In the spring of 1990, like Morpheus in the movie The Matrix, Dr. John Perkins offered me the truth about something, and I took the red pill. It was simple enough: a two-year internship working with the on-the-move founder of half a dozen community development ministries. Deep down, however, I wanted more. I grew up fatherless, and I wanted a Christian father. Not just a father figure, or role model, or mentor, but an actual father. It was a personal need, an emotional and psychological hunger that determined my moods and bent my will.
I admired Dr. Perkins greatly. The previous summer I had visited Voice of Calvary Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi as a work group volunteer, and I was amazed at what I saw. Christians were marrying an evangelical, Jesus-saves gospel message with tangible social action. Dr. Perkins was not afraid to talk about race, economics, politics, social justice, or anything else that was shunned by the conservative evangelical circles I was raised in. He was my hero. So as I negotiated the opportunity to live with and serve my hero as his personal ghostwriter, I dreamed of feeling close to a father, receiving the love of a father, glowing in a father’s approval.
Dr. Perkins failed miserably. He didn’t want to hear how I felt, he just wanted me to do. He was emotionally unavailable. When I asked him to pray with me about my issues, he prayed instead about the work to accomplish. He regarded my bouts of depression as wasteful introspection, navel-gazing. He rarely asked how I was doing. When he sought me out it was because he had a task for me. But one day I shook my head and, like Nebuchadnezzar, was restored to my right mind. Dr. Perkins never promised to be a father. He never said he would be part of my inner healing. He never indicated that he would hold me close as a son. My perspective was warped, I was tripping, I had misinterpreted the whole situation. Our relationship greatly improved when I quit expecting him to be my replacement father.
The irony is that, ten years later, I think about him every day. At least once before the sun sets, I think WWJPD: What would John Perkins do? I didn’t plan it this way. It just happened, it being the confluence of responsibilities, pressures, decisions-to-be-made, and visions to execute that drives my days. I’m a co-director of a nonprofit organization and am a spoke in the wheel of various and sundry national initiatives. Every day I’m challenged to think outside the box, to innovate, to give a fresh spin to ancient truth. I reference the innovators I admire, and he’s always there.
Yet he’s no mere mentor. There is something else. It’s not hocus-pocus like in The Sixth Sense. But when I travel the country, meet the big shots, walk the urban community, read the Harambee balance sheet, I feel Dr. Perkins’s presence. It makes me feel secure. It gives me confidence. It helps me forgive myself. The man lives in Mississippi and I in California, so I see him maybe twice a year for short stretches. But he made an emotional and psychological impact on me with that red pill he offered: the chance to know urban ministry by living it him.
Dr. Perkins’s relational method of teaching urban ministry life principles meant that he was not formal about training. We didn’t have training sessions. We didn’t read book chapters and discuss them. We did not exegete popular films. Bible study was not inductive, and more devotional than systematic. What he did do was make me walk with him. We walked into hotels, churches, down the street, and out to the trash bin. Often I was carrying books. Together we wrote letters, planned budgets, and raised money.
All the while he explained what he was thinking. One thing he said over and over was that the people with the problem should take first responsibility to solve the problem. Don’t wait for the government, the church, the schools, the white man, or anybody to do something for you. You are going to be waiting a long time, blaming others, and in the end you will have accomplished nothing.
Throughout my first year with him Dr. Perkins repeated that message over and over. I think that was his way of counseling me in my depression. Every man believes the burden he carries is the greatest, and so did I. At seven years old, I was without mother or father. All my life, all through college at Biola and Stanford, I felt like a weed out of the ground. Who cares if a nasty weed withers and disappears? It was difficult to imagine my future. In my heart I wanted someone to come and claim me, give me a vision, tell me what to do. My soul was on hold.
One day, however, high on a mountain in Puebla, Mexico, I snapped out of it. That day I encountered a Mexican poem that says, “Caminante no hay camino/Se hace camino al andar.” Translation: “Sojourner there is no road/You make the road as you walk.” Dr. Perkins had been saying this all along: Make the road as you walk. Why that Mexican poem got through to me when all the Chicano poetry and literature I had read didn’t is something I’ll chalk up to the Holy Spirit. But I’ll chalk up to Dr. Perkins the fact that I ever read the Mexican poem: I was in Puebla because Dr. Perkins had been invited to speak at a World Vision conference and he chose to pay my airfare himself so that I walk in the clouds with him.
Perhaps more intimate than all the walking we did together were the things he simply let me watch. In this regard I am no different than anyone else Dr. Perkins knows or has discipled. He lives his life transparently, expecting that he will be watched, understanding that values are often caught better than taught. In four years as his assistant are quirky yet poignant details.
One spring Dr.Perkins, another staff member, and I were holed up in a mountain cabin writing his next book when Dr. Perkins began to sob loudly. He cried with that HAW HAW HAW of an 11-year old boy whose feelings are tender but chest is getting bigger.
He rambled on about a Mr. Buckley, whom he fully expects to see in heaven and to whom he must give account for his life. “If I cheat someone, if I hurt someone, if I’m greedy and selfish, what am I going to say to Mr. Buckley?” HAW, HAW, HAW. Later I found out that Mr. Buckley was the old Black man who took Dr. Perkins under his wing when Dr. Perkins first moved to his rural Mississippi town in 1960. Mr. Buckley, the enduring conscience of the Jim Crow South, prayed for justice all his life and gave freely to Dr. Perkins in hopes that Dr. Perkins would give himself to people in need.
Another time, Dr. Perkins and I were sharing a room in a ritzy Manhattan hotel, compliments of the hotel’s owner, who attended a church where Dr. Perkins spoke. Around four in the morning I walked into the bathroom for a drink of water, only to find Dr. Perkins sitting there, clothes on, with the newspaper scattered on the floor and his Bible opened to the Old Testament. When he saw I was awake he began chattering about the day’s schedule.
Back in Pasadena, we twentysomething employees would gather around the conference table for Harambee staff meetings. Dr. Perkins would be explaining an equation: “Energy + Intelligence + Character = Leadership.” Or was it, “Motivation + Perspiration + Creativity = Innovation”? No matter. He worked us so hard, we believed he really meant, “Servitude + Jump To It + Don’t Complain = Work All Night Without Appreciation.”
There is more to Dr. Perkins than these stories, but they provide a taste of what he has taught me. Everyone needs to be afraid to answer to someone. It helps us stay accountable. You never stop doing your homework, and better to do it early than late. And now I’m the one giving speeches about “Energy + Innovation + Character = Funding For Next Year” and “Blaming Others + Waiting To Be Told + Bad Attitude = You’re Fired.”
Like hundreds of other people, I had a front-row seat to Dr. John Perkins’s life. I dare suspect that he treated me like he treated others. Likely there are others upon whom his imprint lies even deeper. But it feels like it’s for me. And while my assignment in writing this article is to elucidate my understandings and feelings on the printed page, I’m still at loss. It’s not accurate to say Dr. Perkins is my father, my replacement father, or my father figure. There are plenty of times when I’ve avoided him, plenty of things he does that I disagree with, and lots of time that passes between our discussions. I don’t consult him for much at all. In addition, I feel fatherly presences from many different men, thanks to the grace Christ gives us through his Body, the church.
But I remember him. More than any man I have ever known, I remember him. When I write that I remember him, I feel my own HAW, HAW, HAW rising up. What do you call a man like that?
This article by Rodolpho Carrasco originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Re:generation Quarterly.
Question 1: Today, there are 24 million children in America living with absent fathers. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, roughly 40 percent of them have not seen their father within the past year and 50 percent have never set foot in their father’s home. On average, children of absent dads are at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents. Rudy beat the odds. Should other children like Rudy was expect men like John Perkins to show them how to make the road as they walk, or do such expectations only set them up for further disappointment? Why?
Question 2: Scripture calls Jesus the ” firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8:29). But can it be said of us, with integrity as it was said of Jesus – “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19) – that those who know us can recognize a Heavenly Father who defends (Deut. 10:12-22) , provides for (Deut 14:29, 24:19-22, 26:12-15), and fathers the fatherless (Psalm 68:4-6) here on earth? What is an appropriate Christ-like response?
Question 3: Although Dr. Perkins resisted the idea of being a father-figure, he was a generational bridge from Mr. Buckley to Mr. Carrasco. Rudy inherited Dr. Perkins’ sense of self and community and duty, which Dr. Perkins had previously inherited from Mr. Buckley. What generational legacy are you reproducing?
This article originally appeared in Re:generation Quarterly.