Contributor: Delonte Gholston

“I’m sorry. John who?”

This was my first reaction to many of my white evangelical friends who have followed a call to ministry from the suburbs to the city when they would ask me, “so, have you heard of John Perkins?”. My response the first time I was asked this question was a blank stare and a smile. After 30 years of worshiping, ministering and serving in predominantly or exclusively black churches in the heart of Washington DC, I had never before heard the name John Perkins. Not once. I would later discover that he is an icon within evangelicalism and is widely thought of as the founder of a new field of holistic ministry called Christian Community Development.

Over time I began to notice a trend. Not a single one of my friends who asked me about Rev. Perkins was black. Not one. Every one of the people singing Rev. Perkins’ praises was a white, middle class, suburban-reared evangelical pastor or missionary. In this corner of evangelicalism, Rev. Perkins was seen as the epitome of a faith leader committed to social justice. My white evangelical friends who admired Perkins assumed that, as a Black Christian, of course I shared their knowledge and veneration of Perkins.

What was I to make of this?

I had been raised in the black church and exposed to the black preaching tradition. I knew names like Wyatt T. Walker, Rudolph McKissick, Vashti McKenzie, and other preaching greats from nearly every black church tradition. How had I never come across Rev. Perkins?

As someone who grew up in a predominantly black city like Washington DC, a city that was, both then and now, being changed by the pressures of gentrification, what was I supposed to make of all of these well-off, highly educated evangelicals who were saying that it was actually an old black preacher with a third grade education (as they liked to say) from Mississippi who inspired them to leave the suburbs and move into the inner city to transform it for God? As someone who saw God very much alive in so many thriving churches in the city I had to ask, whose God are you talking about? A white suburban God? A white evangelical God?

What I began to see was the perfect storm of large socio-economic and theological trends converging on our cities. Black churches who had struggled, prayed, and community organized their way through gang violence, militarized policing, and the heroine, crack and AIDS epidemics of the 80s and 90s were finally beginning to get the church growth bug and move into the suburbs to follow their more middle class and affluent tithers. Meanwhile, white suburban churches who were formerly terrified of the “darkness” of the city had begun to hear of new urban “explorers” buying and renovating homes, and began to see the city as an untapped “frontier” for missions. So they pulled out their maps, started praying over their new “territory”, raised money and started moving in.

As all of these thoughts were swirling about in my head and heart, I finally had the privilege of meeting Dr. Perkins. I sat with him and a handful of black faith leaders at a small luncheon in 2011 at the second gathering of a conference called The Justice Conference. This conference was organized by a Christian NGO called World Relief and Kilns College of Oregon. Dr. Perkins was widely celebrated and honored at this predominantly white and middle class conference. It was here that I began to see things more clearly; and what I came to realize was that John Perkins was trying to do something in the 70s, 80s, and 90s that many in the black church just weren’t ready for at the time. At a time when many were still grieving the losses of civil rights icons like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Martin King, Perkins was trying to bring about racial reconciliation in a bold new way by saying that, instead of busing black children to white neighborhoods, white families should have to move into and learn the ways of black neighborhoods. In many ways, more than a voice of the black church, Perkins saw himself as a missionary to the white evangelical church. However, what I think my white evangelical friends assumed was that Dr. Perkins was a bridge between the black church and the white church. But the thing about a bridge is that the traffic is supposed to go both ways. What I realize now is that even among the handful of blacks and minorities who have even heard the name John Perkins, they are people who have decided to attend white owned evangelical seminaries or Bible colleges, or they have decided to pastor or seek funding from white evangelical sources.

Now, one thing is true. Dr. Perkins has most certainly inspired a generation of young minority preachers and social entrepreneurs to cross cultural and racial lines for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this we must give God all of the glory. There is no question that Rev. Perkins has shined the light of Christ in a fresh new way in the church. In this regard, he brought the beloved community to a white evangelical church that was either skeptical of or outright hostile to the radical inclusivity of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

However, we must be clear about one thing. Dr. Perkins has most certainly built a lasting spiritual legacy for the church, but it is not a legacy that most of the black church even knows exists. It is a legacy that leads white evangelicals and a handful of minorities who consider themselves evangelicals into deeper relationship with the reality of racism and into a deeper commitment to the transformation of cities across America. For all of his work among white evangelicals, it is people like Efrem Smith, Albert Tate, Bryan Loritts, Noel Castellanos, Mayra Nolan, LaTasha Morrison and others who will actually take Perkins’ legacy into black, hispanic and other majority-minority churches across America. It will be up to this next generation of leaders to take up Dr. Perkins’ mantel to ensure that the bridge of racial reconciliation truly goes both ways.

The truth is that the Black church never stopped doing community development. The black church never stopped seeking peace between warring gangs. While constantly under an onslaught of criticism about the “prosperity gospel” the black church has never stopped preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading its members to live it out in a practical and holistic ways. The reality is that while John Perkins is a son of the black church, the black church has continued to face her challenges and trod the stony road to freedom. If a still racially divided church is open to learning from one another, I hope that the legacy of John Perkins will help light the way.

Photo Credit//Russell Lee