Lenten Conversations: John Perkins on Forgiveness
Another Way for week of March 24, 2017
Lenten Conversations: John Perkins on Forgiveness
Editor’s note: Fifth in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians over several years.
He had one of the most terrifying opening lines ever for a story: “One of the sheriffs took a … pistol and cocked it to the side of my head and pulled the trigger. … in my mind I was a dead person.”
Speaking was John Perkins, a well known champion of social justice and reconciliation—who dealt in a personal way with racial brutality in Mississippi in the 1960s.
I did several phone interviews with John Perkins preparing a producer for a 2001 documentary which aired on ABC-TV, Journey toward Forgiveness. But I felt like I knew John, too, after hearing him speak at an American Bible Society meeting and then sharing a taxi ride with him to the airport.
John grew up in the south where his brother, Clyde, was killed by a town marshall after a disturbance in a movie theater line. Clyde had fought in World War II and had a difficult time readjusting to life in Mississippi where, as a black, he was expected to conform and stay quiet. John was devastated and angry after his brother was killed. His parents, who had been sharecroppers in the 30s, wisely encouraged him to move to California; eventually he served with the military in Korea, became a Christian, and then married Vera Mae back home in Mendenhall, Mississippi, and became a pastor.
John believed strongly in encouraging people to help themselves and in such a role, helped to organize an economic boycott. He was briefly jailed in Mendenhall, and then some students were arrested for organizing a similar boycott in a nearby city. John drove to the jailhouse to help the students make bond and the sheriff “couldn’t believe that I would come back to make bond,” John recalled. “I didn’t have any understanding of the hostility that these people had.”
The guards started beating John and the two others who were trying to post bond. “They started beating us … the sheriff began to curse us and say, ‘This is that smart _____. This is a new ball game [here]. This is not Mendenhall. You are in my county now.’”
The sheriff had cocked the gun at John’s head and at one point a fork was shoved up his nose. He was kicked repeatedly in the groin. In the eyes of his tormentors, John saw hatred.
“That hatred frightened me. You get just a little glimpse of it and say, ‘I don’t want that dark place in my own life.’ I made a bargain with God that night, I was so fearful. I was thinking I was gonna be killed. And I said, ‘God, if you’ll let me out of this jail, I really want to preach a Gospel that is stronger than my race, stronger than my economic interest. I wanna preach a Gospel that can reconcile black and whites together in the body of Christ.’”
What I admire so very much is that out of this experience, John started a foundation which still works at reconciliation between races, justice, and development for all.
John explained further, “Reconciliation to me is not so much for the white people I encountered. It is really for myself. I saw that hate in the eyes of the people that tortured me and I could feel myself needing to hate them back.” He went on, “I felt a weight on me. I began to recognize that and really hear the Scripture that says, ‘Unless you can forgive those who trespass against you, how do you expect your heavenly Father to forgive you?’”
John emphasized that forgiveness was his way to shed hatred from his own life. “Forgiveness frees me,” he said. “Not only have I been loved by God, but I’ve been loved by God’s people.” John used his nightmare to help others latch onto the freeing experience of forgiveness.
After hearing John’s story, it restored my hope and faith that people could get along across the many boundaries that divide us. He went beyond reconciliation to preach that unless people are empowered to pursue economic development, they will continue to struggle in many realms. John never received a college degree, but I could see he had the wisdom of a Solomon.
I still grieve and stress over the racial injustice we find in our world, and work to reach across boundaries for better understanding and more harmony. In this Lenten season as we move closer to the special time of remembering Christ’s death on the cross, we can reflect on how Jesus also turned to those who tortured him and forgave them. It’s a way to find new freedom and love.
Find out more about the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation at https://jvmpf.org/
These Lenten Conversations are available as a free small booklet by clicking here: (Lenten Conversations PDF). Or for a printed version send your name, address, and two U.S. postage stamps and I’ll mail you a copy. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or Another Way Media, Box 363 , Singers Glen, Va. 22850.
Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.