On the occasion of “Martin Luther King Jr. Day”, I want to offer a few comments about a personal friend of mine, Dr. John M. Perkins, whose own life struggles for racial equality and social justice bear much in common with those of Dr. King, and who was, himself, an acquaintance of Dr. King’s. While Dr. King was working so aggressively in Alabama, Georgia, and elsewhere to try to change hearts and minds which were filled with racial hatred, John Perkins was fighting some of the very same battles in Mississippi, and was risking just as much to do so. Far too often, though, many of the books and movies in our own day offer inspiring accounts of the culture-changing work of Dr. King, but fail to mention the equally significant role that Dr. Perkins played in this pivotal period of our nation’s history. I imagine that one reason many people outside of Christian circles fail to highlight his profound contributions to our culture is simply because all of his work was intended – first and foremost – to be a bold proclamation of and a visible witness to the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ.
Born on a cotton plantation in New Hebron, Mississippi, John’s mother died before he was one, and his father abandoned the family, leaving him to be raised primarily by his grandmother, with the help of his aunts, uncles, and cousins. At the age of 17, John watched his brother get shot by a white police officer without just cause, and John held his brother in his arms as he died. Later in life, Perkins and his family experienced racial persecution of virtually every kind, including personal attacks, death threats, and a horrific ordeal with police in Brandon, Mississippi, in which John was brought into a jail cell, tortured for hours, and forced to mop up his own blood off the floor. Yet, through all of these painful life experiences, John and his family continued to pray for the people who persecuted them, and to share the message of God’s love with all who would listen.
John and his wife, Vera Mae, helped register the first black voters in Mississippi. They also led the struggle against the segregated schools in Mendenhall, Mississippi when, in 1967, two of their children were enrolled as the first black students in Mendenhall’s previously all-white public school. In addition to working for racial equality throughout society, John and Vera Mae also taught Bible classes to children and adults, established at least two new churches (as well as a Christian family center in California), and helped meet a multitude of needs among the poor and neglected communities throughout the state, providing tremendous resources in the areas of child care, education, health care, and much more. In 1989, he founded the Christian Community Development Association, a growing fellowship of evangelical Christians who care deeply about ministering to the needs of people who live in deprived urban settings, which is continuing to spread the gospel and serve needy communities throughout our nation.
As John’s faithful ministry continued to bear fruit throughout Mississippi, he was increasingly sought out for radio interviews, and as a speaker for larger ministry events, such as the popular “Promise Keepers” and “Urbana” conferences. Increasingly, he’s been blessed to know and minister alongside some of the most respected Christian leaders in the world, including Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, James Dobson, and many others. He was invited to participate in the Lausanne Conference on World Evangelism (which was organized by Billy Graham), and served for a year on President Reagan’s “Task Force on Hunger”. He has also served on the boards of numerous Christian ministries, including Belhaven University, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
In spite of the fact that Dr. Perkins had to drop out of school in the third grade, he has reflected deeply on God’s Word for many years, and has become respected around the world for his gospel-driven wisdom, and for his profound insights regarding how Christians should live out the gospel in the world today. He has authored fourteen books himself, and is the subject of at least five book-length biographies. He’s also been awarded eleven honorary doctorates by some of the leading colleges and universities in our country, including the award of an honorary Doctor of Law degree by Wheaton College in 1980. I have no doubt that people will be benefiting from the life and ministry of Dr. John Perkins for many generations to come, and will (I hope) be learning from his tremendous example of faithful, Christian living – even in the face of persecution and suffering – for just as long.
So, today I ask you to join me in giving thanks to God for this faithful Christian servant, and in asking the Lord to raise up many more like him, who will submit their lives fully to God and be firmly committed to the truth of his unchanging Word, no matter what challenges and struggles they may have to endure. In my own life, I have been very richly blessed by the teaching and example of Dr. Perkins – and even more so by our friendship, and by the wisdom that he’s imparted to me on many occasions as we’ve had opportunities for fellowship with one another. My hope, though, is that many more believers will continue to learn about Dr. Perkins, to read his books, and to be profoundly influenced by his devotion to God, his love for others, and his passionate call for all Christ-followers to live out the gospel in ways that leave no doubt as to the difference that God has made in each of our lives.
Should you want to learn more about Dr. Perkins (and I hope you will!), you can find a bit more information about him on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_M._Perkins), through these ministry websites (http://spencerperkinscenter.org/v1/ OR http://www.ccda.org/), and through the website for the “John Perkins Center” at Seattle Pacific University (http://www.spu.edu/depts/perkins/john-perkins/index.asp). If you like Christian rock music (or perhaps even if you don’t), you might also enjoy seeing the music video for the song “The Sound (John M. Perkins Blues)”, which was written in his honor by the Grammy-winning band Switchfoot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNQgABsUfK8).
Better than any of this, though, would be to go “right to the source” and read one of the inspiring and potentially life-changing books by Dr. Perkins, beginning with this one – “Let Justice Roll Down” – http://www.amazon.com/Justice-Roll-Down-John-Perkins/dp/0830763740/ref=dp_ob_title_bk. Finally, let me also share this link to the talk that Dr. Perkins just gave at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, on the same day that I prepared this post – http://www.calvin.edu/january/2014/Perkins.htm. As you take the time to read more about Dr. Perkins, or to listen to him speak about the things that God has accomplished in and through him, you will surely be edified and inspired in your own Christian walk, just I certainly have been!