John Perkins Had It Right

John Perkins, 92 years old, still walks the stairs alone. He has to wear layers and take naps. But he is a passionate preacher and can’t speak without quoting scripture. After hearing from his daughter, Jesus loved the little children/All children in the world/Red, yellow, black, and white/He considers them precious, he has been able to share the good news with all people. God made humanity in His image. Christ died to save sinners. Christ is not Jew or Greek, there are neither slave nor free, and there is no male nor female. We are all one. The voice of this third-grade student, now an honorary doctor, is prophetic. “We are all one.”

After a long and successful ministry career, Perkins founded the Christian Community Development Association in February 1989. This network was made up of Christians who wanted to help develop Christian communities in America’s neighborhoods and cities. Perkins’ philosophy revolves around three R’s: redistribution and reconciliation. The need for those who wish to serve the community in need to relocate to be able to live amongst the people they minister to. Redistribution refers to the sharing of skills, the development of economic opportunities, and the resources that meet the needs of the community. This includes everything from schools and medical services. Reconciliation is the restoration and maintenance of a healthy relationship with Christ in peace, love God and neighbor. Perkins’ famous quote, “You don’t give dignity; you affirm it,” is what Perkins told me during dinner at the CCDA 2022 conference. He said, “You can love from a position of having your dignity affirmed.”

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CCDA, as it was described to my by a friend, might be the most important thing in the loosely evangelical Protestant world. It may also be one of the best-kept secrets. It was established in Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s conference room. The first conference was held at Lawndale Community Church in Chicago in October 1989. There were 130 participants representing 39 organizations. They came together to learn from each other with the goal of ” making neighborhoods whole.” Rev. Wayne L. Gordon was one of the cofounders with Perkins. Lawndale’s many ministries on Chicago’s Westside show Perkins’s method of Christian community development in action. Perkins was first introduced to Gordon by Wheaton College student, who had in 1983 joined Lawndale’s advisory board. Three decades later, the three Rs are still relevant. As those who have been involved in CCDA since the beginning age, Perkins has given up his vote on the board. This year, a new generation of leaders is emerging and bringing with them a new set of priorities.

2022’s annual Christian Community Development Association conference took place at Charlotte’s Sheraton and Le Meridien conference centers. It was a remarkable gathering of around 1,600 evangelical Christians who gathered to celebrate the ministry of the association in a post-pandemic world. The theme for this year was “Wellbeing”, which, in the traditional social gospel framework, would imply a focus on the physical needs of those communities Christians minister to. This approach was clearly demonstrated by many of the mission-driven and non-profit businesses that were represented at the conference. This conference was supposed to minister to ministers. “Wellbeing” in Charlotte at times had a strikingly therapeutic connotation. Indeed, much of CCDA 2022’s language suggested that the organization, with its generational cohort succession, has “gone woke.”

Let me explain what I mean. This is my attempt to be a fraternal warning and hopefully a word well spoken. At the CCDA conference, the gospel was clearly preached. Worship was genuine and directed towards God. Every day began with scripture opening and meditation on God’s call to us to be renewed. It was a joyous gathering. It was clear that the organizations were attempting to be Christ’s hands and feet in a broken world. They are also trying to live Perkins’s call to love and reconcile with their neighbors in practical and clear ways. They are not the Church, but the church’s people. Their commonality is that they have a low-church sensibility. In a pluralistic America, we might expect some blurred lines between civic engagement and theology. A conference is not a pulpit.

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Interspersed with the calls to find our well-being in Christ as part His new creation, was a theology that centered on us first. It seemed to place our feelings and earthly humanity on par with Imago Dei, and membership in church’s body. A dreary focus on political inequality, privilege, whiteness patriarchy, weariness and trauma was also part of Christian joy. Grace and sin were present, but they were quickly discarded in favor of more trendy paradigms of innocence or transgression. Perhaps I am betraying my “privilege”, when I admit that I felt like I was about be asked to participate in a struggle session. Probably other white attendees representing member churches and ministries across America knew what to expect and could speak the language. This development, according to all indications is not new. The CCDA simply reflects an old branch in American evangelicalism. It was not new to me, but I am from the right.

What was the latest? The conference began with a land acknowledgement. Rev. Breana van Velzen asked the audience to recall that Charlotte is on land previously occupied by Catawba and Cheraw 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. The Bible does not mention God telling the Israeli children to build memorial stones in conquered Canaan. However, those piles are reminders of victory and warnings against idolatry by heathens. Conference M.C. Conference M.C. “Generations of voices of ancestors have been unjustly suppressed,” the “honored ancestrals” were the names we were asked to remember.

On Thursday, Perkins and Gordon, along with a few younger leaders from CCDA, sat down to talk about land acknowledgments. I was curious how long it had been since CCDA had incorporated them. Gordon said that Richard Twisss, a Native American author and founder Wiconi International had joined CCDA in 2010. The practice would have started around that time. This puts CCDA in the lead. In the last few decades, land acknowledgments have only been recognized by specialized academic and activist spheres.

Cronlund, M.C. set the tone Wednesday night by referring to “the anxious path of wellbeing.” Women of color would lead in “a lament” throughout conference, with a book available for purchase. Participants “are tired.” She said that the “brothers, sisters and brothers” are “tired”. There were only a few references to pronouns. “If you need a nap, or a snack that is holy, that’s a holy enterprise.” This was the theme of “Wellbeing”, and it was repeated by Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a CCDA board member and “second-generation Latina pastor” in a “BIPOC-led” ministry. Sandra Maria Van Opstal (CCDA board member) was a “second-generation Latina pastor” who spoke repeatedly about “We Are Not Well.” This acknowledged unity of spiritual and physical needs is something to be proud of, but it failed to elevate to the level that would make a Christian hedonism. It came across as anti-asceticism and never presented the mutual reinforcement of spiritual or physical discipline.

Gordon of Lawndale Church made it clear that he was aware that some people might be Republicans or conservatives at the conference. He also tried to assure that the gathering wasn’t about partisan politics. However, the platformed voices on stage were quite clear about their preferences. Donald Trump’s words were described as violence in one of his “laments”, which was read by women of color. Officers of U.S. Customs and Border Control were also identified in the Psalms. In this bit of spoken language, the exile and captivity of Israel were compared to the displacement and voluntary movement of undocumented communities, the “vulnerable persons marginalized by empire.”

That bit of spoken language wasn’t an isolated incident. Emanuel Padilla was the president of World Outspoken and a ministry that prepares the mestizo church to cultural change. He called on listeners to “reread the scripture against the empire.” Padilla seemed to legitimize the use of a small cross to be symbolically overthrown by the Spanish empire. He called for “preserving legacies in resistance” from Christian history and suggested that we should “sample” the best white male theological tradition. However, Padilla called the urge to throw away 1,500 years “a good decolonial instinct,” part of a “racially conscious, righteous” effort of people of color to rely upon their internal resources. If theology can be described as “God talk” or “inherently politically” and “our young people have the receipts in a quest for equality against white supremacy, then maybe we are really talking about will power.

Friday’s panel discussion on leadership transitions revealed the truth behind this phenomenon. Gabby Alzate moderated the panel, who is the leader of a San Francisco non-profit. In her wise remarks, she used the tree analogy to describe how she was resilient and growing her root system. She also explained that she does not like the idea of being “turned off” by nature. Alzate represented the millennial generation, which included Tamice Spencer, Barnabas Lin and Tamice Spencer. Kathy Dudley (CCDA board member) was their representative from the boomer generation. Lin, who is an Asian-American, said that assimilation was a negative thing. She called for young leaders to embrace their differences (even though millennials may not be as young as they think, regardless of how they dress). Preoccupation with self-othering and being othered sounded like picking a scab that has no chance of healing. Lin’s identity language was addressed by the older Dudley. His remarks on equality of the genders had been criticized with a jab against the “Billy Graham rule”. He acknowledged that there were “power structures” and talked about wearing her privilege and learning how to “make my pain secondary” in white people.

“Coach” Gordon, CCDA’s leader, spoke candidly about identity and representation in CCDA’s history during our sit-down conversation. According to Coach Gordon, the 2020s were defined by the youngest CCDA leaders taking over the top positions. This is the culmination of a focus on leadership development that started in the 2010s. CCDA was a “black and white” organization that focused on supporting and equipping ministers from both black and white churches working in America’s inner-city areas. Gordon suggested that the decade 2000-2010 might be defined by black women leadership. Gordon noted that “woman leadership” is respected and heard in the CCDA. His recounting revealed that the 2010s could be defined by the rise of Latino leaders within the organization. As part of the generational changeover, Lorenzo Watson, 40, was appointed interim CEO at the 2022 conference. Multiple sources suggested that there was something noteworthy about a black man running CCDA again.

John Perkins’ ministry is defined by the simple truth of human dignity. We are all created in God’s image, and man cannot give it to us. It must be recognized and confirmed. His personal story, which he was born in 1930, is one of facing obvious racial violence. He witnessed the murder of his brother and grandmother as well as his imprisonment and torture by the police. His story is the Christian civil right story. It’s one of personal sin, grace, and Christ. This is how CCDA was born. The framework for reconciliation has changed over time as the CCDA has grown and diversified, adding Native Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos to the black and white origins. Its language has also changed with the addition of new leaders.

While human dignity can only be confirmed, in a world where racism is systemic, no one person is to blame but all of them, at least if they’re white, the dignity of ethnicity is something that must be understood. Many people don’t realize that wokeness and its demands for representation are a form of succession strategy. They can use it to justify acquiring authority positions in institutions created by others. For a Christian organization, wokeness is a way to replace original sin by a new stain. While the “Wellbeing” conference preached the gospel of the cross and, in the shadows of its love, reconciliation at the cross, there was also a second gospel in Charlotte. CCDA can either fight or succumb.

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