When the John Perkins Center opened on Seattle Pacific University’s campus in 2004, John Perkins described it as “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.” A decade and a half later, the dream is still alive as the Perkins Center continues to raise up a new generation of leaders trained in community development and committed to practicing reconciliation.
Through a series of stories in these next few pages, we are taking a look at the inspiring ministry of John Perkins, who called believers to engage in a “quiet revolution” by being willing to relocate, reconcile, and redistribute their resources.
Response asked SPU’s President Emeritus Philip W. Eaton to recount the beginnings of this first-of-its-kind partnership between the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation of Jackson, Mississippi, Seattle Pacific University, and Christian community leaders throughout the Northwest.
And the Perkins Center’s current executive director, Caenisha Warren, describes what the Center is doing today to encourage students and the whole community to engage in critical, sometimes uncomfortable conversations about differences, privilege, and moving beyond stereotypes.
The dream is still being fulfilled.
It was a typical spring day in Seattle — drizzly and a chilly 53 degrees. The year was 1978, and Seattle Pacific University students gathered for chapel in First Free Methodist Church where then-President David McKenna introduced a speaker he had met just months earlier: John M. Perkins.
“I heard the word about a black man in the South who was living out the Christian faith about which so many of us only talk,” McKenna said. “That man challenged me.”
Perkins then challenged SPU students, telling them about God’s redemption in the midst of crushing Deep South racism. He called believers to a “quiet revolution,” ministering to others through the “three Rs”: Relocation. Reconciliation. Redistribution.
Relocation to areas of need.
“When you get to know people, and they can see that you love them, and their needs become your needs, then you can reach people,” Perkins told students. “That’s incarnated love.”
Reconciliation through the force of the gospel.
“The gospel has no other purpose, no other objective,” he said. “The idea of the gospel is to burn through race, culture, barriers, and to bring us together into one fellowship … because we have a purpose and love for each other.”
Redistribution of resources.
“We have to look for new ways of sharing our wealth and resources, especially in the fellowship of believers.”
More than 40 years later, Perkins moves more slowly and talks more slowly. Yet at age 89, he still points the way. “Reconciliation goes deeper than race,” he told Response. “God created man in his own image and [the same blood courses through our veins]. God didn’t mean for us to determine who was created in his image and who was not.”
Perkins still travels, speaks on college campuses (by his last count, he’s spoken at more than 200 college campuses), and he continues to write. In fact, Moody Press released his latest book, He Calls Me Friend: The Healing Power of Friendship, in October 2019.
A Mississippi sharecropper’s son, Perkins fled to California when he was 17 after a town marshal murdered his older brother, then a recent veteran of World War II. Although he vowed never to return, Perkins did go back in 1960 after his conversion to Christ. A leader during civil rights demonstrations, he faced repeated harassment, imprisonment, and beatings.
Through it all, he and his wife, Vera Mae, founded Christian community development organizations such as Mendenhall Ministries, Harambee Christian Center, and Voice of Calvary Ministries. In 1989, he became the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association, an organization of thousands of individuals, churches, ministries, institutions, and businesses across the country that are living out Perkins’ three Rs in their communities.
After meeting SPU’s ninth president, Philip W. Eaton, in Mississippi, Perkins partnered with Seattle Pacific in 2004 to open the first-of-its-kind, John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development. He has returned each year to the University for the Perkins Lecture Series. (The 2020 lecture is on April 21.)
“I would like to see Seattle Pacific equipping young folks for the church,” he said. “We are trying to understand justice so that we can do justice, and so that we can participate in letting justice roll down. The church is here to be that prophetic voice, to nurture us so that God’s light and voice can come out through us. We hope that Seattle Pacific, through the Perkins Center, can be part of that witness.”
To listen to John Perkins’ 1978 message to the SPU campus, visit spu.edu/perkinsmessage