In early 2018 we set out on a roadtrip through the American South to find reformers who are planted in our toughest communities, embodying biblical justice, hope, and love for their neighbors. Along the way we met five individuals who have given their lives to initiate Gospel transformation in their respective spheres.
Meet the reformers:
Dr. John M. Perkins: minister, civil rights advocate, community developer, founder/president of John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation
Sister Alison McCrary: social justice attorney, Catholic nun, President of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, spiritual advisor on Louisiana’s death row
Bryan Stevenson*: founder/director of Equal Justice Initiative, public defender, advocate of criminal justice reform
Gaynor Yancey*: professor, Master Teacher, and director of the Center for Church and Community Impact in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University; first chair of the Board of Directors at The Simple Way
Jimmy Dorrell*: Executive Director of Mission Waco in Waco, TX and pastor of Church Under the Bridge
*Bryan Stevenson, Gaynor Yancey, and Jimmy Dorrell features coming soon to Nations.
On the relationship between justice and the Gospel:
John Perkins: Justice really comes from humanity’s dignity. The biblical account is that God made man, created this humanity in his own image to reflect God in the world. He created man with the mission to go into all the world and reflect God. That talks about the preciousness of this creator’s love for humanity.
God is in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. What motivation, what passion that came from God would do all of that? It came from this: he wanted us to love each other, he wanted us to do justice.
So somewhere between love and justice, deep love then would be working out that justice. Deep love. And that deep love, I’m discovering, comes from loving God. In the last year or so, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is very, very difficult in this world to love our neighbors as ourselves and I’m sort of believing that I’ve got to concentrate on loving God, and I really think that loving the neighbor is God’s love. It’s my response to his love. It’s my gratitude for his love, so I praise him and in turn he gives me that will to want to love my neighbor. I want to do this more creatively with the end of my life.
Jimmy Dorrell: Most kids I teach at seminary don’t want to be pastors anymore, they want to be missional and do justice. The trouble is, it’s not just social justice. That’s an outcome of being the Church. Being with the homeless is still not church. It can become church, you can be church together. If you’re not grounded in the theology that the Church is the body of Christ, then you become part of a deformed body—you have part of it, but not all of it. There’s a lot of “pseudo-church” that has pieces but is not whole.
On listening to the stories of those on the margins:
Bryan Stevenson: Telling stories is an important way to get people to step outside themselves, to think beyond their own limitations and experiences. We’ve seen what’s happened with issues like domestic violence, where 50 years ago, we were not very sensitive or attentive to women who were being abused in their homes. The dominant narrative was if you make a bad choice and marry or get into relationship with someone who is abusive, then that’s your fault. And society didn’t actually accept any responsibility for that. Through storytelling, through hearing the stories of women who had been abused, and the pain and horror of that, by getting intimate with those stories, we actually began to think differently about the kind of problem that domestic violence represents. And we’ve moved as a result of that.
The same can be true for how we think about our criminal justice system. If we reduce people to their worst act and say, “That’s just a drug dealer,” or “just a thief” then it’s very easy to feel like any cruelty, any abuse, any mistreatment that person is experiencing in a jail or prison is not a concern. But it’s through story that we can help people understand that, even if you sold drugs, you’re not just a drug dealer—[you’re] more than that. [Story is] the strategy behind a lot of what we’re trying to do for both criminal justice reform and changing the way we think about poverty and race. You have to use narrative to get people to step into a space that they otherwise wouldn’t step into.
Alison McCrary: Jesus went to the margins. With the Samaritan woman at the well, as a man he wasn’t supposed to talk to a woman, especially in private one-on-one.. Jesus was a boundary breaker, he crossed all those boundaries and we’re called to do the same. You can’t do justice work, the justice work the Gospels demand us to do, without listening to those who are directly impacted, listening to the voices of the color, listening to those who were not born the gender assigned to them at birth, listening to people of a different value system or different race, gender, age, sexual orientation, whatever it is.
So we have to listen to those voices and allow those voices to lead us and then find ways to empower their leadership. How do we build power among those on the margins, not for us to go to fancy leadership conferences and institutes and trainings and certificates and things that are really meaningless in the end. It’s about how we love people. And then, through the act of love, how do we build power with those who are directly impacted on the margins, so that they can be the ones leading the change as they should be? It’s a letting go of the ego—and we all have an ego, it’s part of our human condition. How do we decrease ourselves? That downward movement is hard, because society teaches us otherwise.
Jimmy Dorrell: Jesus taught generosity from a widow with her last two mites. The broken people understand the kingdom more than we do—I don’t care how many seminaries you go to. I am humbled every Sunday when I’m under that bridge. Our drug and alcohol rehab guys are there, and they’re humbled. They’ve [once] awakened in their own vomit, and now they’re in a place where they are wanted. They’ve had their own church experience, but that humility permeates the church.
We raised money for some orphanages in Mexico a couple weeks ago. We went around to the guys [sitting] way in the back, and a homeless guy gave $5 to the orphans. Statistically poor people are more generous than rich people—and I don’t need a statistic, I see it. It’s [in] the surprise of the Spirit that we find things happening. Things happen that that atmosphere creates. God is freer to move than in an institutional setting.
Gaynor Yancey: People are the experts of their [own] lives. We don’t know their lives. If we don’t allow ourselves, especially with our affluence, to humble ourselves and know we are learners, that we don’t have the answers…every community we’re apart of, whether geographic or population group or whatever, if we don’t humble ourselves and know we can learn from whoever that is—it can be an individual, a group, a whole community—then shame on us. Who are we to think that we have the answers? We don’t. We might have the answers for some things structurally that can be put in place to resource people, but we’re not in people’s skin. Everyone we come into contact with we need to learn from. But that takes a certain mindset.
Share your experiences. We’re all in this together. What does that look like when we start to share our experiences? I’m a true believer in coming alongside people, not for the purpose of over/under, not “We know better, now we’re gonna pour that into you,” but rather [asking], “What is it you want to do in your life and how can we do that together?” Just because people are economically poor doesn’t mean they don’t have the same longings in life that we have.
On transcending the “savior complex” and top-down ministry:
Gaynor Yancey: It’s not our job to save somebody. Our job is to be a faithful witness to the saving power of Christ in our lives and to the relationship we have with Christ…[We must] learn to live into [the timing] when God has already softened people’s hearts in the right time. To be there at the right time means we have to have the discernment of the Spirit of God. That discernment has to be because we’re living so close. We have to be at the point of knowing that this closeness we have with the Lord is such that we trust this. If we trust it, we’re not going to go in there until it’s God’s timing.
I believe that the bottom line for us is to learn the discipline of trusting that God’s going to do what God says he’s going to do. But that’s a discipline.
Jimmy Dorrell: We have a little mantra that says, “The people with the problem must be a part of the solution.” We’re not going to go fix anybody, we’re going to love them, we’re going to listen to them, we’re going to help them but they’ve got to do their part. It’s like we’re all just friends. So it’s very non-threatening and never top-down.
[My wife] and I were having breakfast one Friday morning 25 years ago at Taco Cabana, which is just across from the interstate and we looked over and the homeless were sleeping under the bridge. We thought, “We don’t understand homelessness; let’s go let them to teach us.” So we went over and said, “We’ll buy breakfast. Come teach us about homelessness.” So they put their backpacks outside and we had a two-hour conversation with 4 or 5 guys. They said, “Hey let’s do this again.” So the next week, we met again and they brought more friends, and we did the same thing…at about the fourth or fifth meeting they began to call it Church Under the Bridge. We didn’t go down to start a church, but again that same model, bottom-up. It became this sweet little fellowship; we just began to love them and become their friends and engage them.
We put kids in a Sunday school room with a sterile atmosphere and say that this is the powerful truth. No, this isn’t where you learn the powerful truth. Take them out under the bridge and let them see that homeless people are real people.
On maintaining hope for the long road of reformation:
John Perkins: When I was locked in the Brandon jail, I came to the end. I’ve been to the end of life, I’ve been to what death looks like, what hate looks like. When I was in the Brandon jail, when those white folk were torturing me, I knew death was there. [But] I called out to God for help and he delivered me. Then I looked at myself; my solution is the same as theirs…and that’s when I thought of the Gospel. God can save whites and blacks, Jews and Gentiles… I said, “Lord, if you let me out of this jail alive, I want to do that.” Then whites and blacks began to show love to me, and I began to be healed. We got to love each other, we got to get to know each other, we got to value life. [Jesus said,] “I’ve come that you might have life.” That is to be believed, it’s not to be handed out in little teacups. Even now I’m really looking…human beings are looking more beautiful to me. And human beings together in a collective group, I like the color of that.
Bryan Stevenson: I say to people all the time, justice is a constant struggle. I think you have to expect a certain level of weariness, you just have to have a strategy for managing it. I feel really fortunate to be in some ways well-trained because I was surrounded by people growing up who had so much to make them weary, who had to deal with so much that could push them down. And yet they persisted, and yet they prevailed. That witness has been really important to me.
My grandmother was the daughter of people who were enslaved; she had 10 children. And yet she was fearless and resilient and loving in the face of so much tragedy and heartbreak. My grandfather was murdered and it didn’t take away her capacity to love or forgive or share. My parents couldn’t go to college and my mom in particular believed so much in education that she went into debt so that she could put the World Book Encyclopedia in our home. She just believed in the power of information, and knowing that she made that sacrifice and created that opportunity—and even here in Montgomery where I work, I think about the people who are trying to do what I’m trying to do now. I think about the people who were trying to do that 60 years ago. The people 60 years ago had to frequently say, “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” They had to deal with the physical torment of standing up for their rights. I’ve never had to say “My head is bloodied but not bowed.” It just gives me perspective on the nature of the struggle that we are engaged in.
I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of people who had to do so much more with so much less that it challenges me and pushes me to not give in to the inevitable weariness, the sense that this is too much. I do believe that all of those people—the enslaved who paraded up this street, the communities of color who were terrorized in this community by lynchings, the brave men, women, and children who had to deal with the pain and humiliation of segregation—I do believe all of those folks are watching; they are witnesses to what we are trying to do to create more justice, more opportunity. When you feel surrounded by that kind of community, it encourages you, affirms you, sustains you, empowers you to keep on pushing when you sometimes get tired.
Alison McCrary: It’s about hope. St. Augustine said, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” It’s easy to get discouraged, and I think every Christian has the obligation to move towards that pain and suffering of the world to try to be a prophetic voice. It’s hard because it means we have to be vulnerable and our hearts have to be open to being broken by the pain that we see, and our hearts have to be open to love strangers. That’s what scripture calls us to do.
But I think it’s really about holding on to hope and finding hope in those dark places where there’s a lot of pain and suffering. When I look at those who are on the margins of the margins of the margins, when they have hope, I find hope in them. If I can find someone who lives on two dollars a day, is living in public housing in a broken family with incarcerated parents struggling to feed their children, and yet they can find time to plant a flower in their garden bed—that’s hope: to create beauty in the midst of despair, pain, confusion, suffering, exhaustion. I always look for the flowers, those glimmers of hope.