“You gotta be born again. And again. And again.”
John M Perkins
John told us this as we sat on the porch, drinking coffee and talking about the commencement address he was about to give at Taylor University.
Its easy to forget how much of an icon he is whilst you sit with him, and laugh as he eats all the sweet potato, or tells you he doesn’t want any food, then steadily works his way through your fries. He has no airs and graces, no attitude of expecting you to honour his fame: he is humble, friendly and straight-forward.
At the same time, we are staying in house with a library full of books he’s written, or mentioned in, or provided a forward to. He is technically Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Perkins, since he has received 13 honorary doctorates from Colleges and Universities across the nation. He’s served on the board of World Vision, Prison Fellowship and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Despite all of that, he’s found time to spend a couple of days with us, he even consider meeting with seekers like us part of his calling now.
“I got to 80, and said, ‘I don’t have much time left’. I got to thinking, ‘Who should I spend my time with’. And I’ve been focusing on that in these last few years.”
That John is still talking about personal change, vision, and being born again, again, is a challenge to us. If you can achieve all he has, and reach the ripe old age of 84, many would consider you’ve earned the right to retire, to stop. But John has a very clear focus: community and personal development amongst those who live on the economic fringes:
“Jesus was careful to separate it, he talked about the poor, and the poor in spirit. Ain’t no getting round it: he cared about the monetary poor. But it don’t stop there – its not just money holding them back: they poor in spirit too.
Jackson is a very interesting place. There’s a majestic, architecturally impressive city centre, with a main road leading to the old capital building that screams high class. Halfway down is the historical Governor’s mansion, surrounded by high ceilinged glass fronted shops.
The only problem? Almost everything is empty. Empty, shopless, deserted streets.
We walked through on Saturday, at 2pm. There was an average of 1 car every 3 or 4 minutes passing through, the same number of pedestrians. Walking from end to end, there was only one shop open selling drinks.
I’ve never been anywhere that feels quite so much like a ghost city, and I’m not sure I understand the economics that leave it in such a state.
What I do understand is that those same economics lead to the area of West Jackson, where the Spencer Perkins Foundation is based, being very run down. You can buy houses for $10,000 – the Foundation even got paid $5,000 to take over one house – and the streets are full of those that don’t get sold falling down.
The area is almost exclusively poor, and black; both issues that John has devoted his life too:
I believe that interracial churches is an important focus.. The resistance is pretty much gone, but there’s very little intentionality. You gotta be intentional!
As I read in the Jackson Free Press, only 55% of black students complete high school, compared to 90% of white kids. Frankly, even the 90% statistic is concerning to me, so seeing how the situation is worse for those with darker skin was very challenging.
Fundamental issues of fairness, and systemic failure are evident worldwide. Living in post-apartheid South Africa has shown us that, with an ANC government making its own mistakes. Different to those from apartheid, but still ones that impact on the poor and vulnerable. Sadly, churches don’t always shine as a righteous example – as John likes to say:
We took justice out of the grace package.
So what have we learnt? Its been wonderful to spend time with people here on a similar journey to us. The Foundation has lots of young people in their 20s who have relocated from around the country to work here. In our conversations with them, they’ve wrestled with similar issues to us: caring about the local poor, whilst still taking into account majority world poverty and the environment.
In just 5 days, these people have become our friends. They’ve cooked us Southern Food, made us sweet tea and homemade lemonade, taken us shopping, and shared life with us. Last night we sat out on the porch with them as it got dark, mostly laughing and joking, but in the midst talking about our hopes, for the Center and for Jackson.
I don’t think its ridiculous to say that we are going to miss these people, and we are going to miss the friendly community of West Jackson.
As we leave for our next wonderful hosts, I’ll leave a final statement from John for us to think about.
Take people out, they are happier starting mission somewhere else. People come here, and then they say “Why aren’t we doing this at home?”.
And I turn it back on them, and say, “Well, why aren’t you doing this at home?”