Racism is an ugly blot and evil influence that has shaped our North American history more than we want to remember. It continues to ensnare us in the church, in academia, on the streets, in our justice (or injustice) system. In the U.S., I’m thinking especially of the difficult times and tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri late this summer, but it seems there are similar (if smaller) stories everywhere. Canada has different issues around racism but I’m told feelings run hot there, too, in terms of indigenous peoples, missionary boarding schools, and current immigration issues.
He had been beaten and tortured in the days of boycotts, marches, and unrest in the Deep South.
Two men named John have been bright beacons of hope for me regarding racism: John Perkins and John Powell. Their names are so similar it’s freaky. While they have both fought racism in and out of the church and some parts of their stories are similar, they deserve recognition for quietly and sometimes coolly battling down the influence of racism.
Some years ago I was asked to be on an anti-racism team for the agency I work for, which required weeks of training over 6 to 8 months in a mixed racial setting. One of our final meetings in that process just blew up, racially. It was painful for all involved. We had tried to come to a consensus about a statement that could be made to the denomination, and ultimately the caucuses were divided and could not agree. We wept; we were angry. I had never been so disillusioned about hope for understanding across racial and ethnic lines. I could not bring myself to participate in the closing communion. I went home severely disappointed and in grieving.
Several months later I heard John Perkins, who founded the John M. Perkins Foundation, speak at the annual meeting of the American Bible Society. I was quickly and emotionally swept up in John’s message of God’s love and desire for reconciliation between races. Perkins shared his testimony and many stories from his long and painful work for racial reconciliation and economic and social justice. He had been beaten and tortured in the days of boycotts, marches, and unrest in the Deep South. Here was a man who had truly suffered (not by just attending long meetings). His brother was murdered because of a racial misunderstanding.
Perkins restored my hope and faith that people could get along across the many boundaries that divide us. He went beyond reconciliation to development: He preached that unless people are empowered to find the means to economic development, they will continue to struggle in many realms. Perkins never received a college degree, but I could see he had the wisdom of a Solomon. I wept as I felt that Perkins, and God, was speaking directly to me.
The other influential John in my life has also worked tirelessly toward creating an anti-racist culture in the church, particularly the Mennonite church.
Powell worked for Mennonite Board of Missions from 1969 through 1974. Then he left not only his employment, but also his membership in the Mennonite church, angered and disillusioned by the racism he encountered almost everywhere he turned. However, he later returned, serving with Mennonite Mission Network from 1994 through 2012. It was during this time that I came to know him as a colleague and also as a friend. He developed great empathy and understanding, which served him well as he continued to fight down injustice and racism, including calling folks out when necessary.
John noted that when he left the Mennonite church in 1974, he was angry, hurt, feeling betrayed, and disconnected. “I guess the reason I came back was because I really do believe that Mennonites have something very distinctive about what or who we are as a people of God,” he wrote in a post for the Third Way website. “I see new people who are part of the church now, who are walking the walk and talking the talk. They are backing up what they say by their particular actions. When I look at a Mennonite distinctive of seeing Jesus as the Savior who comes to bring justice and to bring a peace within the midst of that justice, that’s what excites me about the church.”
I had just written this when I read a devotional in Rejoice! magazine using Jeremiah 3:15, which reminded me of the importance of shepherds like the two Johns I’m quoting today. “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding,” God declares to the people through Jeremiah. Indeed.
At John Powell’s retirement party late last year, he led those in attendance singing the wonderful chorus, “Guide my feet, while I run this race . . .” I can hear John’s beautiful voice now, booming out each new verse.
Go, John and John. May we follow your lead even when it gets messy, difficult, and uncomfortable.
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Posted 10/16/2014 7:00:00 AM