A Brief History
Dr. John Perkins personifies the integration of Christianity and Social Justice. For over a decade, at UYWI’s National Conferences, we benefited from John’s beautiful, intertwined teachings on issues of racial reconciliation, leadership, and community development.
Perkins, born into a family of sharecroppers, understands the struggle seen throughout Black history. In the 1930s, economic opportunities for African-Americans were slim. In fact, Dr. Perkins was forced to leave school with a third-grade education and prepare for a future in manual labor. At that time, African-American children were only expected to acquire the amount of education sufficient for them to do manual work, such as basic mathematical and reading skills.
John Perkins Childhood Family Photo. Courtesy of the JVMPF.org
Despite the odds stacked against him, Perkins grew up to be a powerful activist. He organized African-American voter registration in 1965 and led the struggle for the desegregation of Simpson County schools in 1967. Because of his fight, two of his children were among the first African Americans to enter all-white public high school.
John Perkins Family Photo. Courtesy of the JVMPF.org
By the late 1960s, Perkins became a voice of political and social justice in his hometown by organizing African-American voter registration. Perkins faced much opposition during the civil rights movement, oftentimes with heavy violence.
Despite his own experienced trauma with slavery, segregation, and police brutality, Perkins allowed God to take him through an emotional healing process that gave him the resilience to continue his mission of riding through Mississippi and its evils of racism. Through this determination and commitment to the teachings of Jesus, Perkins developed several programs, including the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation & Development in Jackson, Mississippi. This organization’s vision is to “See generations of global urban leaders, organizations, and institutions engaging the culture and changing the world by modeling reconciliation and contributing to community health and wholeness.”
As an Urban Youth Worker growing up under Perkins’ indirect leadership, by listening to his teachings, attending his events, and reading his latest book “Dream With Me,” I have benefited greatly. Perkins has challenged me to not only live out MLK’s dream of “Liberty and Justice for All,” but also God’s dream. As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of Chance The Rapper’s verse in “UltraLight Beam” The lyrics that hit me are:
“I’m tryna keep my faith / We on an ultralight beam / We on an ultralight beam / This is a God dream / This is a God dream / This is everything / This is everything / Deliver us serenity / Deliver us peace / Deliver us loving / We know we need it / You know we need it…”
I often ask myself, how was it possible that men like MLK and Perkins were able to keep their faith after experiencing so much trauma, loss, and hatred in their respective lives? How did they keep dreaming the dream of inclusion for all people, even though people hurt them tremendously?
Maybe because it’s not a human being’s dream but God’s dream.
Perkins confirms this, as he points me to the Bible. In the last chapter of his book “Dream With Me,” Perkins beautifully reinforces Acts 17:26:
“He made from one blood all nations who live on the earth. He set the times and places where they should live. One blood, one race… the human race. The one race that the blood of Christ died to reconcile. Reconcile ALL people to God and to one another.”
John further explains, “race, as we know it today, is mostly a social theory that was devised and refined over the centuries to serve the economic and religious goals of a majority culture, first in European territory, then later in America.” Our job, then, is to discern ways the American church has ‘color-coded’ Christianity on the basis of the myth of ‘race’ and allowed cultural prejudices to creep into our understanding of the Bible.”
John is calling us to discern the wrongs, seek justice, then craft a new way forward, rooted in the ultimate goal—love.
If John can still dream, even after losing a brother to cold-blooded police brutality, after “living” as a slave in Mississippi, after being forbidden to vote, after years of being forced to drink from a negro fountain, and even after giving 90 years of his life to painting this picture of liberty and justice with small returns, maybe I need to step up my resilience as a leader.
Perkins spent his life modeling what urban ministry should look like. This perspective has and will continue to change the trajectory for generations of scholars, on-the-ground workers, and missionaries in areas such as race relations, reconciliation, equity, and community development.
It is for all of the reasons above, UYWI honors Dr. John Perkins for how he committed his life to Christ and led his community, this generation, and our nation through spiritual, political, and social reformation.
Thank you Dr. Perkins, we will continue to dream with you.
We see the ultralight beam you are shining, and we believe it’s a God Dream.