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John Perkins Said It Right

Out with the old and in with the woke.

Church,People,Believe,Faith,Religious
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John Perkins is 92, but he still takes the stairs by himself. The black civil rights and urban ministry legend has to wear his layers and take his naps, but he remains a passionate preacher who can hardly speak without quoting scripture. Ever since his own conversion, after hearing from his daughter that Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white/They are precious in His sight, he has had good news to share, for all people. God created humanity in His image. Christ came to save sinners. And in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for we are all one. But the voice of this third-grade drop-out and now honorary doctor many times over is a prophetic voice, for “we are in Babylon.” White millennial evangelicals might know him from Christian rock band Switchfoot’s “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues)”: The static comes alive/Beneath the broken skies/John Perkins said it right/Love is the final fight.

In February of 1989, after an already storied ministry career, Perkins helped found the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians seeking to implement his vision for Christian community development in America’s cities and neighborhoods. His philosophy is built on three Rs: relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Relocation refers to the need for “those who want to serve the community of need” to live with and amongst those they minister to. Redistribution is the sharing of skills and the development of economic opportunities and resources that meet the physical needs of the community, everything from medical services to schools. Reconciliation is the restoration of a right relationship in the peace of Christ, loving God and so loving neighbor. As Perkins is known for saying, “you don’t give dignity, you affirm it,” and as he told me over dinner at the CCDA’s 2022 conference, “you can love from a place of having your dignity affirmed.” 

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As it was described to me, CCDA might be the biggest thing in the loosely evangelical Protestant world no one has heard of, one of its best kept secrets. It began in a conference room in Chicago O’Hare International airport, and held its first conference in October of 1989 at Lawndale Community Church in Chicago. Some 130 people attended representing 39 organizations, brought together to learn from one another with the goal of “Making Neighborhoods Whole.” The white pastor of Lawndale, Rev. Dr. Wayne L. Gordon, was among the cofounders of CCDA with Perkins, and Lawndale’s extensive ministries in Chicago’s Westside are a prime example of Perkins’s style of Christian community development in action. “Coach” Gordon first encountered Perkins and his ministry as a student at Wheaton College, and Perkins had come onto Lawndale’s board of advisors in 1983. Now, more than three decades later, the three Rs have been added to, and as those involved in CCDA from the beginning get older—Perkins gave up his board vote this year—a new generation of leaders and voices are coming to the fore, and with them a new generation’s priorities. 

2022’s annual Christian Community Development Association conference was held at the shared Le Meridien and Sheraton conference center in Charlotte, North Carolina. In our post-pandemic shut down world, it was an impressive gathering of some 1,600 evangelical Christians, convened to celebrate the work of the association and the ministries that make it up. This year’s theme was “Wellbeing,” which in the older framework of the social gospel would mostly suggest a focus on meeting the physical needs of the communities Christians minister to. Many of the particular nonprofits and mission-driven businesses represented at the conference certainly illustrate that approach. But this was a conference supposed to be ministering to the ministers, and “Wellbeing” in Charlotte had at times a strikingly therapeutic connotation; indeed, much of the language of CCDA 2022 suggested the organization has, with generational cohort succession, “gone woke.” 

Before explaining what I mean—my attempt at a fraternal caution and hopefully a word fitly spoken—let me provide the proverbial setting of silver. The gospel was clearly preached at the CCDA conference. Worship was sincere and directed to God. Each day of the conference began with the opening of scripture and meditation on its call for us to be renewed and transformed. It was a joyful gathering. The organizations brought together are, in the main, clearly seeking to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world, to fulfill Perkins’s call to love their neighbors in clear and practical ways and to be instruments of reconciliation. They are not the church itself, but made up of the people that make up the church, and largely represent a low-church sensibility, so in a pluralistic America we would expect some fuzzy boundaries between theology and civic engagement. A conference is not quite a pulpit. 

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But interspersed with calls to find our wellbeing in Christ as part of His new creation was a theology that focused on us, first, that seemed to put our feelings and earthly human identity on par with imago Dei and membership in the body of the church. Alongside Christian joy was a dreary fixation on political inequality, representation, privilege, whiteness, patriarchy, weariness, trauma. Sin and grace were there, but seemed readily set aside for more fashionable paradigms of innocence and transgression. I am betraying, perhaps, my “privilege” when I confess I felt at times as though I was about to be asked to join a struggle session—presumably other white attendees, representing member churches and ministries across the country, had known what to expect, and speak this language already. By all indications, this development is not very new, and the CCDA simply reflects the leftward branch of an old fork in the tree of American evangelicalism. I come from the right; it was only new to me. 

What was new? The conference opened with a land acknowledgment. In a prerecorded video address to the first plenary session, Rev. Breana van Velzen asked attendees to remember that Charlotte sits on land formerly occupied by Catawba, Cheraw, Sugeree, Wateree, and Waxhaw peoples. “Creator made us all,” she said, referring to natural resources as our relatives, mentioning manmade borders, and adding a commendation of “local indigenous organizers.” It was only the first land acknowledgment of the Wednesday-to-Saturday conference, as other speakers began their remarks by echoing it. Of course, God told the children of Israel to set up memorial stones in conquered Canaan, so there might be a Biblical analogue, but those piles were recollections of victory and warnings against heathen idolatry. Conference M.C. Elizabeth Cronlund, who helps lead CCDA’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders affinity group, spoke the language of indigenous organizers throughout. We were called to remember “generations of voices of ancestors who have been unjustly silenced,” the “honored ancestors” whose ranks some of us might one day join. 

In a sit down conversation with Perkins and Gordon and a couple of the younger leaders of CCDA on Thursday, I asked about the land acknowledgments. How long had CCDA incorporated them? Gordon explained that the late Native American author and founder of Wiconi International, Richard Twiss, had joined CCDA’s board in 2010, and that the practice would have begun around then. That puts CCDA ahead of the curve. Land acknowledgments only escaped specialized academic and activist spheres into popular consciousness in the last few years. 

Cronlund, the M.C., set the tone Wednesday night with a reference to “the anxious way of wellbeing.” “Women of color” would be leading in “a lament” throughout the conference, with a book to purchase. Attendees “are exhausted.” The “brothers and sisters and siblings,” as she put it Friday morning (though there were only one or two references to people’s pronouns), are weary. “If you need a nap or a snack, that is a holy endeavor.” That physical weariness was a major focus of “Wellbeing” as the conference presented it, and though it was repeatedly framed by reflections on the running, walking, and flying of Isaiah 40 for those who wait on the Lord, it was also approached in the language of therapy, of “me time,” of the Enneagram, of breathing, and “practices.” Looking around the room, and at the stage, it was impossible not to be reminded that a majority of Americans today are overweight. As Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a CCDA board member and “second-generation Latina pastor” in a “BIPOC-led” ministry put it, repeatedly, “We are not well.” There is much to admire in this acknowledged unity of physical and spiritual needs, but failing to rise to the level of a Christian hedonism, it came across only as an anti-asceticism, never presenting the mutual reinforcement of spiritual and physical discipline. 

At one point from the stage, Gordon, of Lawndale Church, went out of his way to acknowledge that there might be Republicans or conservatives in attendance at the conference, to affirm that this was not a gathering about partisan politics. Nevertheless, attitudes from the stage—platformed voices—were pretty clear in their preferences. In one of the “laments” written and read by women of color, Donald Trump’s words were described in terms of violence, and “the wicked” of the Psalms were identified as officers of the U.S. Customs and Border Control. The captivity and exile of the nation of Israel was portrayed, in this particular bit of spoken word, as equivalent to the displacement and voluntary migration of the undocumented and immigrant communities, the “vulnerable people marginalized by empire.” This sort of importation of contemporary political categories to the Old Testament reverses traditional preaching of the kind seen during Friday morning’s Bible study, when Gordon juxtaposed our moment with the Mosaic Jubilee.

But that bit of spoken word wasn’t a one-off. Speaker Emanuel Padilla, president of World Outspoken, “a ministry preparing the mestizo church for cultural change,” called listeners to “reread scripture against the empire.” As he sympathized with the resentment of people discouraged from the gospel by Christians’ role in colonialism, Padilla seemed to legitimize a cross small enough to be symbolically overwhelmed by its use by the Spanish empire. Even as he called for “conserving legacies of resistance” found in Christian history—we should “sample” the best of the white male theological tradition—he called the impulse to throw 1,500 years away “a good decolonial impulse,” part of “a righteous, racially conscious” effort by people of color to rely on internal resources. If theology is “God talk” and theology is “inherently political,” and if “our young people have the receipts” in a quest to achieve the goal of equality against white supremacy, then perhaps we’re really talking about will to power.

A Friday panel on leadership transitions made what is behind all this almost clear. It was moderated by Gabby Alzate, who leads a San Francisco nonprofit. She used a tree analogy in her sensible remarks—be resilient, grow your root system, and know your role as you wait to inherit leadership—even though she is “turned off by the redwoods” because she doesn’t like nature. Alzate, along with Tamice Spencer and Barnabas Lin, represented the millennial cohort waiting for or now assuming positions of power in Christian organizations. They were in conversation with Kathy Dudley, a CCDA board member, representing the boomer establishment. Lin, “as an Asian-American,” presented expectations of assimilation as a bad thing and called for young leaders (though millennials are not as young as they think they are anymore, no matter how they dress) to be themselves. The preoccupation with being othered and self-othering sounded painful, like picking a scab with no chance to heal. Responding to Lin’s identity language, the older Dudley, whose remarks had focused on equality of the sexes with a jab at the “Billy Graham rule,” acknowledged “power structures” and discussed wearing her privilege and learning to “make my pain secondary” as a white person. 

In my sitdown conversation with CCDA leadership, “Coach” Gordon highlighted identity and representation in CCDA history. In his telling, the 2020s have been defined by the youngest cohort of CCDA leaders taking over senior positions, the culmination of an emphasis on leadership development that began in the 2010s. Up until about 2010, CCDA had been a very “black and white” organization, focused on equipping and supporting black and white ministers working together in America’s inner cities. As part of that, the decade of 2000 to 2010 might, Gordon said, be defined by black woman leadership; Gordon pointed out that “woman leadership is really respected and heard” in the CCDA. In his recounting, the 2010s can be defined by the emergence of Latino leaders in the organization. And, as part of the generational cohort changeover, the 2022 conference saw the 40-year-old Lorenzo Watson, who is black, commissioned as interim CEO. Multiple people suggested there was something notable about a black man leading CCDA again. 

John Perkins’s ministry has been defined by the simple truth that, as creatures made in the image of God, human dignity cannot be given by man, but only recognized and affirmed. Born in 1930, his personal story is one of confronting obvious racial violence: the arrest of his grandmother, the killing of his brother, his own imprisonment and torture by police. His story is the Christian civil rights story, one of personal sin and personal grace in Christ, out of which CCDA came. But as the CCDA has grown, and especially as it has grown in diversity, with the addition of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos to its black and white beginnings, the framework for reconciliation has changed. And with new generations of leaders, its language has changed too. 

Human dignity may only be affirmed, but in a new world where racism is systemic—no one individual’s fault but at the same time everyone’s, at least if they are white—the dignity of ethnic identity is something to be grasped. Unconsciously for many, wokeness, with its demands for representation, is a kind of succession strategy, a justification for inheriting positions of authority in institutions built by others. More importantly for a Christian organization, in elevating minority identity and marginalization, wokeness replaces original sin with a new stain of whiteness. The “Wellbeing” conference still preached the good news of the cross, and in the shadow of its love, reconciliation, but there was a second gospel present in Charlotte, too. CCDA can fight, or succumb. 

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