(RNS) — At 8 a.m. on Tuesdays in July, as usual, John Perkins was participating in his weekly Zoom Bible study. Officially the leader and the attraction for the more than 200 who log on each week, Perkins is far from the sole speaker, and that’s the way he wants it.
“I’m learning from them because they are doing really good research,” said Perkins, 92, of his co-leaders, both pastors and lay people, each of whom teaches from their perspective. “We want our Bible class to be a model of what the influential pastor or the influential leader can do back in their own hometown.”
This collective approach has been Perkins’ way of doing ministry since he began.
In November, shortly after having surgery for colon cancer, Perkins went where he has gone for years: the annual meeting of the Christian Community Development Association that he helped organize decades before.
It was worth the journey from Mississippi to Missouri, he said, to see his friends and to continue to motivate them while he could.
“Really to pass on, in my own way, this mission that we have arrived at together,” he said in a phone interview. “I just came to encourage and to say goodbye.”
A farewell tour it may be, but Perkins has been in motion as long as he’s been in ministry, moving mostly between his native Mississippi to California and back, always focused on his goals of transforming communities through faith and racial reconciliation.
Along the way Perkins has overcome the deaths of loved ones and his onetime hatred of white people, who included police who took the life of his brother and, years later, nearly killed him. Perkins, who at times was one of the few Black leaders in predominantly white evangelical settings, credits particular Caucasians for being there for him to introduce him to the Christian faith, bind his wounds and comfort him when he was mourning.
Born in 1930, Perkins lost his mother to starvation when he was just 7 months old. When he was 16, his brother was killed by a police chief after the young man grabbed the blackjack the officer had used to strike him.
Perkins fled to California in the 1940s after his brother’s death and a decade later launched a union of foundry workers in that state. After the Korean War broke out, he was drafted and served three years in Okinawa, Japan, and, back stateside, later became a Christian and was ordained a Baptist minister.
Returning to his native state in 1960, Perkins turned out to be as much an organizer as a clergyman. He started a ministry in Mendenhall that provided day care, youth programs, cooperative farming and health care. He registered Black voters and boycotted white retailers. When he visited college students at a Brandon, Mississippi, jail who had been arrested after a protest in 1970, he was tortured — “beaten almost to death,” he writes in his latest book — by law enforcement officers.
After recovering he moved to Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, where he mentored college students.