In September of 2014 my church invited me, my wife, and our almost 18-month-old daughter to attend the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) conference in North Carolina. Before being invited I didn’t know what the CCDA was or anything about it. The conference and break-outs proved to be a moment of clarity for me and answered questions that I had been struggling with for a few years. Three years before the conference, I had entered a masters program in Bible and Theology and I had completed my final thesis on discipleship in the style of Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before heading to North Carolina. After learning about many of the events recorded in Scripture within their historical context I was left with many questions about how the church in general had become a shadow of what Jesus birthed. It was here, at CCDA, that I heard about and witnessed the power of the gospel of Christ to heal entire communities and bring about racial unity. I heard testimonies from dozens of communities and various approaches that touched every facet of life and every level of government. I saw people from every race and every walk of life loving each other and helping each other. Some were covered in tattoos and piercings, some were old hippies, some very conservative. There was reggaeton, hip hop, gospel, hymns, and Latin fusion. We danced, sang, cried for our cities, and lamented together. Did everyone agree? Not at all, but fellow brothers and sisters came beside them in love to listen to their views. The people all had their shortcomings and bits of dirt, but the group as a whole reflected Christian love and it was beautiful. How had I never heard about this conference before? Or maybe I had and didn’t care enough to take notice. I began to inquire how this conference with thousands of people from all over the United States started.
New Role Model
I learned it was started in 1989 by a man named Dr. John M. Perkins and he was there, somewhere. I heard the next morning that he had a breakout session where he would be speaking and taking questions, so of course I went. Upon entering the room where the breakout session was, I overheard adults of all ages and pastors from all over the country talk about this man like I would be talking if I was about to be in the same room as Michael Jordan. Half of them were carrying books written by Dr. Perkins that they hoped to get autographed. Now I was anxious to learn what made this man so special. Then, escorted by a man everyone referred to as Coach Gordon, in walked an older black man in his mid-eighties with glasses, a Kangol hat on his head, and confidence in his step. I could feel the excitement of the room go from 8 to 10 in a second as joy filled that place.
He talked of a love I had heard Sunday School teachers talk about as a child and teenager, a love I had disregarded most of my college years as myth, an illusive love that had perplexed me the last three years leading up to this point. I sat at the feet of a man who had learned to hate white people after his older brother Clyde, a WWII veteran, was killed by a marshal after returning from serving the country. His crime was putting his arm up to block a club from hitting him in the head a second time; his first offence was talking too loud. I learned about a man who, by today’s standards, abortion rights advocates would use as an argument for why abortion is a better alternative. By the time Dr. Perkins was born, his father had left and at 7-months-old his mother died of malnutrition. He was raised by grandparents, working on a Mississippi plantation as a sharecropper and being constantly harassed by other white boys who knew there would be no justice for him. This all climaxed at the age of 16 when his older brother came back from war to be shot and killed by a marshal. He did not believe in God and was bitter and resentful to the point that his family sent him to California for his own safety. In California he saw a glimmer of hope, fell in love, married and started a family. One Sunday his son invited him to a church where he was attending Sunday school and Dr. Perkins gave his life to God. He went all in and his hunger for more led him to the point he was convinced the Gospel of Christ was the answer to all the world's problems.
Bring Light to Darkness
After being saved for three years, Dr. Perkins decided to return to Mississippi in 1960 to share his new love in Jesus and to bring about racial reconciliation. In 1962, he started a nonprofit organization which provided many community services and Bible literacy training. That same year two people were killed and hundreds more injured in riots over James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi. The next year, three black students sparked a riot in Jackson by sitting at the “Whites Only” counter at Woolworth’s. A year later, three Freedom Summer workers were famously killed and their bodies hidden by Ku Klux Klansmen. Dr. Perkins was deeply involved in the civil rights movement, organizing various peaceful demonstrations. This all climaxed in 1970 when he went to Rankin County Jail in Brandon, Mississippi, to post bail for some of his fellow civil-rights demonstrators who had been arrested. Before he could even enter the building, highway patrol officers began to beat him with their fists and he was arrested and tortured, barely surviving the night. These events took a great toll on Dr. Perkins, leading to a heart attack and ulcers that required an extended hospitalization and him questioning where God was in all of this. In the hospital he found hope in seeing his white doctor and nurses tend to his wounds. He took notice of the two white people who were beaten alongside him, his white contributors to his nonprofit, and his white lawyer. In his book One Blood he states, “God used the black and white nurses and doctors at that hospital to wash my wounds… for me they were symbolic of the people who had beaten me. What they did healed more than just my broken body. It healed my heart.” Then I heard this man who had experienced such suffering and injustice say that at that point he decided to forgive, love, and pray for those who had hurt him throughout his life. After hearing Dr. John M. Perkins talk of this foreign love, a love that I had studied in books my whole life as merely historical text, tears filled my eyes and something shifted in my heart. This one man’s heart transformation led to him starting CCDA and the transformation and racial reconciliation of thousands of neighborhoods and communities across the country. One spark of love was what it took to ignite this roaring fire. I was now all in and my wife and I decided after that conference that, when we were able to purchase a home, it would be in an inner-city neighborhood. We wanted to be a light.
The first ten verses of the 17th chapter of Luke has deeply bothered me for the longest time, to the point of an internal conflict. It wasn’t until God dealt with my youthful pride that I now see it in a different light. The section is 90% Jesus Himself speaking on the topic of forgiveness. After Jesus commanded that they should always forgive their brothers and sisters an infinite amount of times, the disciples, seeing this as an impossible task, asked Him to increase their faith to be able to obey the command. Jesus then says His famous “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:6) and then the offensive (at first) part:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
At this point the disciples didn’t fully understand the full nature of Who was giving this command and they didn’t understand the price that was to be paid for them to become Christ's possession. In Jesus, all of the trillions of offences from the creation of the world and to its end are forgiven. The disciples would soon know this to be true and would be called to live out their lives in a way that reflected the finished work of Christ. They were to be an example for all future generations who call Jesus Lord to follow. It is through this sacrificial Love that Jesus cried out from the tree He was lynched upon, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”(Luke 23:34a) A generation later Stephen, in the midst of being stoned to death by an angry religious mob, uttered the same words and the heavens opened up so Stephen could see His Lord Jesus stand up at God’s right hand as if to say “Well done, my good and faithful servant. (from Luke 7:56)
To God, unforgiveness is appalling. So that His disciples would understand unforgiveness from God's perspective, Jesus gives another example in Matthew 18:21-35. In the story, or parable, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wants to settle accounts and one servant comes in who owes an amount that would be impossible for him to pay. The King orders for everything and everyone in the man's household to be sold to repay the debt. The man begs mercy and pledges to pay back the impossible debt in time. The King takes pity on the man and cancels all his debt. Then the man who was forgiven goes out and finds a man that owes him a small amount of money, a fellow servant who also could not pay. He grabs the man and chokes him, demanding his money. The fellow servant falls to his knees and begs for mercy and the man who just received mercy from his master, instead of living in mercy, has his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt is repaid. Some of the other servants saw this all play out and went back to the master and told him what was done. Furious, the king calls the servant wicked and orders him to be tortured and thrown into prison until he can pay back the debt. Then verse 35 gives the warning, "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35) Unforgiveness is appalling to God because His beloved Son paid the ultimate debt we could not pay with His own blood. It was so heartbreaking, the price the King of Heaven paid to forgive us, that for a moment the eternal indwelling bond of the Father and Son was broken. Forgive them! It is a command for those who claim the blood that forgives them!
Story of Dr. Perkins HERE
In part 5b I will discuss why forgiveness is much more than a command, but a key to a lock that opens a treasure.