Songs of praise from the Yale Gospel Choir, clapping, and affirmations of “Amen” filled the First and Summerfield United Methodist Church Friday night, but instead of leading a religious service after his rousing introduction, civil rights activist John M. Perkins discussed “Social Justice and Faith Today: The Conscience of a Civil Rights Activist.”
Perkins spoke to approximately 100 people at the event — which was sponsored by several Christian groups including the Yale Christian Fellowship, the Black Church at Yale, and Yale Students for Christ — about what he perceives as the inadequacies of current attempts at racial reconciliation and his proposals for its improvement.
Perkins said he was dissatisfied with what he described as Christianity’s toleration of racism and bigotry.
“The European church has imposed the belief that you can be a Christian and a bigot,” Perkins said. “There is a lack of common brotherhood in Christianity.”
Several students echoed this sentiment.
“It is important to challenge the church,” Yale Christian Fellowship member Herman Waterford ’04 said. “We have become too complacent. We have to find a way to change this.”
Perkins grew up in rural Mississippi as a sharecropper’s son. After his brother was murdered, Perkins fled to California, vowing never to return.
Growing up in the South was particularly difficult for African Americans, he said.
“Everything in the black man’s environment was designed to make him inferior and to fit in stereotypically black roles,” Perkins said. “He could either embrace this, move to the North and be harassed, or be killed.”
After converting to Christianity in 1960, Perkins said he felt called to revitalize the community that caused him to flee. He has since become a pioneer in the civil rights movement and in community development internationally, earning seven honorary doctorates despite having dropped out of school in the third grade.
But Perkins said the road has not been easy — because of his civil rights demonstrations, he has suffered repeated harassment, imprisonment, and beatings.
In addition to discussing his personal experiences, Perkins proposed a plan involving “three R’s” for revitalizing struggling communities — relocating professionals and workers to the community, reconciling bigotry and racism in the area, and redistributing resources and income. Unlike calling in outside “experts” to fix complex racial and socioeconomic problems, Perkins said his method is sustainable through creating “indigenous leaders” — people who have been, and will continue to be, directly involved in the community.
Failures in community improvement result from society’s failure to provide inner city children the means for them to rise out from poverty and despair, he said. Perkins said he realized this after being forced once to accept 15 cents for a full day’s work in Mississippi.
He said black people possessed the labor — themselves — but no capital, and this hindered emancipation efforts.
“We have almost arrived at the most perfect form of slavery in America,” he said. “People are forced to steal, or better yet, get high and feel like they have found the good life.”
Perkins said that central to the success of this effort is undoubtedly the teachings of Christianity and the church’s ability to provide hope, a place to assemble, and the funds to make revitalization possible.
Students said they were inspired by Perkins’ address.
“I hope that it will encourage Christians to live out their faith and be challenged to interact with the urban community,” YCF Staff Advisor Greg Hendrickson ’03 said.
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