Spencer Perkins, who died in 1998, was Chris Rice's coauthor on the book More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel (IVP, 1993). He was also Rice's best friend. Now Rice tells the story of their friendship in Grace Matters (Jossey-Bass, purchase book here.)
The only time I've ever talked to you was in an interview with you and Spencer together for the book, More Than Equals. Writing this new book and doing interviews for it must bring memories of doing the same with him.
When your closest friend dies suddenly, the way that Spencer did, you just don't go on with life as usual. I shed a lot of tears writing [this book]. I had a lot of good laughs, too, remembering the very special friendship that we had. But I felt like I really had to get this story out of me in a sense before I could move on with my life.
Tell us a little about you and how you met Spencer.
Spencer's father came to speak at my college. John Perkins was the founder of this ministry [Voice of Calvary] in Mississippi that I'd never heard of. And so I decided to leave Middlebury in the middle of my junior year and volunteer for what I thought would be six months in Mississippi.
John is an amazing person: An African American who grew up in a sharecropping family and has received honorary doctorates from seven colleges and universities, an amazing Christian leader, an activist. He was dangerously concrete in his understanding of the gospel. Racial reconciliation was not just some theology. It was, "We've got to desegregate the Sabbath." So we were a group of white and black believers who were doing just that in an inner-city neighborhood in Jackson.
The neighborhood that we were relocating into was one that had been all white up until desegregation. And so it was in the midst of white flight as well. At that time Voice of Calvary was seen as a very radical organization by churches within Mississippi.
How many whites were part of it at that time?
There were never more than a couple hundred of us total. And half of us were white, half African American.
So you join Voice of Calvary and what are the first words out of the mouth of the guy who would become your best friend in life?
"What are all you white people doing here?" It was not a good beginning to our relationship.
Spencer was good at getting beyond the do-gooder mentality and challenging what people's real motives were. He was not very satisfied with white folks who had come thinking we were doing our good deed for poor black people and then we're returning to life as usual.
I was working very innocently up until then, thinking that I was part of the solution, and then we had this huge blowup within our congregation in 1983. Black people started speaking up in our church and saying, "We got racism to deal with right here within Voice of Calvary."
That was news to me. My idea of racists was people who wore hoods and threw black people out of their churches. I certainly had never done any of those things. I mean, I was even worshiping with black people. And here were people, who I thought were my friends, saying very confrontational things. Why was it that so many white people had come to be in charge of our different community development ministries? It was a very painful time in the life of our church.
How was it resolved?
It didn't end very cleanly. There was an exodus of members. There was unforgiveness. There was confusion. I think racial reconciliation is messy. But one of the things that surprised me greatly, as I was contemplating leaving, wondering if the doors had closed for my involvement, was that "Mr. Militant" himself—Spencer—started a Bible study group in his house, and invited about 20 people to start meeting together. And I was invited to be part of it, which completely puzzled me.
I felt like I was being invited to a swimming party with polar bears, which wasn't my idea of fun. On the other hand, I thought that this might be my last chance to stick things out. And so we started meeting together at Spencer's house. And it was really within the context of that, of meeting together every week, studying Scripture together, and telling our life stories to each other that the race problem really became humanized in a much deeper way. I began to see that Spencer had made an incredible act of forgiveness simply by being at this church with people like me.
I also began a second conversion. I could move into a life where things would be all white and I wouldn't have to deal with race. But as I heard the stories and experiences of the African Americans in the group I realized that they didn't have that option. They had to deal with it whether they wanted to or not. As it says in Scripture, one part of the body can't say to another, "I don't need you." We can't say that to each other, so I couldn't just walk away from the table.
Now, in retrospect, did Spencer tell you later why he'd invited you to be part of that?
He said all his life he had seen race take on God and race always won. But he said after the reconciliation meetings he felt like God had won in the sense that a group of white and black people had gone through this crisis together, and had stuck it out. So he felt like we had all been cast in the fire together. As rough as things felt and looked to me, Spencer really saw the whole thing as a victory.
But that wasn't the end of the division.
One of the things you learn is that everybody has a dark side. How do we go on when conflicts arise that are very difficult to resolve? How do we go on when we see things about other people that push our worst buttons?
I began to see things in myself that I really wished the mirror had not been put up to reveal. And one of those things was that I had a lot of jealousy and envy of Spencer.
How did you deal with that?
For three or four years I tried everything I could. I prayed hard, I read books, I went on a retreat. I thought I could lick this thing, you know, by trying harder, gritting my teeth. And nothing worked. I think what I learned eventually through the help of some mentors, was that I had not yet learned how to live as a forgiven person. Grace doesn't matter unless sin matters. And the reason grace came to matter is that sin came to matter in Spencer's and my friendship. The grievances built up between us. You know, we were working together 24/7, we were living in the same house, we were traveling the nation talking about reconciliation, and we weren't reconciled at home. So we had to come to the point of saying that we couldn't solve this just by demanding more of each other. A lot of our life had been about demanding more of each other.
The breakthrough was in learning that what is so amazing about grace is that God forgives us and embraces us with open arms even though we don't deserve it. And because we're so grateful for what God did for us, we allow God to do the same for others through us. And as we looked at that challenge, I really think it was the greatest cross-cultural territory that we ever attempted to go into.
This had profound implications. How do we give room for God to change people instead of us trying to fix people? How do we speak the truth—not just of what's wrong with you but of speaking the truth in very practical ways in how we serve each other that says how much God loves you? And this had very profound implications for Spencer because, as the heir in a sense of the founder of Voice of Calvary, he had a certain image of the kind of person he was supposed to be. He began to see himself as God's beloved son without doing anything.
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Chris Rice is also a regular writer for Sojourners magazine.
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