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An Uncommon Vessel Turns 93: The...

An Uncommon Vessel Turns 93: The Irrepressible Life, Sacrificial Love and Unwavering Friendship of Dr. John Perkins

By: Mike Hurst - June 21, 2023

Dr. John and Vera Mae Perkins

A self-described third grade dropout from a sharecropper family of bootleggers and gamblers, Dr. Perkins has lived and modeled a life of redemption, reconciliation, love and forgiveness.

In the Spring of 2015, after having just quit my job as a federal prosecutor, becoming unemployed for the first time in my adult life, and launching a somewhat quixotic political campaign for Mississippi Attorney General, I was invited by my local missions pastor in Madison to a Bible study held in West Jackson every Tuesday morning at 5:30 am at the home of a man named Dr. John M. Perkins.  

Frankly, I am embarrassed to admit now that I had never heard of Dr. Perkins, and I did not know who he was, what he done in his life, or frankly what I was walking into.  Most importantly, I had no idea how he would change my life. 

Having just turned 93, born on June 16, 1930, in New Hebron, Mississippi, Perkins never really knew his mother and father, as his mother died from malnourishment when he was only 7 months old, and his dad left shortly thereafter.

Self-described as coming from a family of “bootleggers and gamblers,” he grew up in poverty and in a dangerous, segregated society. Sadly, when Dr. Perkins was just 16 years old, his older brother, Clyde, a recently returned World War II veteran, was shot and killed by a deputy sheriff in their hometown of New Hebron.  Worried that he might face the same fate, his family sent him to live with relatives in California in 1947.  He talks fondly of his time in California, but especially of how God worked through his young son Spencer, who was attending Bible class at a little church down the street there in Pasadena, to lead Dr. Perkins to Christ at the age of 27.  

After growing spiritually, Dr. Perkins felt that God was calling him back home to Mississippi, the place that he had once left “for good.”  In June 1960, Dr. Perkins, his wife Vera Mae, and they their five children moved to Simpson County, where he and his family began Voice of Calvary Ministries in New Hebron, Mendenhall and surrounding areas, which included a day-care center, youth programs, a church, a cooperative farm, a thrift store, a housing repair ministry, a health center, and an adult education program.  

It is unimaginable what Dr. Perkins witnessed and how he was treated during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, but he pressed on for the Gospel.  Sadly, one of the worst injustices against Dr. Perkins occurred in 1970, when Dr. Perkins went to the Brandon jail after 19 Tougaloo College students had been arrested while driving back to Jackson after having protested with the Perkins in Mendenhall.  At the Brandon jail, Dr. Perkins was severely beaten by corrupt law enforcement, to the point of unconscientiousness, and later humiliated, being forced to mop up his own blood from the jailhouse floor, as his abusers feared discovery of their crimes by federal investigators.

A few years later, in his widely acclaimed book Let Justice Roll Down, Dr. Perkins described the hate he had witnessed in that horrific moment in his life:

They were like savages – like some horror out of the night. And I can’t forget their faces, so twisted with hate. It was like looking at white-faced demons. Hate did that to them. But you know, I couldn’t hate back. When I saw what hate had done to them, I couldn’t hate back. I could only pity them. I didn’t ever want hate to do to me what it had already done to those men.

In 1972, Dr. Perkins and his family moved to Jackson where they carried on Voice of Calvary Ministries in order to bring educational opportunities and support to the poor throughout the Jackson metro area.  

In 1982, Dr. Perkins and his family moved back to California to continue their ministry work there, founding what is now Harambee Ministries in Northwest Pasadena and eventually establishing the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for Justice, Reconciliation & Community Development.  Just one year later, President Ronald Reagan appointed Dr. Perkins to the White House Task Force on Food Assistance.  On March 8, 1983, Dr. Perkins sat just to the left of President Reagan as he gave his “Evil Empire” speech to the National Association of Evangelicals.

In 1989, Dr. Perkins brought together Christian leaders with the goal of modeling Christ’s love to the poorest areas throughout the United States. This call to action led to the formation of the Christian Community Development Association, which now has 6,800 individuals and over 600 churches, ministries, businesses, and entities, in more than 100 cities and towns across the country.

In 1996, Dr. Perkins and his family returned to Jackson to continue their work of reconciliation and development. In 1998, after the death of his oldest son Spencer, he founded the Spencer Perkins Center which developed and offers youth programs in West Jackson, rooted in the Gospel.  Recently, three of Dr. Perkins’ daughters, Deborah, Elizabeth, Priscilla, have assumed leadership of the Foundation as co-presidents.

As if all of this were not enough, Dr. Perkins served his country during the Korean War, has been awarded honorary doctorates from numerous colleges, is a best-selling author of several critically acclaimed books, and has served on the boards of directors for multiple national and educational organizations.

And at 93, the man still has the energy of a 23-year-old.

I remember that very first Bible class I attended at 5:30 in March 2015, walking in through the front door of a nice, modest brick home on Robinson Street in Jackson, slightly west of the Jackson State University campus.  The doorway opened directly into the living room of the home, where a couch and an assortment of chairs were arranged in a circle against the walls, with a slightly hunched-over balding man with a goatee standing in the far corner.

What immediately struck me about Dr. Perkins was his smile, his incredibly warm, welcoming manner, and his ability to immediately connect with you, to make a complete stranger feel like we were life-long friends.  I really did not know what to expect that morning. I thought this would just be another normal Christian Bible study, with folks taking turns, going around the room, everyone reading some Bible verses, and we all discussing what came up. While we did read the Bible, first and foremost, as the foundation of the study, what struck me (and what I was not prepared for) was the energy, fervor, passion, insight and wisdom coming from this spry then-85-year-old!  He jumped around, thumped the Bible, waived his arms, and even cursed sometimes. But the words, the delivery, the excitement in his eyes, the love from his heart, the way he expressed, conveyed and manifested God’s love to all in that room – it all was the most amazing Bible study I had ever attended.

And it was an eclectic mix of attendees: white, black, old, young, students, professionals, blue collar workers, elected officials, pastors, volunteers, family members.  What brought us to this place was our shared faith and a desire to learn and grow in our understanding of God’s Word.  What kept us here, and kept bringing us back, was this incredible delivery instrument, this uncommon vessel, in the form of Dr. John Perkins, a self-described third grade dropout from a family of gamblers and bootleggers, who spoke so eloquently, so deeply, so full of wisdom and understanding.

Over the ensuing weeks, I continued to attend and began to develop a deep appreciation and love for this man.  I remember being struck and feeling surprised when he took such a strong interest in me, who I was, what I was doing, and where I was going. He kept saying to me, “God has big plans for you,” and, “I love you brother.” 

In one of his recent books, One Blood, Dr. Perkins described the Bible study this way:

The closer we get to one another the easier it will be for the fear to go away. We’ll see that we have so much more in common than we ever thought. And the door will be opened for us to love on another with true biblical love.

I have been blessed with this kind of love from my family and many brothers and sisters in Christ, both black and white. A special group of brothers gather every Tuesday for Bible study at our center. We meet at 5:30 in the morning and have been doing this for years. I was overwhelmed by how much love we have for one another. I looked at one my white brothers and said, “Man, I don’t think I could love nobody any mor than I love you!” Another one of the brothers said, “It looks like I’ve opened up a well in my heart!” That’s what happens when we love like Jesus did. It’s like a well that rises up in your heart and overflows. It’s pure joy!

I remember vividly at one point during my political campaign that I was criticizing my opponent for being close to then-President Barack Obama. The next time I showed up at Bible study, I was publicly disparaged quite strongly by a black minister in our group. I did not take offense, but rather let the gentleman finish his critique of me. But what surprised me more than anything was Dr. Perkins’ quick defense of me.  I had only been in that Bible study for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, and Dr. Perkins could have just as easily asked me to leave, to bring peace to the group.  On the contrary, he showed love, both to me and the other gentlemen, leading to our eventual reconciliation. Ironically, as only God can, this particular minister and I eventually became friends and even confessed and confided in one another.

A couple of years later, while still attending the Bible study, I was nominated by then-President Donald J. Trump to be United States Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.  After just a few months as U.S. Attorney, an investiture was held to mark my being sworn in.  On such occasions, it is customary for a notable speaker to say a few words about the person assuming office.  My predecessor had former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as his keynote speaker.  In my mind, I could think of no one better suited or more qualified (and frankly, no one I would be as honored to have) as Dr. Perkins.

When I asked him if he would consider being the keynote speaker for my investiture, he was overcome with joy, flattered that I would ask him.  In my mind, the opposite was true – I couldn’t believe this man who had done so much for so many throughout his life, who had faced unimaginable adversities, and who had overcome them all, would perform such a kind, selfless act for someone he had only known for a few years.

At the investiture, my friends and family finally got to see a glimpse of the Dr. Perkins I had come to know and love over the last several years.  This man on fire for the Lord set the stage on fire at Millsaps College, giving a free “sermon” on love and friendship, saying at one point coyly, “I think I like this guy.  I think we might be friends.” His message of unity, unconditional love, our bond as brothers and sisters in Christ, all children of God, is something that we could all use quite a bit more of these days. Looking back, it can only be described as a God-thing, that a man, who was beaten by corrupt law enforcement for protesting, exercising his constitutional rights, and just trying to seek justice for others, would agree to love someone like me, who looks like those who persecuted him, and would speak at an event honoring the chief federal law enforcement officer for over half our state.  That is not human will, but God’s will, and His divine plan.

When President Donald J. Trump came to Mississippi for the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, some lawmakers, local elected officials, civil rights leaders, and others boycotted, but not Dr. Perkins and his family.  Dr. Perkins was quoted as saying, “For me personally, it’s like an Ebenezer, a new beginning. And I hope this can be symbolic of a time for reconciliation… It was a ‘heart searching’ for me to come here after the President was coming, but I decided it’s too important. We got to do it together.”

While the COVID pandemic ended our weekly Bible studies in Dr. Perkins’s home, his daughters carry on his legacy and continue his Bible studies via a weekly ZOOM call with participants literally joining from all around the world.

After the pandemic subsided, I had the honor of taking Dr. Perkins to lunch with my 17-year-old son, Asa.  The way Dr. Perkins’s face lit up when he saw my son, and the time he took speaking into and sharing his wisdom with Asa, felt like an Old Testament-type conveying of a father’s blessing.  As we left the Mayflower Café in downtown Jackson, walking back to my truck to drive Dr. Perkins home, he wrapped his arm around the arm of my son and they walked arm and arm together down the street, with Dr. Perkins continuing to share his wisdom. 

When asked how he has been able to do, see, experience and accomplish all that he has done, his simple response is: “The only answer I know to give is that these things can happen when you walk with God.”  He talks of how “love is the final fight,” and how we were all made in God’s image, how we are all God’s children, and how we were all “made from one blood” as written in the Book of Acts and we are all one race.  He is genuinely interested in whomever he is with, listening intently, making that person feel like he or she is the only person in the room, the only person that matters.  He affirms, he encourages, he compliments, he builds others up. 

Just last week on June 14, 2023, Dr. Perkins and Vera Mae celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary!  And Dr. Perkins still talks about his wife as if they were still newlyweds – the love is deep, profound and palpable.  I don’t think I have ever met someone who loves, cares, and truly lives out the Gospel as much as this man.

I hesitated to even write this article, as I felt (and still feel) inadequate and unworthy in attempting to describe such a great man whom I have come to know and love over the past almost decade.

In our hyperbolic, super partisan, divided world, where we are more “connected” electronically but more divided than ever before, a self-described “third grade dropout” descended from “gamblers and bootleggers” has shown me what true love is, towards both God and others, what true forgiveness looks like, and how we are blessed to be called by and be a part of God’s plan.  

I have been blessed a lot in my life, but few compare to having met and been known, taught and loved by Dr. John M. Perkins.  Just imagine what would happen in our world, our country, our communities if we joined Dr. Perkins and made love our final fight. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”  Happy birthday, Dr. Perkins. Thank you for loving others like Christ loves us.

About the Author(s)
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Mike Hurst

Mike Hurst is a partner at Phelps Dunbar, LLP, in Jackson, MS. He most recently served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi from 2017-2021 and has served in various legal and policy roles throughout his career in the government, non-profit and private sectors. Originally from Newton County, he and his family now reside in Sandhill, Mississippi.