Holistic Evangelism in the Deep South: John Perkins and Voice of Calvary Ministries

(PF: Perkins, John)

In celebration of Black History Month this February, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections highlights the transformational work of the Voice of Calvary Ministries, founded in Mendenhall, Mississippi by John M. Perkins – pastor, writer, and civil rights advocate.

The many reports, brochures, photographs, videos, oral history interviews, and correspondence available in Collection 362: Records of Voice of Calvary Ministries and Collection 367: Papers of John M. Perkins tell the story of a dynamic ministry that sought to emphasize evangelism in a context of holistic community development, economic distribution, and racial reconciliation.

The Voice of Calvary (VOC) Ministries and John Perkins’ vision for Christian community development began in the early 1960s following Perkins’ move back to his home state of Mississippi from a comfortable middle-class life in California. Although social action and community development became the keystone for the following sixty years of VOC ministry, Perkins did not arrive in Mendenhall with a vision for holistic evangelism. Feeling called both to Mississippi and ministry after his conversion in 1957, John Perkins simply returned to, as he described in a 1987 interview, “…Go back there and live among my people and be there…with the idea of just sharing the Gospel.” (CN 637, Tape 1).

John and Vera Mae Perkins at the site of the first Co-Op store in Mendenhall. (PF: Perkins, John)

However, as he traveled, preached, and taught in segregated communities and schools around Mississippi generally and Mendenhall particularly, Perkins continually encountered the pervasive economic, social, and racial discrimination experienced by many black communities in the South – an experience that Perkins was intimately familiar with from his own childhood growing up on a sharecropper farm in the nearby town of New Hebron, Mississippi.

1981 VOC Annual Report (CN 362, Folder 25-4)

From these encounters and with the help and support of long-time Mendenhall community members, like Mr. C. A. Buckley, a local farmer and future member of the VOC Board, Perkins began to build a vision and structure for evangelism that sought to minister to the whole person and whole community – addressing the physical and social realities of people’s lives as much as the spiritual.

Explaining the central mission of the Voice of Calvary Ministries, Perkins later summarized:

By responding to the needs that people feel most deeply, we can flesh out the meaning of the gospel we proclaim. Social actions become an integral part of evangelism.

Brochure, The VOC Story, CN 362, Folder 26-8

In line with this vision, the founding of the Voice of Calvary church in 1964 was soon followed by the opening of VOC Ministries’ first development project in Mendenhall – a community store and cooperative farm. Over the next twenty years, this co-op was joined by a variety of community development projects in both Mendenhall and, after 1974, in VOC’s new headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. Just a few of these projects included: the Voice of Calvary Bible Institute for leadership development and tutoring in 1968, the Christian Youth and Vocational Center in 1972, the Voice of Calvary Health Center in 1973, and the People Development Inc. for funding community housing and development in 1975.

Responding to the needs of the black community in Mendenhall also necessarily included addressing the widespread injustices of segregation, discrimination, and racial violence in the American South. As part of their holistic gospel response to this reality, John Perkins and the Voice of Calvary Ministries were actively involved in the civil rights movement, engaging in voter registration drives, community boycotts, and marches throughout the 1960s and 70s.

H. Spees and John Perkins (PF: Perkins, John)

During one of these economic boycotts in late 1969, John Perkins, along with other VOC members, was arrested and jailed in Mendenhall. While in police custody, he was severely beaten and spent the first few months of 1970 in the hospital.

Recovering from this pain and trauma, John Perkins turned – not to hate or despair – but to greater efforts in Christian love, forgiveness, and racial reconciliation. Throughout his ministry, Perkins worked to reach out to white church leaders, pastors, and community organizers, both to challenge complacency in continued discriminatory practices and to encourage new relationships and ideas. Through these conversations, Perkins and the Voice of Calvary Ministries sought to develop programs that specifically addressed racial reconciliation in the local church, including Bible studies, volunteer projects, counseling, and a new magazine, The Reconciler, first distributed in the fall of 1977.

First issue of The Reconciler. CN 362, Folder 25-10

Although retiring from an active role in Voice of Calvary Ministries in 1981 and moving back to California in 1982, over the years John Perkins has been and continues to be a man of quiet, but profound influence. Authoring several popular books, including Let Justice Roll Down and A Quiet Revolution, Perkins also served on President Reagan’s Task Force on Hunger in 1983 and helped found the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), a support network for evangelical congregations and organizations involved in social justice and community programs.

(Photo File: Perkins, John)

More information regarding John Perkins and Voice of Calvary Ministries can be found in a series of oral history interviews conducted by the Archives with current and former staff of VOC Ministries in 1987, including Collection 366: Oral History Interview with Lemuel Tucker (past VOC President), Collection 368: Oral History Interview with Vera Mae Perkins, Collection 370: Oral History Interview with Melvin R. Anderson (Director of People Development Inc. and later VOC President) and Collection 373: Oral History Interview with Dolphus Weary (past Executive-Director for VOC-Mendenhall).

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