On Friday morning at the annual fall conference of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), a young Korean American woman, Susie Kook, introduces a Perkins Fellow who has spent the summer working with John Perkins in Jackson, Mississippi. Kook assures the large, multiracial audience that conference authorities have okayed the following act, which intends no disrespect.
Christian Vance, a young African American, proceeds to give a dead-on parody of the address Perkins has just finished, using his stuttering, rat-a-tat delivery. "I d-d-d-don't j-j-just HAPpen to be b-b-black. You see what I mean? My m-m-mother is BLACK. M-m-m-my FATHER is b-b-black. You see what I mean? My c-c-c-COFfee is black. So I am B-B-B-BLACK!"
A relaxed ripple of laughter runs through the audience. It is no big deal to make fun of the CCDA founder. In fact, it shows how this gathering views the man some call "Grandpa." More than respected, he is loved. Perkins and his wife, Vera Mae, have eight children of their own, but this gathering is his extended family and his legacy.
CCDA is an association, not an organization. It is composed of evangelicals involved in inner-city ministry to the poor. Like a trade association, a common interestnot institutional connectionslinks these people.
Nearly 2,000 have come to Philadelphia for networking and encouragement. Most are young and white, with a sizeable component of African Americans and smaller leavenings of Asians and Hispanics. The atmosphere is consistently friendly and stress-freestylistically moderate, even though the work they do is radical.
"This is an organization with a single purpose," Perkins said earlier Friday morning for his daily Bible study. "Single purpose! Single purpose! We're committed to build the community and the family among the poor."
That single purpose lured Michael Young from Fresno, California, where he works with an inner-city ministry known as Pink House. Not long out of college himself, he has brought nine interns to the conference. "We like to get them around practitioners, people who have been doing it for 20 years," he explains. "It's good to be around people who have poured themselves into this workwho have struggled.
"One of our priorities is to hear John Perkins do his Bible study. It's kind of like hearing from Grandpa. He has kept true."
Anger to Activism
John Perkins's small, wizened face shows his 76 years, but he grows animated while speaking to this audience, strutting and striding like a charged-up Chuck Berry. "Good ministry that changes the community comes out of passion," he preaches in a seminar. He tells of his first days of ministry in Mississippi, when two white pastors who had opened themselves to black friendships ended up committing suicide because of the harassment they received. "That's when I began to get passionpassion to preach the gospel that can liberate my white brethren."
Perkins's remarkable life story began in rural, segregated Mississippi, where his father disappeared and his mother died shortly after his birth. Raised by tough, bootlegging relatives, he never finished elementary school. As a teenager, he held his dying brother Clyde in his arms after a trigger-happy police officer shot him, a decorated serviceman just back from World War II service.
Relatives urged an angry Perkins to leave town before he got shot himself. In 1947, they helped him go west to Southern California, where he landed a job in a foundry. A self-confessed workaholic, he prospered as he advanced from one job to another. Soon he owned his own home, where he and Vera Mae began to raise their children.