A dear friend for nearly fifty years, and one of my great civil rights heroes, is John Perkins. John is very unique in that, on one hand, he is quite modest and self-effacing, and on the other hand is bold as a lion. He grew up as a share-cropper’s son in rural Mississippi where he suffered all of the intense racial injustice and the indignities of those days. He was beaten by law enforcement agents and jailed for engaging in voter registration. He laughs that he was a “third-grade dropout, yet in recent months he has received his fourteenth honorary doctor’s degree—which says something of what has transpired in the intervening years.

His latest book is: One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Peace and Love (which I heartily commend).

To escape the violence of Mississippi, he and his wife moved to California, where John encountered Jesus Christ, through the witness his son, who was enrolled in a Christian club, and brought the faith home to his father. Whoever mentored, or ‘discipled.’ John did it very well. By that time John had moved up into a management job with a major grocery chain in that region. As he grew in his response to the life and teachings of Jesus, the more he became that he should move back and minister to his own people in Mississippi as both an evangelist and as a Christian community developer in the small town of Mendenhall. He saw the implementation of justice and of economic development as an essential part of the gospel he was preaching. He was very effective, and his reputation began to grow.

My wife and I met him in 1973 when he was speaking at a student conference in southern Mississippi, and we bonded instantly. That friendship has grown stronger over the years. He was so effective that the state of Mississippi later declared an official ‘John M. Perkins Day’ in his honor. As he trained a second generation of leadership to take over the work in Mississippi, John and his wife Vera Mae moved back to do the same ministry in a troubled and crime-ridden section of Pasadena, California. That is where the following conversation took place.

I was in Pasadena to engage in my own mentoring conversations on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary, but I chose to stay with John. He walked me around is neighborhood, where he had made many friends, and provided educational resources for the youth. He also pointed out to me the drug dealers, and the local color. His wife, at that time was back in Mississippi with a new grandchild. The guest room in their house was also John’s study. On the wall were tributes, honorary doctorates, and even a picture of John in the Oval Office of the White House, with the president.

One evening we were eating out together, and as he was devouring his fish, I asked him: “John, how do you maintain your humility with all of the accolades you have received. He pondered for a moment, and then responded: “Bob, I have to remember that wherever I am, whether chopping cotton in Mississippi, or being received in the Oval Office, that there I am the glory of God.” Wow! Does that ever say worlds? I had grown up as a good Presbyterian kid quoting the answer to the catechism question, that: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Here was a remarkable practitioner of that affirmation. I have made John’s understanding of that as a principle in my daily prayer disciplines ever since.

‘Wherever I am, there I am the glory of God.” (New Testament scholar Gregory Boyd is helpful when he defines glorifying God as our displaying the divine nature, or embodying the image of the Son of God in whatever the vicissitudes of our daily life might be.) God give us more men and women in this troubled present scene with John’s passion for God’s glory, in which reconciliation and economic justice are also essential expressions of the gospel, of our evangelistic calling. Amen and amen.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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