John Perkins, Switchfoot, Belhaven Dance, and the CCCU Forum

This week the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Forum was held in Atlanta.  Over 1,200 participated from among the 109 member institutions in the US and 73 affiliate members in this country and from around the world.

Our dancers were featured during the Performing Arts Showcase, and they were magnificent.  They stole the show, and I had dozens of other schools talk to me about the quality of our dance program and how/why Belhaven University has become a significant leader in the Arts.

Another highlight of the event for me was the  privilege to present to Dr. John Perkins CCCU’s highest award, the Mark Hatfield Leadership Award. And Dr. John spoke with great insight, presenting a marvelous challenge to our Christ-centered schools.

Dr. John’s message, along with all the sessions will be available online soon, including the address of  Francis Colins the Director of the National Institute of Health, and Rich Sterns the President of World Vision.

Since Dr. Perkins is such a good friend of Belhaven University, I thought you’d be interested in my introduction:

Those of us who live in Mississippi understand the Magnolia state has often been defined by stereotypes.

In fact, when visitors drive out of the Jackson airport, they are greeted by large banners confronting these assumptions . . . presented in traditional southern self-deprecating humor.

One reads:  Yes, we can read. And a few of us can even write – with the hope visitors to our state will have read William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Shelby Foote, Walker Percy, and Elizabeth Spencer – who is one of our Belhaven alums.

Some assumptions of Mississippi are grounded in truth and others are not, but if you take the worst of Hollywood stereotypes of 1940s Mississippi, that doesn’t begin to reflect the difficult and dangerous world faced by John Perkins when he was growing up.  There is no romanticized soundtrack when living through the real thing.

As the son of a share-cropper in the pinewoods of Mississippi, life was hard, people were desperately poor, and racial tension consumed every aspect of life.  Dominating white folks lived in fear that blacks would upset what little comfort they had, and black folks learned to submit to excruciating injustice or pay the consequences.

On a hot Saturday evening in the summer of 1946, 16 year-old John Perkins had come into the little town of New Hebron to escape for a few hours the endless toil of King Cotton.  His older brother, a decorated World War II veteran, was also in town to see his girlfriend.

And while Clyde and Elma waited in line for the movie theater to open, a local sheriff thought they where talking to loudly.  So as naturally as we would shake hands, the sheriff used his night-stick to remind Clyde who was in charge.

It must have been his hard fights against that Germans that made Clyde forget where he was, because rather then submitting in silence, Clyde grabbed the night stick.  And that was all the excuse the sheriff needed to take a step back and fire his gun twice into Clyde’s chest – and then, with no remorse, turn and walk away as Clyde lay dying in the street.

After Clyde’s violent death, his family was determined to protect the younger brother from seeking retaliation, and so John Perkins was put on a bus to go live in California with extended family, taking with him only one change of clothes, a sack lunch, and $3.

My six minutes to introduce John doesn’t allow me to unpack any more of this story, but if you don’t have a glimmer of where he came from, you can’t begin to grasp the enormity of where John Perkins has lead us.

  • Introductions like this among the academy are supposed to start with the litany of academic credentials, so let’s begin there:  John Perkins is a graduate of the 3rd grade . . . but I’d make the case that he’s the smartest person in the room tonight, and I believe you’ll agree because 10 of our CCCU schools have awarded an honorary doctorate to him.
  • He is the father of racial reconciliation for the evangelical church and more than any other person has moved us from passive observes to active players.
  • Dr. John is the founder of Christian Community Development Association, now the leading group for best practices in faith based community development.
  • He has traveled the world, often with a former Klansman friend, to preach the message of reconciliation among many cultures divided by hatred and fear.  John casts more bold vision before breakfast than most of us do all year.
  • He has served on the boards of World Vision, Prison Fellowship, National Association of Evangelicals, and Spring Arbor College among many others.
  • He is the author if 15 books . . . yes, like fellow Mississippi greats, he can write. In 2006 he received the lifetime Achievement Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association.
  • He has modeled hands-on community development in ministries he founded in Mississippi, and California.  And if you want to really see John in action, come be with him as he hugs the kids coming off the bus for afternoon programs, at the Perkins Center on Robinson Road in Jackson – which, for those of you not from our town, is not far from the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, and Medgar Evers Avenue.

We don’t have a street named after him . . . YET.  But who else in this room tonight has a song written about them by an alternative rock band?   Switchfoot’s,  The Sound – (The John Perkin’s Blues), is making John Perkins known to a whole new generation of young evangelicals.  John has become their Tony Bennett.

The leader of Switchfoot, Jon Foreman, wanted to share in congratulating Dr. John tonight and so we have a short video greeting from him.


John Perkins has lived God honoring grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation like no one else I know.

I have found great personal joy in being accepted by and loving the marvelous people of Mississippi who are the best of the New South.  But from John Perkin’s living through the very worst of the old divided South, he had every reason to hate.

Today at 80 years old, his life could be a stockpile of justified resentment, but instead, God has made it a fountain of joy and Godly grace.

From that Saturday night in New Hebron and the arrogance of a small town sheriff with too much power, to the battles of the civil rights era of the 1960s that earned John numerous beatings, endless harassment, and jailings, to the far-to-early death of his son Spencer who was dedicated to carrying forward his father’s work, John Perkins had every right to be angry at God and everyone around him. But he’s fill with grace instead of anger.

But rather than use John’s words, let me use Spenser’s to summarize this grace filled outlook the son learned from watching his father, when no one else was around.  Two days before he died, Spencer preached:

Being able to extend grace and to forgive people sets us free. We no longer need to spend precious emotional energy thinking about the day oppressors will get what they deserve. What I am learning about grace lifts a weight from my shoulders, which is nothing short of invigorating.  The ability to give grace while preaching justice makes our witness even more effective.

Spencer Perkins
From his message, “A Culture of Grace”
October 18, 1997 – two days before his death

John, it seems like yesterday we had Spenser’s funeral.  And it was somewhere in the middle of that three hour service, when your dear wife Vera Mae stood up on the front row and began to sing by herself:  “The Lord knows the way through the wilderness, all I have to do is follow.”

For all these years, you’ve been following Jesus through a wilderness most of us have never seen and little understand. Thank you for being to us a model of grace, joy, courage, inspiration, and insight.

It is a very special privilege to present to all you our speaker tonight and the recipient of the Mark Hatfield Leadership award,

  • a humble servant of Jesus – who is celebrating his 50th year of ministry
  • a prophetic voice whose story is deeply rooted in the past, but whose spirit soars into the future
  • and leader who embodies the kind of bold breakthroughs, which is not just the theme of our conference, but the dream we hold for our students

Dr. John Perkins

4 thoughts on “John Perkins, Switchfoot, Belhaven Dance, and the CCCU Forum

  1. The John Perkins Center is located very near where I reside. I know personally many of the families who children have attended summer programs or the after school programs at the Perkins Center. The Perkins Center is truly a wonder in our neighborhood because of not only the human aspect but
    Dr. Perkins’ leadership has enhanced the revitalization of the community to prevent boarded up houses. It gives me pleasure to pass the Perkins Center in my daily travel and to know that it is a place where God abides.

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