A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend about our desire to reach out to and love some of “the least” in our area. He recommended a book by John M. Perkins called Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development. Since our library had withdrawn this book from their shelves – an action that neither one of us understands – he sent me his copy of the book. I’ve read the first three chapters, and already I appreciate how Perkins is putting words to many of the things that I’m sensing from Scripture, and he’s helping me to understand the background of the plight of the urban poor.
In the introduction of his book, Perkins explores the birth and growth of the urban ghettos, explains his own spiritual journey, and documents the work that he, his family and friends, and others are doing to bring reconciliation to the poor, urban centers of the United States.
I love the way that Perkins begins to describe his “struggle with racism and poverty”:
My struggle began one Sunday morning in 1957 at a little Holiness Mission in Pasadena, California, when I discovered that God loved me. I had grown up in Mississippi without a mother or a father. I grew up without the certainty of love. That morning all the longing of my heart came together when I heard that God loved me, that God had sent his Son into the world to die for my sake. That morning, the best that I knew how, in the midst of all my feelings of inferiority, in spite of the fact that I was a third-grade dropout, at the age of twenty-seven I reached out to God. It seemed that this was the morning that I had been born for. I felt what I had missed all of my life: I was loved by a holy God. I felt great joy mixed with sadness and guilt. I could not stop weeping, for I was overwhelmed by my foolishness and sinfulness. I saw that my sin was like spitting in the face of this God who loved me even now in spite of my sin. I felt that I had been rejecting him for twenty-seven years. And yet I was overjoyed at the experience of God’s love for me. The experience of this joy has stayed with me.
I’m glad that Perkins began his story about his own “struggle with racism and poverty” by describing how he came to know the love of God. Our love of others flows from our love of God, which originates with God’s love for us. Perkins’ struggle continued…
Over the last thirty-five years, the struggle has been to reconcile what happened to me there, the experience of God’s love, with living in the world. The struggle has been to show to my neighbor the reconciling love I found at conversion, when out in the world I found bigotry and hatred – even from Christians – because I was black. At every key point, at every crucial moment, I have been surrounded by Christians who loved me so that I felt that reconciling love…
The first time I went [to a Bible study], I looked around me and saw that everyone there was white except for me. I had never, ever, seen white folks and black folks together in church in Mississippi, so I was afraid I might get turned away; but my desire to know the Bible was too strong for me to leave.
I went to the back of the room and listened to the Bible lesson from there. By the end of the lesson, I knew I wanted to keep coming to this class. I knew I wanted to learn what this teacher had to teach me, but I was afraid that I would not be wanted, because I was black. I waited until most of the other men had left, and then I went up to the teacher. I reached out to shake his hand, but he didn’t shake my hand – he put his arm around my shoulder. I felt the reconciling love of God. I felt that he wanted me there.
Perkins goes on to describe how the church must stop handing out charity to the poor out of guilt. Instead, believers must live with the poor and help them through the love of God. If our actions make us feel better about ourselves, then we are giving charity out of guilt. If our actions cause us to love and spend even more time with the people, then we know we are demonstrating the love of God.
Although this book was written in 1993 (not long after the LA riots), believers today can learn alot from Perkins about living with and helping “the least” – and in so doing demonstrating our love for God (Matt 25:40). This is how Perkins closes his introduction:
It has been said over and over again that the government has tried to solve the problems of the inner city and has failed. Yes, the government has failed when it comes to the poor. Our nation’s cities are in a crisis. But in every crisis there is opportunity. I believe that this crisis is an opportunity for us, the church, to step forward and lead the way in restoring the inner city by bringing the physical presence of God into the city. I believe that the church has the opportunity to pioneer and model a way of life whereby our nation itself can experience a new birth. One of the reasons that I love this country is because of its commitment to freedom. That freedom gives us, the church – the people of God – the opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world a more excellent way…
It is time for the church, yes, the whole church, to take a whole gospel on a whole mission to the whole world. It is time for us to exhibit by our very lives that we believe in the oneness of the Body of Christ. It is time for us to prove that the purpose of the gospel is to reconcile alienated people to God and to each other, across racial, cultural, social, and economic barriers. It is time for the reconciling love of God that has touched each individual heart to spill over into love for our neighbor.
I’ve asked God to let his love spill out of me and into love for my neighbor. I’m looking forward to reading and sharing more of this book with you.