Features

For John Perkins, it's black and white

"For John Perkins, it's black and white" Continued...

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

4 p.m.: Good News Bible club begins at the Voice of Calvary Fellowship Church, founded by Mr. Perkins in 1970. Some 30 children assemble on the stage of an old-fashioned sanctuary decorated with varnished pews and purple stained-glass windows. The meeting begins with energetic worship and then a recitation of the weekly Bible verse. Afterward, their teacher, Pete Almeida ("Mr. Pete") reads about a boy who feels guilty for his sin-stealing. "What is sin?" one student asks. "Sin is anything that we say or do that displeases God," respond 20 other students in unison.

Voice of Calvary Jackson, Miss.

A cream-colored brick house with a sign depicting a black hand and a white hand clasped together: that's the Voice of Calvary (VOC) community organization that Mr. Perkins founded in 1972. VOC now uses its $1 million budget to provide summer youth camps, housing-development programs, and health care for low-income residents in the West Jackson area. In an effort to foster indigenous leadership, Mr. Perkins requires the center to raise its own support and form an independent board of directors in the community.

9 a.m.: At the VOC Family Health Center, patients listen to gospel music as they wait in a lobby decorated with cherry-wood furniture and leather-covered chairs. A wooden "prayer box" on the coffee table invites visitors to write down personal prayer requests so the staff can pray for them. The clinic treats some 5,000 low-income, uninsured patients a year.

This morning the waiting room bustles with seven patients, including Paulette Wilkerson, whose young adult son was fatally shot this year. Mrs. Wilkerson, who was financially dependent on her son, came to the clinic for help in overcoming depression and insomnia. A family practitioner prescribes Prozac and Psalm 91. Writing a verse down on a prescription pad, she instructs Mrs. Wilkerson to recite it three times a day. "There is more to us than flesh and blood," the doctor says. "Sometimes if we address the spiritual root of the problem, the physical symptoms are alleviated."

3 p.m.: A pink fluorescent poster displaying the Bible verse Romans 3:23-"for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God"-welcomes visitors to VOC's People's Housing and Family Development office. Four full-time employees purchase old homes to remodel and sell to poor families. Nine out of 10 local residents rent their homes, and by creating more homeowners, VOC hopes to encourage more stewardship within the community. "People see neighborhoods deteriorate after white flight and assume it's a racial problem," says VOC director, Phillip Reed. "But it's not a racial problem; it's an ownership problem. When a neighborhood goes from owners to renters, there is less stability and less responsibility."

Two blocks north in the dilapidated neighborhood of Olin Park, men wearing sleeveless T-shirts and carrying bag-covered beer bottles wander past a row of tottering gray shacks. At the end of the row stands one bright yellow house with perfectly shaped shrubbery. It belongs to Mrs. Willie Tobias, an 85-year-old woman who became a homeowner for the first time two years ago. "I like having my own home, but it also means I've got to fix everything myself," says Mrs. Tobias, who sought VOC's help after she could no longer afford to pay her previous landowner.

VOC helps new owners like Mrs. Tobias take responsibility by requiring them to attend eight-hour homeowner seminars and monthly financial-counseling sessions. New homeowners can also earn credit points by joining a neighborhood association or keeping a specified amount in their savings account. For 200 points (awarded in 25-point increments) they receive $200 to pay off debts. Since its inception, Voice of Calvary has remodeled and sold more than 200 homes to Jackson-area families.

6:30 p.m.: Mr. Reed drives 40 miles south to the Hinds County prison farm, where some 200 prisoners earn their keep by raising vegetables and providing manual labor. Every Tuesday he leads a 12-week, biblically based financial course for prisoners. Dressed in green uniforms with locker-room keys dangling from their necks, 10 inmates file into wooden chapel pews at 7 p.m. They begin with a recitation of 1 Corinthians 4:2, a verse about stewardship. All 10 then drop to their knees for prayer: "Oh Lord Jesus, thank you for providing these men to help me," prays an inmate.

The course represents the first cooperative effort between the county and John Perkins to put a dent in the recidivism rate-the frequency with which ex-convicts commit new crimes that send them back to prison. "Our system often sets people up to fail," said Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin. "We were sending people who just served a 10-year prison sentence back to the street with nothing but $50 in their pocket and no support system. There's a lot of folk that pay lip service to the gospel-they like to come in and preach to a captive audience, but once they're released their interest in the inmates ends." Last year, the sheriff approached Mr. Perkins with a proposal: County officials would host a voluntary Bible study, if the Perkins Foundation would provide mentors and a support system for newly released prisoners.

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