When asked to describe his calling, Civil Rights leader John Perkins launches instead into a detailed explanation of his long and morphing relationship with the Bible. Perkins’ story moves from confusion to clarity, and ultimately ends in resolve and redemption. Having grown up in poverty, Perkins found hope in the promises of God, and he took them to heart.

But he didn’t just take the good stuff to heart. He also took to heart the challenges and warnings scripture had for both him and his world. In his later years, Perkins demonstrates a distinct comfort with the kinds of tensions we find in scripture: between repentance and hope, justice and forgiveness.

In 1960, Perkins and his wife Vira Mae moved from California, back to Mendenhall, Mississippi to put into practice his philosophy of what it means to minister to the poor. Though he spent much of his energy implementing a daycare center, a church, a youth program, and many other benevolent programs, in his community, Perkins also took a prominent role among ongoing Civil Rights activism. As a result, he built up his community while also running into a host of physical push-back, oftentimes being imprisoned and even beaten for his beliefs and actions.

Along with his wife, he started a foundation dedicated to justice, reconciliation, and community development. Now 88 years old, he’s focused on clarifying and documenting the experience and wisdom he’s developed over the years.

In the final episode of CT’s The Calling, host Richard Clark talks with Perkins about his experience growing up in the midst of unjust laws, the double-edged sword of forgiveness, and his fear of falling short of faithfulness in the end.

In the excerpt from the podcast below, adapted and edited for publication, Perkins discusses the nature of his personal calling.

Click the “play” button above to hear the rest of the interview.

What would you say is your calling?

Well, when I started reading the Bible it was difficult for me to understand, because the Bible was not written in the everyday English language. In addition to that, I was an Ebonics speaker. I spoke within the context of my dialect in Mississippi. So the Bible was not that easy for me to read.

It didn’t have relevant meaning to me in Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, darkness…” I bet you I read over that without really understanding what it was. But as I began to read through the Bible, I came to Abraham’s calling; it was the twelfth chapter of Genesis. To me, that’s where Genesis began: the call of Abraham.

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God had said to Abraham, “Get thee out from among your family and from your father’s house, and I will make you, I will bless you. I will bless them that bless you and curse them that curse you. And through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It seemed like, what he was saying to Abraham, I heard it like he was talking to me. That’s when I really thought I was being called of God.

I heard that to say “I’m going to redeem your name.” Or better yet, I felt my name was so messed up, my heritage, my people and that I was such a sinner. That brought a conviction in my life. And I said to God, “God, would you redeem my name?”

What do you mean your heritage was messed up?

My family. We were bootleggers and gamblers. Wrong is what we practiced for a living.

Now, I had already confessed a desire to know God. I probably at this point already been baptized. I was being discipled and listening for God’s call and purpose in my life. And I think that that happens many times very close to conversion. You’ll hear it sort of come on: “Lord, what would you have me to do?”

In my case he was speaking to me through the Word. I assumed that he was speaking to me, and I felt that I wasn’t adequate in terms of my moral standing in life, even though I had confessed Christ.

I said, “Redeem my name.” And I think that was something like feeling forgiven.

You felt it, finally.

Finally, when I asked him to redeem my name.

And this is what happened: I looked back down on the Scriptures and I began to read it. And what I was reading I began to understand. And it stuck there. You never heard me teach, but as I teach the Scriptures I can memorize the relevant Scriptures. I can just take a whole text and memorize it, not so much as you would think of memorize. I memorize it as I read it, if my brain comprehended it.

Like you internalize it?

Right. Those passages are still in my head and in my memory, in blocks. So when I teach the Bible it’s rather easy for me to bring up that whole text in order.

So I have the Bible sort of in textual order in my head, and that makes it easy then to pull up and explain. That is no doubt a gift, but the brain also has great capacity to absorb. Then of course I think once you give your life to God I think the Spirit is there, wooing you on.

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And if God has called you, he wants you to do that. So I do believe very deeply in the call of God upon a life. I sort of believe that I read in the Scriptures that God is in the highways, the byways, and he’s always calling out to us. And I think prayer is that designed way of listening to what God has to say.

Click the “play” button above to hear the rest of the interview.

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The Calling is produced by Richard Clark and Morgan Lee and edited by Jonathan Clauson.

Theme music by Lee Rosevere, used under Creative Commons 4.0.