“The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings with fearful trill
of the things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
(from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou)
Dr. John Perkins, plenary speaker for the Mosaix Multicultural Church Conference in Long Beach, California, quoted from this poem. In what could only be described as impromptu and unexpected, he gave an emotional farewell address to those gathered at the conference. He said he felt a sense of joy and completeness and it is time for him to exit the stage and live his remaining years at home.
For the past two days we heard from people around this nation who are making a challenge to what is one of the most segregated pieces of real estate in America; the local church. In a nation that is so racially divided, the church should be leading the way to what true multiculturalism looks like. We have the promise of the Father (Gen 22:18), love of Jesus (John 13:34-35) and the presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 15:13). Gifted speakers from diverse cultures shared their experiences. Many are bridging the divides in their communities through their churches. They are building, restoring and reconciling relationships in the spirit of the promises of God:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. (Micah 4:1-5)
Dr. Perkins said that hearing the speakers gave him both hope and closure. While there is much left to do, he says the baton has been passed. He sees a new generation of people who are devoted to bringing about the reconciliation of the church so that it can be the unified, multicultural evidence of God’s promises in a world that cannot seem to get along.
I am a politically conservative white American from rural/suburban Illinois. This black son of a sharecropper might seem like an unlikely hero to someone like me. Like a lot of kids living in the Chicago region, I indiscriminately counted among my heroes two African American men; Ernie Banks and Gale Sayers. As a teenager, I spent countless hours trying to learn the precise ways to play guitar riffs by Jimi Hendrix. Race was not something I understood. I didn’t have to. Yes, growing up during the 60s, I was aware of the civil rights struggles taking place around America, but my world looked different and it was only news headlines to me. As age has tempered my arrogance and as relationships have informed my ignorance, I am increasingly aware of the hard challenges faced by men who are like me in every way except the color of their skin.
Through personal encounters and the reading of his books (particularly Let Justice Roll Down), Dr. John Perkins gave me my first real glimpse into a world that I lived beside but never knew. He grew up in Mississippi at a time when a black man encountered barriers to just about everything in American society. Perkins grew up fatherless. His mom died while breastfeeding him (he agonized as a child believing that he caused her death). His brother was killed by a local policeman over a misunderstanding. So he left Mississippi and went to California, where he built a good life. And there he met Jesus.
Through the Word of God he began to re-imagine a colorblind society. He went back to Mississippi and poured his life into his community. Through community development he was having a significant impact on Jackson, Mississippi. Local white leaders were threatened by him. In neighboring Brompton, with his supportive community a town away, he was beaten nearly to death by the police (he still carries permanent scars from the beating). As he tells it, while getting pummeled he would have gladly traded places and beaten and killed them all with the rage and hatred he felt; blow for blow. But instead, by the peace and presence of the Holy Spirit, he forgave the men who did that to him.
His story is a remarkable story of reconciliation. Like Isaiah, he simply said to God, “here I am, send me.” He refused to let hate hold him back from loving the way Jesus did. He has held on to a dream of Christians becoming the reconciled, multicultural Kingdom society that would one day stand in stark contrast to the world. Diversity as championed by our society is nothing more than competing people feigning tolerance. We have already seen that they are quick to raise fists whenever resources are scarce. But the church cannot be like that! Jesus died in order to reconcile a people to Himself. In God’s Kingdom, unlikely friendships bridge every kind of human divide. It was a dream that drove the engine of Dr. John Perkins, and he said to the crowd at Mosaix that it was worth it all.
With that encouragement, he said he felt like Simeon when he held Jesus at the temple:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
He finished with what he called “an old Negro spiritual:”
“Some glad morning when this life is over I’ll fly away
To a home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away
When I die hallelujah, bye and bye I’ll fly away”
Sing, John Perkins, sing.