One back story from Fifty Shades of Grace: John Perkins, champion of racial and economic justice

9780836197860One of my favorite stories in Fifty Shades of Grace: Stories of Inspiration and Promise is that of John Perkins. John is the author of the now-classic Let Justice Roll Down.

First a little background.

In the mid-’90s I was asked to be on an anti-racism team for Mennonite Board of Missions (which became Mennonite Mission Network in 2001).  Many teams from the church agencies, colleges and some churches attended intensive trainings: five days at a retreat center here, four days at a conference center there, and eventually many follow-up team meetings in various cities. My three daughters were still school age so they weren’t necessarily happy when I went away, especially for a week at a time.

After intensive training and team work, one of our final meetings in that process just blew up racially. It was painful for all involved. We had tried to come to a consensus about a statement that would be made to the denomination, and ultimately our caucuses could not agree. We were angry and I was fighting tears. I had never been so disillusioned about hope for understanding across racial and ethnic lines in my life. I could not bring myself to participate in the closing communion. I went home severely disappointed.

Several months later I heard John Perkins speak at the annual meeting of the American Bible Society. At that time, the ABS invited and paid for representatives from various denominations to attend their National Church Advisory Council. The agenda looked good but my boss couldn’t go, so he sent me. I’m always up for a trip to New York City.

I was quickly and emotionally swept up in Perkins’s message of God’s love and desire for reconciliation between races. Perkins shared his testimony and many stories from his long and painful work for racial reconciliation, and economic and social justice. He had been beaten and tortured in the days of boycotts, marches and unrest in the South. Here was a man who had truly suffered (not just attending long meetings): his brother was murdered because of racial misunderstanding.

Perkins restored my hope and faith that people could get along across the many boundaries that divide us. He went beyond reconciliation to development: understanding innately that unless people are empowered to find the means to economic development, they will continue to struggle in many realms. To the old “give a man/teach a man to fish” adage, Perkins said it is the man or woman who owns the pond that will eat fish for a lifetime. Perkins had to drop out of school when he was in third grade but has received five honorary doctorates over the years. I could see he carried the wisdom of a Solomon. I wept as I felt that Perkins, and God, were speaking directly to me. It was a time of healing. As I was leaving the meeting, Perkins and I were able to share a taxi to the airport. I tried to put into words a little of what his presentations had meant to me.

Vera Mae and John Perkins filmed by Jim L. Bowman for the documentary, Journey Toward Forgiveness
Vera Mae and John Perkins filmed by Jim L. Bowman for the documentary, Journey Toward Forgiveness

Fast forward a couple years when Mennonite Media (now morphed into MennoMedia) began working on a string of documentaries, which aired on national TV beginning with Journey Toward Forgiveness. Our production team researched unusual and profound stories of forgiveness and my mind went to John Perkins’s immense suffering and, ultimately, forgiveness. I gave him a call. Would he be willing to participate in our documentary, telling his story? He would and did and actively promoted the documentary for many years, taking along copies of the video to his many speaking engagements.Fast forward a bunch more years to working on Fifty Shades of Grace. (Earlier I wrote about the editing/compiling process here.) Now in his early 80s, I wondered if Perkins was still speaking and writing. Would he let us share his story in Fifty Shades? I emailed the contact person at the John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development (which is now named for his son, Spencer Perkins, who died suddenly in the late ’90s).

A week or two later, I got a phone call out of the blue. We receive numerous phone calls at MennoMedia that I sometimes handle, from people who have heard our radio spots on various topics like mental illness, drug addiction, grief. It took me 10-20 seconds to realize it wasn’t a radio spot caller. It was John Perkins himself. He was responding to my email message. He wanted to make sure I had gotten the message that he was happy to have his story included and would look for ways to promote the book in his speaking and appearances. (I just learned he is speaking in Richmond, Va., May 15, 2013.) He has two recent books of his own out: a memoir, Love is the Final Fight and Leadership Revolution: Developing the Vision & Practice of Freedom & Justice (with Wayne Gordon).JohnPerkins

To read John’s brief but dramatic story in our book, I hope you’ll buy Fifty Shades of Grace. And if you’re in the Harrisonburg, Va., area May 9, bop on over to Park View Mennonite Church fellowship hall between 3:30-6 p.m. on your way home from work or before your dinner to pick up a couple of copies. It’s on 30 percent discount until May 9.

Melodie Davis, compiler, author of eight books, the Another Way newspaper column, and blogger at Finding Harmony Blog.