It was a cold winter’s day in Chicago as I headed to O’Hare to catch my plane. I had promised to speak at a conference for pastors in San Antonio. My heart raced. I confess that I was craving Texas sunshine. I was also eager to spend time with old friends in ministry. I had spoken at many warm-weather conferences before, though, and spent most of my life serving pastors and their churches. The main reason for excitement as I headed to San Antonio was the theme of the gathering, “The Gospel, Compassion and Justice,” and the fact that I would meet John Perkins.
I had read Perkins’ work and heard him speak many times. He turns 91 this year and has served as a well-known Christian leader most of my life. But I had not yet met him, and, at this conference in particular, we were both on the docket. I even had an appointment to meet with him alone.
As a church history teacher, I have long stood amazed at the miracle of African American Christianity. Given the way that millions of Africans were captured, transported and enslaved in the Americas, the fact that some converted to the faith of their abusers is remarkable enough. The flourishing of African American churches, denominations and parachurch ministries is nothing short of astounding.
As I think about resilience in pastoral ministry, my mind turns as often as not to ministries of Black brothers and sisters in the Lord. And no single Black brother springs to mind quite as often as the Rev. John Perkins. Born in 1930 in New Hebron, Mississippi, he was orphaned as a baby. His mother died of pellagra, a form of malnutrition. His father ran away. He was raised by his grandmother. He dropped out of school and picked cotton as a boy. His older brother, Clyde, who fought in World War II and even earned a Purple Heart, was murdered by police in a local altercation. In short, his childhood was not very conducive to resilience in Christian faith and practice.
Perkins moved to California at the bidding of his friends. He fought in Okinawa as a soldier in Korea. He climbed the corporate ladder. And then, in 1957, he met the Lord. He moved his family back to central Mississippi in 1960, convinced that God was asking him to serve the Black community, mainly as an evangelist and Bible school teacher. He founded an organization known as the Voice of Calvary Institute, which cared for local residents spiritually and physically. During the mid-1960s, he worked for civil rights as a way of helping those he came to serve as a pastor.
In 1970, while caring for a group of young people who had marched for civil rights in Mississippi, he was jailed and then beaten within an inch of his life by a group of white police. But, surprisingly, rather than respond with hate and vengeance, Perkins decided to forgive those who beat him and commit his life to inter-racial reconciliation.
He believed that racial hatred damaged those of both races. He spread his new message of Christian love far and wide, writing books and preaching sermons wherever he was asked. He expanded his labors into other parts of the country—Pasadena and Chicago—and all around the world. By the 1980s, these ministries, and Perkins’ own reconciling spirit, grew so famous and attractive to so many other people that this grade school dropout became one the most influential Christian speakers anywhere. His message usually echoes that of Paul in Ephesians: Christ has reconciled the faithful to the Lord and one another and we should act like this is true as we serve him day by day.
If any minister in America has a right to be frustrated, or even just tired, it is surely John Perkins. But when I met him in Texas, he was full of the Holy Spirit and appeared to have more energy and optimism than I did.
It is healthy to admit it when we’re flagging in ministry. Many pastors need rest, good friends with whom to relax, share fellowship and pray. But when I’m tempted to despair or grow weary in well doing, I remember John Perkins. He has shown me how to spend myself for others even when I don’t think I have it in me. He has shown me how to participate in the sufferings of Jesus for the sake of the gospel. He has shown me how to represent the reconciling love of the Savior in the world—in both word and in deed—with a love stronger than death.
Douglas A. Sweeney is dean of Beeson Divinity School and author of The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement and The Suffering and Victorious Christ: Toward A More Compassionate Christology.