directly with me. They merely felt uncomfortable with me and just hoped I would disappear–without their having to suggest it." (107)
- "I kept on longing for the day when it would be Christians in the forefront, taking seriously the words of the prophet Amos: Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:23)." (107)
- "For two years [my children] walked through lonely halls (at their newly integrated public high school). During those two years no white person would sit down with them. No white student ever held any conversation with them. And no student, teacher or adult religious leader in the white community, was willing to admit the wrongness of this situation." (108)
- "I want all people to come to know Jesus Christ. Nothing I do takes the place of that. But I wonder if, maybe, someone in the Billy Graham organization or some other evangelical organization had discovered the polio vaccine, would they have given it only to the Christians, or to everybody? I bet they would probably have given it to everybody. But why is it then that some Christians get all hot under the collar when an organization like ours gets out and helps the whole community?" (123)
- "The most terrible thing about the situation in the South was that so many of the folks who were either violently racist or who participated in discrimination and enslavement through unfair and unlawful business practices called themselves Christians." (143)
- "One of the things for Christian observers is that there are times when the biggest need is for information rather than exhortation. We need to know more about what really goes on before we solidify our theoretical ideas about what a Christian 'ought' or 'ought not' do." (185)
- "If Christianity and white churches and white churchgoing businessmen, for all their revivals and preaching, seem to be propping up the system that degrades a man; if you've never in your life seen a real Christian, then you can see only one way to go. And a lot of blacks have gone that way. I don't mean just the loud black who mouths talk about revolution. I mean the black man who quietly builds his whole life apart form God. The white God." (190)
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.