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Beyond Charity: Introduction (part 1/5)

As I said last week, I’m starting a series of posts focused on John M. Perkins, specifically drawing on some key points from his book, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development. The theme is as pertinent as ever, given all the recent hoopla around the federal budget, including cuts to federal programs intended to help the poor. Of course, among those reading this blog there are certainly a variety of perspectives on the merits of these cuts. But the fact remains that one way or another the needs of the poor are urgent and impossible to ignore, and regardless of our various proposed responses, I hope we can at least agree on that.

So I thought it would be helpful to consider over the next week or two what John Perkins has been saying (and far more importantly, what he has been doing) for decades. The dude has street cred, so let’s get that squared away right up front. From his bio:

John M. Perkins is a sharecropper’s son who grew up in New Hebron, Mississippi amidst dire poverty. Fleeing to California at age 17 after his older brother’s murder at the hands of a town marshal, he vowed never to return. However after converting to Christianity in 1960 he returned to Mendenhall, Mississippi to share the gospel of Christ. While in Mississippi, his outspoken nature and support and leadership in civil rights demonstrations resulted in repeated harassment, beatings and imprisonment. He again was arrested in 2005 year while protesting in Washington D.C. against U. S. Government defunding of programs aiding the poor.

If you’re one for smaller government, don’t let that last part scare you. Perkins doesn’t ultimately think it’s the government’s job to pull people out of poverty, as you’ll see. But his perspectives on poverty and development don’t easily fit into any polarized schools of thought either. Because of his background, his track record, and increasingly, his legacy among younger urban servants, when he critiques the welfare system, for instance, it sounds a lot more believable, compassionate and smart than when others do so from a safe distance. He has the moral authority to be taken seriously.

I’m envisioning four more posts in this series (though that could change). At the moment, here’s my plan. First, we’ll have an introduction to Christian community development. Second, Perkins’ seven marks of an authentic church. Third, eight factors that contribute to a healthy environment for development, and some ideas of how to get there. And finally, five key things we’ll need to learn if we’re serious about serving among the urban poor.

This series, I hope, will serve as a nice introduction to many who may not be familiar with John Perkins or Christian community development, but it will certainly not be exhaustive, and I’m counting on those more qualified (you know who you are) to chime in. I only hope this series will be a jumping off point for further learning and doing among those who want to take seriously Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the “least of these” we are doing for him.

[Photo credit: John Keatley]


  1. MD Yowler

    A review from a reviewer

    This book is a philosophy and outline for ministry among the American poor, emphasizing the role of God’s people in moving beyond charity to uplifting ministry based on building relationships and program development within communities. The book is divided into three sections consisting of vision (for ministry that goes beyond charity), gospel (bridging theology with specific practices of ministry), and messenger (directed towards those considering a role in these types of ministry).
    The book is founded on Perkins’ years of personal experience and knowledge of social ministry in helping at-risk populations and improving neighborhoods. The stories he shares of ministry successes in Pasadena, CA and Mendenhall, MS are powerful and compelling, as are the numerous people he cites that have had similar successes. Also particularly useful are his six marks of an authentic church, his eight factors that create an environment of hope in communities, and his chapter on discerning God’s will.
    Perkins has a definite anti-welfare and conservative political perspective, which is noticable in a few places. This is coupled with the fact that he is writing primarily to church-folk who are interested in church ministries, and leads to a total neglect of prescription for government involvement in the fight to reduce poverty and produce justice. Perkins needs to be more biblically-based in this regard – see Psalm 72. Lobbying for governmental involvement is important for impacting the structural base of poverty.
    In spite of the one significant area of disagreement mentioned above, this is an invaluable handbook for Christian social ministry. I recommend it without reservation.
    I believe there is only one group of people in society who can overcome these obstacles [to solutions of urban poverty]. God’s people have solutions that are qualitatively different from any other approach to the poor. The best that God’s people have to offer is relationships with the poor that reflect the kind of careful, quality attention we have in our own families. This is the high quality of relationships offered by people seeking to “love their neighbor as themselves.”

  2. Pingback: Beyond Charity: Becoming an urban servant (part 5/5)

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