This entry to the DF Journal is especially timely in light of recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri. Perry takes race and race fear head on like no one else. Organizers and leaders of all faiths and races will find food for thought and inspiration for change. Read, reflect, react.
- Frank C. Pierson, Jr
- Frank C. Pierson, Jr
PROJECT ON LIVED THEOLOGY
By Perry Perkins
Presentation at the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia
November 8, 2012
A number of years ago I read a book by Charles Marsh for the first time. It was God’s Long Hot Summer, his book about Freedom Summer of 1964, in my native state of Mississippi. He wrote about that summer from the perspective of four participants with particular focus on how faith led them to their place in the events of this tumultuous summer in the life of Mississippi and in the nation. This book centered on the life and faith of four leaders in Mississippi, two on the side of change and two more on the side of protecting and keeping the segregated status quo. I knew two of these participants personally, one on each side of the public struggle, Rev. Ed King, a white native Mississippian, the Chaplain at all black Tougaloo College and the Candidate for Lt. Gov. on the MS Freedom Democrats ticket in 1963 and Dr. Douglas Hudgins, Pastor of the largest church in the state, First Baptist Church Jackson. I also knew Charles’s father, who, like mine had been a Pastor in Mississippi during these tumultuous time. I later came to know that I had grown up reading news articles written by his Charles’s grandfather Ken Toler, for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
After reading this book, I did not come in contact with Charles and his work for a few more years. One night while channel surfing, I came across Charles on CSPAN making a presentation on his most recent book in a bookstore in Atlanta. I went out and purchased Dark Days and was struck by the pall of fear that he describes coming into the life of his family when they moved to Laurel, Mississippi. He recounts a fear in the house and community that had not existed in Alabama. As I read this description, I recognized the story. It was a familiar one not because I knew Charles and his experience in coming to Mississippi in 1967. It was familiar because I had experienced the same fear in the home of a Mississippi Baptist Pastor. I experienced this fear much earlier than Charles. I am a few years older and I was born in MS.
After reading this book, I contacted Charles for the first time. I later read his book on the Christian Right, Onward Christian Soldiers. Again, I contacted Charles. I am not sure my memory serves me right, but at this time he became intrigued by a son of a Mississippi Baptist Pastor who was organizing with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the nation’s oldest and largest network of organizers founded in 1940 by the recently rediscovered Saul D. Alinsky. It was during this correspondence three years ago that Charles gave me my assignment for tonight. He said, “Someone needs to write about organizing as a spiritual discipline.”
Before delving deeply into my assignment from Professor Marsh, let me assure you that this assignment is a work in progress. The thoughts I share with you tonight are a preliminary take on my experiences as political organizer, who comes to the vocation of organizing out of a deep sense of calling that is shaped by my faith journey.
I am a southerner. Southerners are storytellers. I am a son of a Southern Baptist Pastor who loved to tell stories in his sermons. One of the things that drew me to IAF was the appreciation of the exchange of story and spirit as central to the organizing experience.
Let me begin with the stories that are central to my theological formation and to the motivation that has led me to the call of the vocation of organizing. I call this “Lesson from the Dark Room”.
I remember the dark room. I do not know what was in it, but I do remember it was my parents’ bedroom. This room was in what we children referred to as the “old house”: the parsonage of First Baptist Church West Point, where my father was pastor. West Point was a small town in northeast Mississippi of about 10,000 residents—approximately 50 percent black and 50 percent white. In the early fifties when this story occurred, the town was deeply segregated and divided.
The dark room stands out in my earliest memories. The memories are not vivid in terms of detail, but the emotions and feelings associated with them are fresh and palpable. The dark room was the place where the secret wisdom of the adults was imparted to me. It was a wisdom that would teach me how to interact and navigate the world beyond the “old house”. The conversations were serious and somber.
I don’t remember having babysitters often but this night there was an important meeting at the church. Both of my parents had to be there. Beth, who was four years older than me, was not yet old enough to stay with us at night. Mrs. Annie Harrison came over to stay with us.
Mrs. Harrison was a short and stocky and a very dark skinned woman. She was pleasant and extremely courteous but as I remember was not overly deferential as most African-Americans of that era were expected to act toward white people. We called her Mrs. Harrison, not by her first name as most white children did. I do not remember much about being told how to address Mrs. Harrison. I just remember it was a rule and others of my friends thought it strange.
The night began quite uneventfully. My mom gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me to be good and to obey Mrs. Harrison. These were the days before we had a TV in the house, so Beth and I played a board game.
Mrs. Harrison told me it was time to take a bath and to begin to get ready for bed. I do not know what provoked me, but the words just came out of my mouth. These were words that I had often heard from the adults in the world beyond the “old house,” though never from either of my parents.
“You cannot make me take a bath. I do not have to listen to you. You are just an old nigger.”
The look on Mrs. Harrison’s face was one of extreme hurt. She remained calm but the hurt look never left her face. Fifty-eight years later the look still haunts me. I see the shock on her face and the hurt. The hurt cuts through my spirit today, but it did not stop me that night.
I do not remember the details of what happened after that but I can still hear the voice of my sister: “Perky, you know that we don’ talk like that. I am going to tell Momma, and when she gets home you are going to get a whipping.”
The thought of a whipping stopped me in my tracks, but I didn’t apologize. I just went to my room and cried and waited for my mom to return.
Mrs. Harrison came into the room to check on me but didn’t utter a word. Her silence made the anticipation of the return of my mother more intense. Then I heard the car pulling up, and I realized that it was not my mother I needed to worry about; it was my father. I knew he would be angry, and I began to cry even harder.
I heard the back door open, and Beth went running. Beth was a tattletale. During our growing up she reveled in telling on me for my various transgressions.
I could hear her in her loud, excited, high-pitched voice. I knew it was coming. I heard my father’s voice and the door opening in the same instant: “Perk, you better come out here right now and apologize. You know that we do not call anyone by that name in this house. You tell Mrs. Harrison that you are sorry.”
The tears were coming hard, and I could hardly speak. I was ashamed at what I had said, but I was more afraid of the wrath of my father than anything else.
“Mrs. Harrison, I am sorry for what I said.”
Then the tears and almost uncontrollable crying came upon me. I guess she accepted the apology. I was left with my dad and his wrath. He did not administer corporal punishment often, but this night he did.
After my punishment, my parents and I were in the dark room together. I sat on the bed, my dad sat in a chair, and my mom sat down on the bed next to me.
She lightly touched my head and I saw the concern on her face. But I also saw and felt her love. My fear was no longer as intense until I looked at my father’s face. His wrinkled brow was even more wrinkled, and the broad public smile was nowhere to be found.
His gravely baritone voice was stern, as it always was when he scolded me, but this time the voice was even more serious. I knew from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet and deep into my soul that this was going to be a serious talk.
I had stopped crying by this point and I looked at him fearfully and expectantly. He said, “I am ashamed of you. Your mother and I have taught you and your sister better than that.”
Again, I knew that this was not just another “Your mother and I have taught you better than that” talk. His voice was stern and still angry, but his love and seriousness were penetrating the usual stern demeanor and the anger that I always feared. “The Bible teaches us...”
I remember saying to myself, “Oh no, not ‘the Bible teaches us’ talk.”
But again, this was no ordinary talk.
His words came clearly but the stern tone gave way to a kind of moral clarity that was my dad’s hallmark. His teaching that night in the dark room was a moral and political teaching that has guided my life in the fifty-something years since that night. This teaching is at the center of my work and my spirit. But it is also at the center of my anger.
My father taught me that we are all created in the likeness and image of God. He said that this means that we are all equal. Black and white, no one better than the other, all equal in the eyes and sight of God.
The teaching did not stop there. He told me without using the terms that this scripture had political implications. He told me that our creation meant that segregation was wrong. His clarity on this point penetrated my young mind. My fear had receded and I was listening in awe and quiet wonder to his words.
He went on: “Segregation is wrong and it is going away. There will be a time in this town, this state, and this country where white people and Negroes will live side by side, go to school together and treat each other equally as God intends.”
I had not seen Fear come in the room. My dad’s moral clarity and theological teaching had seemed to keep him at bay. But he came in. He entered the room as my father kept talking. “Segregation is wrong. It is evil. It is going away, but there is not much we can do to hasten its demise. All we can do is treat Negroes, as we would want to be treated, and let God do the rest. These things are in God’s hands.”
These words came out of his mouth and I saw Fear move into the center of the room. He was standing; he never pulled up a chair. He spoke not a word. He didn’t have to. My dad’s moral certainty and theological strength had given way to Fear. I didn’t know this at the time. I thought he had spoken these words in one voice and with one spirit. But looking back, I know now that he spoke with two voices. One was with the clarity of the biblical prophets; the other voice was the voice of the evil one. Some call him the devil, others Satan, but I know him as Fear.
Fear spoke, but not in an audible voice. He did not have to. My Dad spoke for him. “Do you understand what I am saying?”
I nodded my assent.
He continued, “We have to be careful who we tell this to. Not everyone thinks as we do. So you must be careful.”
Fear smiled and left the room, but his spirit remained.
Over the years I wrestled with these conflicting teachings. My increased determination not to live in a world where this kind of fear was promoted in order to maintain the social order drew me more deeply into organizing. However, it has been the melding of the IAF disciplines of planning, acting and reflecting on action with the spiritual disciplines of daily journaling, interior dialogue and prayer that has begun to give me very concrete victories over the demons of inherited fear that I met for the first time in that dark room in segregated West Point Mississippi.
My father spoke with two conflicting voices because he felt powerless. He knew deep down that the social system that was based on white supremacy was in direct conflict with biblical teachings that he and his congregation claimed to follow. He knew all too clearly that the biblical teaching that all are created in the likeness and image of God wages an attack on white supremacy. Yet the fear within him left him conflicted and speaking with two voices. I inherited this fear.
The last story involves another book about Mississippi. Shortly after it was published I read Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition in the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. I was deeply moved by this book. It’s chronicling of the day to day work of unknown heroes of the struggle and its story of the creative tension between the organizing work of these nameless heroes and the better known direct action and mass movement personified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a deep impact on my thinking. But it was in my second reading of this book, while preparing for an IAF Organizer and leaders seminar with Dr. Payne to discuss his work and reflect on its relevance and lessons for our organizing work, that I had an epiphany.
The first chapter of the book is a litany of murders, lynching’s and acts of violence against African Americans in the years of the last century leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. I came upon a paragraph that told the story of five lynching’s that occurred in Lowndes County in a five-mile radius of where my father lived between the ages of five and sixteen.
I finally knew where his fear came from. He knew something I did not know. He knew that segregation was built on the foundation of violence and intimidation, not just against black folk but also against anyone who might be willing to question the prevailing ideology and powers that be.
He did not simply have an intellectual understanding of this political reality. His spirit was baptized in the violence, intimidation and fear deliberately created to maintain the system of white supremacy. In that dark room I too was baptized into that spirit.
I knew from my earliest memories that if faith was real in my life and in the world around me it would have to aid me in finding a spirituality and a way of being in the world that gave me a new baptism. Organizing has been central to the development of a spirituality that breaks free from the one I met in the Dark Room.
If spiritual disciplines are a pathway to a deeper relationship with God and the world then I believe that there are practices of organizing that I have learned that truly are spiritual disciplines. I want to lift up three universals of organizing as practiced by IAF that have truly been a part of my spiritual development. They are a radical commitment to relational power, public dealing with grief and loss and action reflected upon.
Early in my organizing career with IAF I was introduced to an article by Bernard Loomer called “Two Kinds of Power”, in this article Dr. Loomer says that most of us have only experienced one kind of power, unilateral power. Our experience with power is where one person has all the power and they make all decisions. Often this kind of power proves the point of Lord Acton’s dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Loomer said there was another type of power, relational power. Relational power is built by multiple parties and is exercised with not on the participants. My experience of growing up was the abuse of power and unilateral power built by intimidation and violence. Through Loomer and in relationship to my colleagues and the men and women of the IAF network I learned of a power that was transformational. I saw poor people with little formal education and people of means with the best education money could by acting together building the capacity to change institutions and communities. If this not spiritual, I do not understand the term.
All organizing is about building power; the capacity to act, but in IAF I found that relationships built in the organizing of money and people is integral to the process. Our organizing is about creating inside community institutions such as churches, synagogues, mosques, local labor unions, neighborhood associations and local non-profits a deep practice of relationality. A practice that seeks to not simply understand the issue a person cares about, but the personal story that shapes their willingness to act.
There are two relational tools that we teach institutional leaders to practice as a part of the on going day to day work of their institutions and their participation in the local partnerships between IAF organizers and local institutional leaders that we call Broad Based Organizations. These relational tools are the relational meeting and house meetings. Both tools are about a search for leaders and what they are interested in acting upon. Taken mechanically or for pure utilitarian purposes they could become very transactional with the relational meeting becoming a sterile interview and the public gathering of leaders we call, house meetings, could become a focus group.
For me relational meetings and house meetings are not about the listing of possible issues for action but about a mixing of spirits that creates a new personal, institutional and social imagination. Let me relate another story that illustrates my point.
A number of years ago I was working with an IAF affiliated organization in the southeast Texas town of Beaumont. Rev. Oveal Walker was Pastor of. Concord Missionary Baptist Church and he was a prominent community leader. His pastoral, denominational and community involvements pulled him in many directions. However, one community involvement took precedent over all other involvements, efforts around public education. One local pastor said, when I first moved to Beaumont, I thought Rev. Walker worked for the school district.
One day sitting in his office, I asked him why he was so involved in issues of public education?
He told me that his father was a very successful small businessman and only had a 5th grade education. His father did not value education and when Oveal graduated from high school he forbade him going to college. Rev. Walker said, when my sisters graduated, I defied my father and I paid for their college education. I then went on to go to college and to seminary. "I do not want any child to experience what I went through."
At that moment, I had a deeper insight into the interest, concerns and motivation of Rev. Walker, but more importantly there was a mixing of spirits. I told him a version of the story from the Dark Room. Our relationship deepened and there was a different quality to our work together. If that is not spiritual, I do not understand the term.
Spiritual disciplines are pathways to our listening to God’s voice in our lives. The relational meeting and house meetings allow us to enter into conversation, where we begin to forget our next question and to listen deeply to the pain, the struggle, the loss, the victories and joys of others in our institutions and in our communities. David Tracy says that conversation requires us to give ourselves over to the movement of the conversation. We get beyond our concerns and ourselves and we can begin to experience the lives of leaders we want to act together with. For me this mixing of spirits allows me to see God in the stories of others and to find God’s redemption in my own story.
In the IAF canon of training, we teach about the qualities of leaders that are necessary to build a strong collective of leaders inside a local institutions and inside the Broad Based Organization we are creating. The first quality I teach in these sessions and the first quality I look for in a leader is anger.
Anger gets a bad rap because it is misunderstood and often confused with rage. Our English word for anger comes from the Norse word ang, which means grief and loss. All of us experience grief and loss in our lives. It is a part of the human condition. All of us have experiences where we are impacted by grief. The question is what do we do with it.
One response to grief and loss is apathy. Where we feel so powerless that we resign ourselves to the state of believing that there is nothing we can do in response. Another response to grief and loss is rage. In rage we are like Moses seeing the Egyptian abusing a fellow Hebrew, we strike out. Our actions are not aimed and measured. In rage, we often strike out at someone who had nothing to do with our loss and our grief. The tragedy in this country today is that rage is the norm for many young people who act violently in response to the deep seeded grief of their lives.
In his Daily Study Bible, William Barclay says that the word translated into English as meek is misunderstood. The Greek word is Praus that Aristotle describes as a means between two extremes. Aristotle describes meekness as the medium between excessive anger, and angerlessness. Barclay says a better translation is “Blessed is the one who is always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”
Rev. Walker had an appropriate response to the grief in his life. He did not lash out at his father nor did he sit and say there is nothing that I can do. He first responded by sending his sisters to college, then going himself and then spending his life dedicated to seeing that children in Beaumont grew up in a community that valued education.
Through the process of organizing I came to understand that much of what brought me to organizing was the experiences that I learned in the dark room. I grew up not wanting to live in fear and not wanting to live in a social order based on fear and intimidation. My anger drew me into organizing. Growing up I felt powerless. I knew that segregation was wrong but I wanted to be a part of brining about that change. I did not want to leave it to God.
Public action or exercising my own agency and teaching others to act and reflecting together on our cooperative action has brought me beyond my inheritance of fear to a vibrant and joyful encounter of God and those I act with.
Early in my career with IAF, in a meeting with a priest at an inner city Catholic parish, I noticed he seemed depressed and dispirited. I asked him what was bothering him. He told me that a teacher at his school had been attacked at knifepoint and that the same thing had happened at both the public school and the Episcopal school just around the corner from his church. He said that the private club across the street from the church was the source of these violent acts. It was no longer a place to simply get a drink; it had become a drug haven. He said, “This problem is only going to get worse, and there is nothing we can do. The owners of this building have friends in high places, and we are powerless to do anything about it.”
I was a young organizer at the time, and there was some fear in me. However, I knew that now was not a time for timidity but a time to be bold. I had to act as if I knew what I was doing, even if I didn’t. I told him “Father, we can do something about this. We are not powerless. Our organization has 60 member institutions and many of them are in this community. We can harness that power, select the right targets to pressure and solve this problem.”
He was still a bit skeptical, but his desperation was giving way to some hope that we might be successful. I looked at him and said, “Father, there is one more thing. You have to be at the center of this action.” I knew that this was the last thing he wanted to hear. He supported our organizing work, but I had a deal with him that he would encourage his leaders and he did not have to be at the active center of our work. I knew, however, that in this case we were up against some entrenched powers and that the local clergy would need to be the out front leaders of the campaign. We would not be successful in getting other clergy if we did not have him at the center. He looked at me and very reluctantly gave me his assent.
The campaign to rid the community of this source of violence was highly successful. Not only did we close down this drug house; we closed down every known drug house in a five square mile area. From our leaders’ research came the first use of Federal Racketeering Statutes to seize property in drug crimes as a tool in prosecution of these cases. There were numerous actions: small meetings with the local police captain, with the city council member, the police chief, the district attorney, the US attorney, and the mayor. There were two large public actions with over 1,000 leaders at each event. All along the way Father kept his word. At times he wanted to back out and even call off the campaign.
During the campaign, I became deeply aware that Father’s reluctance to lead in political work was not purely because of the other pressures of his work in this parish but was because of his fear. I learned that he was filled with many inherited fears that came from his family. These fears from events in the past intruded on the present, even when there was no real or causal reason to be fearful. He had learned to live in fear and was not often able to throw off the shackles of this inheritance. He had learned how to cover and manage his anxiety. However, to a large extent, this inherited fear had free reign in his life.
At the mass where we celebrated the victories of the campaign, the priest stood and declared that the real victory of this effort was not simply ridding the community of this source of violence or pioneering new tools in the battle to take our communities back from drug dealers. For him, the spiritual victory over the fears inside of him had given way to joy and strength through action. “In action, I have seen God at work,” he said. “In action through our organizing, I have been set free.”
His clarity about what was happening to his spirit was not by accident. It is our practice that after every action, large or small there is an evaluation. In the evaluation we look at how we executed our plan. We looked at what was the reaction from the target of our action and how we moved the issue. But we also ask questions about the development of leaders and what leaders are learning about themselves. It was through this practice that Fr. Bill was more clearly confronted by his fear. It was also in these evaluations that he saw the spiritual power that is released in collective action. In one such evaluation after a hard meeting with the Mayor, he said, “I am learning what it means to have dominion over creation. Through our action we truly are becoming with God co-creators, creating a new community in this forgotten part of our city.”
The victories of this campaign were important, but the lasting contribution is the transformation of this pastor, other leaders and his parish. The victories of almost 30 years ago deepened inside of me a confidence in my own abilities. It also deepened my commitment to collective action with other organizers and leaders, who were willing to combat their own personal fears, publicly act in response to grief in their lives and act in the interest of their families, their institutions and their communities. If this is not spiritual, I do not know what is.
The day before my mother died. I had a conversation with her that would be my last conversation with her. In response to hard political problem I was working on that had deep implications for a new project I was developing. She said, “You are not anxious about this situation are you. You are not afraid.”
I have broken the hold of the one I met in that dark room many years ago. My discovery of God and God’s power in the world has come through the development of daily internal spiritual disciplines but it has also come through the disciplines of building power relationally, acting with appropriate anger and collectively reflecting on our experience.
(Posted with permission of Project on Lived Theology, University of Virginia)