I was in Jackson, Mississippi recently, and as I sat waiting in a van outside John Perkins’ home, an afternoon rain pelted the windshield steadily. On the plane to Jackson, I had been rereading John’s amazing autobiography, Let Justice Roll Down. I came to visit again this place where a lot of blood was shed in the name of racial hatred, including the blood of my dear friend John Perkins.
And I wondered if anything could wash clean the blood stained soil of Mississippi.
The great John Perkins was on our campus again recently. I have concluded that John Perkins is a very big man. Why? What is the power of John Perkins?
You may remember that John is one of the strong civil rights leaders out of the rural South, one of those who finally stood up against enormous forces of racial hatred and sheer oppression. He broke open a sealed box of sinister injustice, intractable poverty, and degrading unfairness.
But it was the raw hatred in his story that horrifies me the most, people who came close to killing John, precisely because he is black, precisely because he threatened the orderliness and comfort of control by one race over another. His blood too stains the soil in Jackson, where he continues to live, and in Mendenhall, where he grew up. A bunch of redneck cops beat him one night almost to death. Because he is black. Because he finally raised his voice about profound unfairness. He doesn’t like to talk about this part of his story a lot.
But the real mystery about John’s story sets in for me: How can this sharecropper’s son speak with such joy about life, with such hope about the world? I am overwhelmed by John’s perpetual, consistent joy. John Perkins preaches a gospel of joy. He believes this is the only way for Christians to carry themselves in the world.
This is what we call real transformation. We use that language rather glibly at times, but something very powerful, something utterly mysterious, got hold of John and turned him from legitimate bitterness and hatred and anger — into to joy. It could only be Jesus, John will tell you.
But things don’t stop there for John Perkins. This transformation comes with a requirement: That we take this joy, relentlessly and boldly and humbly, to the ends of the earth. That is John’s mission statement for life. That is John’s notion of the work of the church. As Christians, we take this joy with us everywhere. We spread it around, as Zora Neale Hurston once said.
That’s what I want to do with my life. That’s what I think our Christian universities ought to be doing. If I have any chance of impacting the world, this is the way. Through joy. Through lives transformed by the gospel of joy. That may just wash things clean.
What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.