Volume 1 Number 15
Prophet of Justice
01 December 1988
Using a combination of evangelism and practical business sense, the Perkins are nurturing a 'can do' attitude in eight blocks around their home.
By MARGARET SMITH
When John and Vera Mae Perkins moved to Northwest Pasadena, California, in 1982 they bought a house that had been the base of a drug operation. All four corners of the intersection where it stood were active drug spots. Local people would make detours to avoid the crossroads. Twice in the Perkins' first year firebombs were thrown at their house, miraculously doing little damage, and on two other occasions all its windows were broken.
The Perkins had spent more than two decades battling for social change in Mississippi. They were tired. Perkins, known worldwide for his work in community-building, lives in almost continuous pain since he was beaten up by Mississippi police in 1970. Pasadena was to be a haven where he could relax and write, and a base from which to make speaking tours.
But the need in Northwest Pasadena proved irresistible. In the early Eighties the district was said to contain one of America's highest concentrations of daytime drug-pushing and crime. It is an unlikely `ghetto', a five-square-mile area of one-storey wooden houses, most of which have some grounds front and back. The visitor is struck by the stillness. A few unemployed take shelter from the California sun on small front porches; otherwise poverty is screened off behind closed doors.
After purchasing their own home, the Perkins raised funds to buy four more houses on the block, which together form the Harambee Christian Family Center. 'Harambee', Perkins explains, is a Swahili word meaning `let's get together and push'. Using a combination of evangelism and practical business sense, the Perkins are nurturing a 'can do' attitude in eight blocks around their home.
Neighbourhood children come each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for tutoring in spoken and written English, preceded by a short Bible study. On Thursday all the boys come, and on Friday all the girls. On Saturday teenagers who have passed through the programme for young children can participate in the Business Club. Perkins encourages them to start some modest commercial activity - printing and selling T-shirts, for example. They have a bank account and can see in practical terms that profits first go to cover costs. Then they can use any money left over to start their next business or to have a party.
The centre also organizes a monthly luncheon at which Pasadena entrepreneurs meet prospective local business people. All who attend try to support neighbourhood businesses, for example by taking out an account in the locally-run bank or using the gas station. `We're beginning to feel a real community spirit - like you'd get in a small town in Iowa,' says Perkins. Pasadena Police Commander Bruce Philpott says the Perkins have had a marked effect on the neighbourhood. `Their place,' he says, `was the bull's-eye of the ghetto, with all the problems of the inner-city poor. They have really helped to change an attitude.'
Part of the secret of the Perkins' success, says Philpott, is that they have enlisted the help of many groups, including the police and major churches. Volunteers from all over the city give a hand. The centre receives no government funding; they have raised all their money themselves.
A member of President Reagan's commission on hunger in the early Eighties and currently on the board of the relief organization World Vision, Perkins is an authority on poverty in the US. He has written four books, and recently a documentary film, John Perkins: Cry for Justice, has been made about his work. He travels about 32 weeks of the year, in the US and worldwide, speaking and fundraising for his projects. His speeches are heavily imbued with the Christian message, because he finds in his own religious experience a strong foundation for social and economic change.
He was born in Mississippi in 1930 and grew up in a sharecropping society: instead of paying rent, sharecroppers would farm a piece of land and give the landowner a third of the produce. Tools and seeds were purchased with loans taken out before the harvest. It was a formula for perpetual debt. Racial barriers in schools and banks made it difficult for blacks to break out of their poverty.
John's mother died when he was seven months old. His father, devastated, gave his five children away to his own mother, who in turn gave two away to another family member. John saw his father only a few times. He dropped out of school in the third grade and, as he grew older, joined his uncles in bootlegging and gambling.
When he was 16 his older brother Clyde was shot and killed by a policeman in a racial incident. Shortly afterwards, John left for California, returning only for visits and to marry Vera Mae. In California he worked hard, taught himself to read and became a union organizer.
His four-year-old son began to go to Sunday School and one day took his father along. Perkins was intrigued. He explored more and a conversion experience followed. `I sensed the beginning of a whole new life, a life that could fill the emptiness I had even on payday.' In 1958 he was ordained. Two years later he felt God calling him back to Mississippi.
`We went to Mississippi filled with the joy of finding Christianity and wanting to give it to others and we found this was irrelevant,' he says. `Christianity just maintained the system. It was a repressive force. What I had wasn't working.'
The evangelical churches, Perkins discovered, on the whole discouraged efforts towards social change. When Perkins decided to join the civil rights movement's drive for voter registration in 1964-5, he found opposition came not only from whites, but from some black evangelicals.
This didn't stop him, but led him to formulate what he calls a' `philosophy of Christian community development'. After his initial stand on voter registration, he began looking more closely at the economic structure of the small towns of Mississippi. He recognized that money circulated only twice among blacks before it went back into the white community. There it would circulate as many as five times before it left the town. Perkins started developing cooperatives to get greater black participation in the economy.
`In attitudes of inequality or oppression, the oppressed group must take a stand somewhere, sometime,' Perkins writes in his autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down. `When they take that stand in the face of clear injustice, an oppressed people are once again humanized. And they then become capable of a level of development - spiritual, economic, social or other - not psychologically possible for a people still in a passive, dependent state.'
His philosophy resists labels of liberal or conservative. At times his emphasis on business and his warning that welfare can exacerbate the problems of the poor make him sound like a right-winger. But his goal to shift the economic balance of mixed communities is anything but reactionary.
Perkins tries to create a web of community relationships as a basis for economic growth. This emphasis on what a group in a specific location can do together is, in his view, what living the gospel is about. `If someone tells me he is committed to Christ, that doesn't move me unless he is also asking what he can do to help people take responsibility for their life.'
He is often quoted describing his programme in terms of `Three Rs': relocation, which brings young leaders back into the ghetto to live -`if you make the community your home, you don't have to walk around saying you're committed, because you are there'; reconciliation between people and God, and among people; redistribution, helping the poor to `get the skills, technology, education and motivation to control their own destiny'.
Another way the Perkins describe their work is `parenting' and Vera Mae likes to tell how she got things going when they moved to Northwest Pasadena: `There were 18 kids who got on and off the school bus outside this house, so in the morning I'd go out and wave them good-bye and in the afternoon I'd go and meet them. They knew this had been a drug-operated house. They watched us painting and they asked, "Are you going to live in that house?" And I said, "Yes. We are going to have a club called the Good News Club, and we are going to learn all about Jesus, and have parties and go on trips. But you don't have to join the club if you don't want to..."
`Then they asked, "Who are you?" and I answered, "Do you have a grandma?" And some of them answered, "Yes," and some said they didn't. And I said, "Can I be your grandma?" They said, "Yes, yes!" Then later they saw John out in the yard and they said, "We have a grandma; will you be our grandpa?"'
Forty children began coming once a week for Good News Club meetings in the Perkins' garage. This was the beginning of the programmes they run today. `I've seen a lot of changes in these children,' says Vera Mae. `Some of them come here angry and mean. But I know God can reach down and pick up a person and make just what he wants. I think that is what he did with my husband.'
Three of the Perkins' eight children work with them in Pasadena, and two are carrying on the work in Mississippi. Yet the family's close bonds do not come at the price of submerging differences. 'Vera Mae helps me because she says "no" to everything I want to do,' says John, smiling. `I won't do things before she says "yes" because I know that before that she will have picked the idea apart and shown me all the deficiencies. If there are too many I drop it; otherwise I build on the things she has shown me.'
Beaten almost to death
Though the Perkins' work is warmly endorsed by leaders of American evangelism, John doesn't mince words about the shallowness of much that goes on in churches: `American Christianity is not impacting the important things of life. People like to be superficially holy, but they don't realize that to be Christian is to be in a state of growth and development.'
`I think many of us want forgiveness without repentance,' he writes in one of his books. `I sense this so much as I try to establish relationships with my white brethren... I find that they want my relationship, but they want more quickly to forget the brutality and the injustice that their people put upon many of us in the name of Christianity.' Such self-deception, he warns, could turn the evangelical awakening in the US into a wave of repression, if prejudice and racism are not fundamentally addressed.
`I know,' he continues, `because for repentance and forgiveness to work in my life, God had to see me through months of agony and pain' after being beaten almost to death. The Lord had to lead me through a great time of soul-searching. And it wasn't until I could look at a Mississippi highway patrolman, fully uniformed and ready for service, and look at him without feeling a sense of bitterness, that I could really begin to relate my faith in a creative way to the task of reconciliation.'
The statistics for violent crime in the ghettos of southern California are getting worse. The Harambee Center is a small oasis in a big desert. Nonetheless its success has been an encouragement to city authorities. `The Perkins have reclaimed the street,' says Commander Philpott. `We're glad to have them in our neighbourhood, boy are we glad.'
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