We celebrated Black History month in February and it reminded me of one of my dear friends, and true civil rights heroes, who has significantly influenced my life: Dr. John M. Perkins. John is an episode and a remarkable change agent. He was born a share-cropper’s son in Mississippi, what with all of the racial tensions and displays of injustice so common in that region. His older brother, a World War II veteran, was shot and killed, for no reason, by a deputy sheriff. John himself would later be imprisoned and beaten by the law enforcement officers for his role in voter registration. And barely escaped with his life.

John now laughingly calls himself a “third grade drop-out” though he is the recipient, all these years later, of multiple honorary doctorates. To escape the violent injustice of Mississippi, John moved to California, where he did well in management in a grocery chain. It was there that his life took a crucial turn—he was led to a transforming faith in Jesus Christ, and carefully discipled into that newfound faith. He then came under the profound persuasion that he should move back to Mississippi in a ministry of evangelism, and community economic development, … which he did, moving to the town of Mendenhall, and developing a fruitful community among the black population.

It didn’t take long for this remarkable ministry to catch the attention, not only state-wide but nationwide. It was in this period that my wife and I met John when he was speaking to a collegiate conference at a state park in southern Mississippi. We bonded instantly, and that friendship has been strong between John and his wife Vera Mae, and my (late) wife Betty.

So, significant was the transformation in the Mendenhall community that the state created a John M.  Perkins day in his honor. John trained younger leaders to take over the Mendenhall ministry, and he moved back to a troubled neighborhood in Pasadena, California, to do community development. … Now to the point of this blog: I was in Pasadena on a ministry to a nearby theological school, and was staying with John. On the wall of his study were all kinds of honors, honorary doctorates, and picture of John in the Oval Office of the White House. Wow!

That evening we were out for supper, the two of us, and I asked him how he maintained his humility with all those accolades? He finished his mouthful of fish, and responded: “Bob, whether I am chopping cotton in Mississippi, or a guest in the White House, I am the glory of God.” What an awesome response from this unique person transformed into one of God’s new humanity.

Now, decades have passed. John and Vera Mae are getting fragile, as am I, but he remains such a model to me: wherever, however, I am to be a radiant display of the grace of God. This “third-grade drop-out” has also continued to write. (His latest is: One Blood) He has had a profound influence on my life, so I am happy to celebrate it with you on this blog.

Stay tuned.

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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  1. Ann Rose says:

    Wow! What a wonderful, inspiring story! And what a beautiful friendship – both of you able to bless each other. Why does it not surprise me to read another story of the way God has brought you into grace-filled relationships with amazing people.

  2. Lauren says:

    What a powerful reminder of our calling, to display God’s grace and glory in all that we are and do.

  3. Jermaine Ladd says:

    Wow, such an amazing man! When your humble God does the exalting because God is exalted! With such men like him I have the right to vote. Many African Americans like him sacrificed literally blood, sweat and tears for me to have the right to vote. They were crucified and now I have access and God gets the victory!

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