In 1960 a recently converted black man moved his family from California back to Mendenhall, Mississippi, to which he had sworn never to return. He had left years before after his brother was shot by a policeman and killed outside the Negro entrance to a movie theater. The killing was never reported, then a frequent practice in Mississippi when black people were murdered. But John Perkins heard and answered God’s call to return to a society that still oppressed the black community. During the years since he returned Perkins has planned and built a pilot community called Voice of Calvary, which includes a health center, a gym, a library, and a Bible institute. He was persecuted during the civil-rights era. He was arrested while trying to post bail for a friend and colleague and nearly died from a police beating; he spent six months in a hospital recuperating from his night in jail. “Even then,” says Perkins, “when my circumstances shouted defeat, I felt undefeated.” God gave this man a resilient spirit and a broad vision of helping his black brothers and of healing the wounds of white-black tensions. An able administrator, Perkins says that he takes a positive outlook. And anyone who spends even a short time with him cannot long remain pessimistic about race problems.

Perkins spoke at last year’s Evangelicals for Social Action workshop, where tensions between black and white participants dominated much of the meeting. Our interview, an edited version of which follows, was conducted at that workshop. Perkins, his large hands extended in front of him and his glasses resting on the end of his nose, explained what he and his black and white staff members were doing in Mississippi to bring the whole Gospel to those in the Southern rural black community.

Question. Is the white community still listening to blacks?

Answer. No. To a certain degree blacks have had their chance to speak. I don’t know whether the white community will listen any more or will hear what blacks are saying. The confrontation period is over, and since there’s little open violence between whites and blacks, white people see no need to listen. We need some kind of visibility. The Voice of Calvary gives visibility to the continuing race problem and offers constructive solutions.

Question. What do you think of black theology?

Answer. Black theology and theologians do not have wide acceptance in the black community any more than within the white community. Some blacks decided they needed a theology that would better fit the black experience. But it’s not something we are seeing worked out in many black churches. It is still a theology of the books and not of the streets. (The theology of the black Muslims is an exception.) What we need is a theology that presents solutions to our problems. White evangelical theology has not been able to do this in the black community. As Christians we need to give ourselves, both individually and as a community, to programs and ideas that work. These must be rooted in Jesus Christ and his body of believers as revealed to us in the Holy Scripture. If programs work, get other people to adapt them to their community. We need to bring healing to the race problems. At Voice of Calvary this is beginning to happen.

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Question. Are you talking about integration?

Answer. Yes. I believe that the biblical church model, as in Antioch, must be open to the participation of all races. Otherwise it’s not a New Testament church. But to see integration itself as a force that develops a community and brings healing is false. It takes a commitment deeper than just integration. I believe that the only commitment able to bring healing is a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Question. How many staff members do you have?

Answer. VOC has about thirty full-time workers, about half of them white.

Question. What kinds of programs does VOC support?

Answer. In Mendenhall we have a two-acre community that houses the VOC plant. The largest project we have is a county-wide community health center. We have a predominantly black-run year-round tutoring program. We sponsor a summer intern project and hold vacation Bible school for thirteen area churches. We have a Bible institute, a gymnasium, a farm, a summer camp, an evangelism training program, and a co-op housing development. In Mendenhall we rent three-bedroom apartments for sixty dollars a month. In Jackson we run People Development, Incorporated, a year-old housing and construction company.

Question. In brief, how has VOC developed?

Answer. When we first came to Mississippi we started the Voice of Calvary Bible Institute. My wife and I taught Bible stories in the schools to more than 10,000 children each month. We held rural home Bible studies with adults. We began to see how we could meet people’s needs as we came face to face with them in their homes and in the schools. We began a program of tutoring and adult education to help children and parents learn how to read. We needed housing for our growing staff, and wanted to provide good, low-income housing for the community, so we built new houses—we did most of the labor ourselves—and five duplex apartments. We borrowed money from the federal government to build them. Next we organized 200 farmers into a purchasing co-operative, and out of that came my involvement with several co-operative farms throughout Mississippi and a co-operative food store in Mendenhall. The farms in different parts of the state sell their produce—cucumbers, okra, soybeans—to companies like Bird’s Eye and Heinz. These were founded on some of the same principles at work in Voice of Calvary, such as self-help and indigenous leadership. As these co-ops became more organized, I, along with a few others, helped to found a community development fund, initially begun with government help and $1,000, and now an independent organization with assets of $8 million. It lends money to people and organizations in the community at 10 per cent interest. This organization is separate from VOC but has helped us in some critical areas of development. We needed key leaders to run with the programs as they expanded. In Mendenhall, leaders like Artis Fletcher and Dolphus Weary came from our church and from our leadership development institute. Next we needed a larger building than our church, which only seated 200, to serve as a community center for tutoring, recreational activities, and vocational workshops. So we also built that. Then came the health center. All that took twelve years. In 1973 I moved VOC’s headquarters to Jackson and started the Jackson Bible Institute, which reaches out to students at Jackson State University, and the construction company.

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Question. How did the health center come into being?

Answer. In 1969–70 my wife did a community survey on the health conditions in our county. She found that people were sick and that much of the sickness was related to bad nutrition. The people in the county couldn’t afford adequate health care, and there was no place where they could get it. They needed education along with health care. We built our first building, which cost $30,000 and had no mortgage. After that building was flooded in 1972, we bought our current building for $75,000, located across the street from the Simpson County Courthouse in downtown Mendenhall. It was financed by churches and individuals; no government money was used. We have a $13,500 X-ray machine as well as other equipment.

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Question. What kinds of services do you offer?

Answer. We don’t have the money to offer all the services we would like, but we’re more comprehensive than any other facility in the area. We have a full-time lab technician and an x-ray technician who try to provide thorough diagnostic care. We have had five different doctors volunteer to work with us one at a time since we began. Now we have a full-time doctor, Eugene McCarty, who is doing an excellent job at delivering health care with Christian compassion. But we need another doctor to join him. We also have a nutritionist who helps upgrade the diets of our constituency as well as a pediatric nurse. We would like to provide dental and eye care too.

Question. What is the cost to the patient?

Answer. The center is a cooperative. People pay $3 to become a member. We currently have about 900 families or about 4,500 people as members. That fee allows the member to receive medical treatment for about 20 per cent less than a non-member would pay. A routine doctor’s visit costs $7. We do X-rays for just a little over cost or about half the going fee in our area. We sell drugs for about half the cost at a pharmacy. And even at those prices not everyone can afford to pay us. Right now we’re carrying about $10,000 of unpaid bills from people who just cannot afford the cost of even basic health care. I would like to write off that amount, and not try to collect it. We also offer the Medicaide program, for which the federal government reimburses us.

Question. What about the summer volunteer intern program?

Answer. For eight weeks each summer, people from different parts of the country live and work with us. We have a personnel staff that handles applications and placements. Last summer about thirty people from such states as California, Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Michigan participated. On the application form we ask the person to list interests and talents. Then we match talents with needs. The volunteers help in construction, on our farm, in our swimming or music program, in the health center, or with secretarial work. We also run the same type of two-week program for large church groups. During the whole eight-week period we schedule one or two of these large groups every two weeks to help wherever needed. We get anywhere from six to nineteen in a group, and last summer about sixty people from various churches worked with us. We start accepting applications for the volunteer intern program in January and close around April. Anyone interested can write for an application to VOC at 1655 St. Charles Street, Jackson, Mississippi 39209.

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Question. How did you get into the construction business?

Answer. We’ve really been in construction since coming to Mississippi in 1961. We built all our own buildings, with the exception of the present health center. A year ago in Jackson we incorporated under the name People Development and are qualified as general contractors. We want to run a housing redevelopment program—buy rundown houses, remodel them, and sell or rent them back to the community. We invite carpenters, electricians, and plumbers who volunteer short-or long-term on these projects. We buy houses that HUD repossesses; we get about a 30 per cent discount on them. We pay, say, $8,000, for a house, spend about $1,000 for materials (not counting labor costs), and resell it for $12,000. Over the last two years we’ve remodeled about ten houses. We’ve rented some of these; others we’ve used as staff houses. We’re in the process of selling our first house to a staff member. Our biggest project, remodeling an old, big doctor’s house into our conference center, the Samaritan’s Inn, cost about $6,000 in heating, air conditioning, and interior decorating. This along with the expert labor was all donated by a church, First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Illinois. Pastor Calvin Marcum accompanied a huge work crew of adults and teen-agers. It didn’t cost us anything.

Question. Where did you get the start-up money for the construction business?

Answer. We borrowed $30,000 from the development fund I mentioned before. And our staff all regularly invest money in it. It works kind of like a credit union. People lend us money at low interest rates, or they make direct contributions. Some people have given us short-term loans of $500 or $1,000 at no interest, which we repay after we finish working on a house. Eventually we hope that any profit the company makes will be reinvested in the Voice of Calvary ministry.

Question. What about staffing?

Answer. Right now we depend mostly on volunteers. But we hope to have a full-time staff—a plumber, an electrician, a cement finisher, a brick layer. Then these people would train and work with others in the community, and as we expand we would hire those we’ve trained. We now have one full-time manager, Herbert Jones.

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Question. How have these programs lessened racial tensions?

Answer. We have found that as white and black people share in physical, manual labor, racial tensions lessen and disappear. I am dedicated to the work of Voice of Calvary because I think blacks need to make solutions visible and practical. We design projects to bring people together for a tangible goal. As we learn from each other hostilities evaporate. Right now in Jackson we’re trying to develop a strong integrated core community. I believe that real Christian faith can break down racial barriers, as Paul described in Ephesians 2:14: “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.…”

Question. Do you have a college scholarship program? If so, how do you decide who receives financial aid?

Answer. About sixty teen-agers over the years have gone to college with some assistance from VOC. If in the tutoring program a teen-ager shows promise and makes good progress, we make that person a junior staff member who then tutors young children. We give the junior staffers $50 a month during the winter: $25 goes into PDI and $25 goes into a savings account for their college expenses. We also operate the Rural Education and Leadership Foundation, a non-profit scholarship fund to which people can make tax-deductible contributions. We want our black teen-agers to return to the community to work after college. One of our young men is in medical school right now. When he was in high school we started the health center. That’s when he decided to become a doctor and some day direct our health program. We’ve recently begun to emphasize vocational majors, such as business administration, nursing, and other technical fields.

Question. Have you asked any evangelical colleges for scholarships?

Answer. We get lots of requests for students from evangelical schools. But the problem is not getting students into colleges, or getting money for them. We need people to support our tutoring program to get students ready for college. We need to change the image among rural blacks of what it is like, and we need to provide proper motivation, so that teen-agers want to attend college.

Question. What is the next project you plan to start working on?

Answer. I want to get the construction company firmly moving, and then would like to found a bank that would provide financial aid to Christian organizations or churches, not individuals, who want to develop community-oriented programs like Voice of Calvary. We want to reproduce Christian outreach communities.

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Question. What is your daily schedule like?

Answer. I get up at 5:30 and spend an hour in prayer and Bible study. Then I take fifteen to twenty minutes organizing my work day. The kids leave for school by bus at 7:45. My wife and I leave together at 8:00. She sorts the mail while I begin my morning meetings, the first of which is with my executive assistant. We go over the projects that need attention that day. In the afternoon I usually have a speaking engagement at a college or church. If it’s a good day I’m home by six, though sometimes I don’t get home before ten. I function as the driver of the organization. That’s my gift.

Question. Do you have any hobbies?

Answer. I enjoy all sports, especially baseball. And I love working with my hands and building, but I don’t get a chance to do that any more. I tried all last summer to do some building, but never got even one hour of building in.

Question. What books have influenced your life?

Answer. Books by G. Campbell Morgan, whom I consider a master teacher. Richard DeHaan had a profound effect on my life. Francis Fannon, who wrote The Wretched of the Earth, helped me understand the spirit of oppressed people and helped me move forward in my life. And of course James Baldwin’s books have had a heavy impact on my life.

Question. What books would you recommend for white people to read?

Answer. First of all I feel ignorant about the black situation in northern cities. My knowledge and concern is the South. The books that I want my southern white friends to read would be different from those northern whites should read. Before working with me and my program I want whites to know as much as possible about blacks in the South, but I also want them to know about white behavior in the South. So I would recommend Mississippi: the Closed Society, Three Lives For Mississippi, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Question. What are your goals in the area of helping the race problem?

Answer. We are making a concentrated effort to reach the greater white population now with the story of Voice of Calvary and to get the white community more involved with us, while remaining a black-led home mission group that approaches evangelism from the community-development point of view. We have a specific goal of getting 200 to 300 suburban churches to support our ministry regularly.

Question. Do you mean monetary support?

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Answer. Of course we want and need money. But churches could send us materials. Or people. Many white evangelical suburban churches don’t have a personal way to express their missionary concern. Working with us on short-term projects is perhaps more helpful to the people in these churches than check-writing. But we need both. We need people concerned about us enough to join hands with us in real ways, either by giving financially or by coming down and working. We have developed a fellowship with people all over the country in this way. We would like the names of more people who would like to join this fellowship. We want people to get involved. For this reason our mailing list is something special. We don’t want the kind of list where, if you send a few dollars, you receive information about Voice of Calvary for life. For six or seven years our list stayed around 300. In the last five years it’s jumped to 3,000. We want it to continue growing, but only through relationships with people who are really with us.

Question. What is your own church connection?

Answer. I have no formal connection with any denomination. I was converted in a holiness church but ordained in a Baptist church. I lean toward people like the Mennonites who have a strong sense of community, who preach the Gospel, and who then demand that their converts and constituency work to change society. I believe we need to restore the sense of community, or perhaps of family, within the Church. In many cases the black church has served as the family unit. One of the problems facing the black community is the lack of a strong male image. For families with no father, the black pastor has become the surrogate father. And that’s good. The white churches haven’t felt this strong need for community, since in most cases the family unit provided it.

Question. How would you sum up your ministry?

Answer. We feel we have developed a total community-type program, and we’d like to see similar programs started in other communities throughout the South. I call Voice of Calvary a home mission society, a gospel center that also meets the social needs of the people with whom it lives. Central to our program, of course, is the message that Jesus Christ is Saviour. We are using a Black Muslim approach to reaching people. The difference is the centrality of the Cross in our ministry.

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