Charles Marsh '80
In 1980 I finished Gordon College, and through a series of circumstances having embarrassingly little to do with interest in social justice, I accepted a job for the summer in the inner city of Atlanta. In preparation for the months ahead I read a book by John Perkins called Let Justice Roll Down. Perkins has been a longtime friend of Gordon, and my first exposure to him was there, even though he lived and worked just a few miles from my grandmother’s home in Jackson, Mississippi.
While vacationing in the mountains of North Carolina after graduation, I picked up the book and began reading:
I remember when it happened like it was yesterday. Only it wasn’t yesterday. It was summer 1946. The war was over, and it was cotton-picking time in New Hebron.
That was the summer Perkins’ brother, Clyde, returned from the war with a Purple Heart, a military hero. And that was the summer John watched Clyde bleed to death after being shot twice in the chest at point-blank range by the town’s white deputy. The book pounded me at every level.
I called Perkins from the cottage in North Carolina and told him I was coming to Jackson the next weekend. He and his family lived in an intentional community called Voice of Calvary, which ministered and built community among the poor neighborhoods. I told him I was enjoying his book and hoped we could get together for a visit. In his friendly manner and inviting drawl, Perkins said he would be happy to meet with me. I should just call when I got to town.
Perkins asked me to pick him up around five o’clock in the afternoon. He wanted me to drive him to a town called Yazoo City, where he was scheduled to speak at a youth rally, and I said that sounded fine—that I was looking forward to it; and I tried not to let on how uneasy I felt about the assignment. Aside from a few times in high school when I drove a teammate home after basketball practice, I had never been in the same car with a black person. Perkins’ idea was that we would talk on the way up—about an hour’s drive—and after the youth rally stop at the Shoney’s Big Boy near his house for a piece of their famous hot fudge cake.
Later, with two heaping plates of the famous dessert and a pot of coffee between us, I told him about my grandmother, who lived in the elegant Belhaven neighborhood.
“You know, Dr. Perkins, the first thing she does every morning is open her Bible and read her devotions. She’ll pray. She’ll
listen to a sermon on tape. But she won’t give an inch on her racial views. She thinks Martin Luther King Jr. was nothing but a troublemaker.”
“He was a troublemaker!” Perkins said.
“Yes, I know, but that’s not really what she meant. I’ve heard her say that slavery wasn’t so bad. Lots of blacks had it good then, better than they do now.”
I had never told anyone—certainly not a black man—about my family’s racial views, and I told him a lot more that night than I’m telling you now. I told him so much I felt like I had come clean with a dirty secret and that Perkins had become my confessor.
When I stopped talking—finally—I braced for the worst. But his response was bewildering. Or perhaps it was just the kind of response a wise confessor should make.
“What does your grandmamma grow in her garden?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What does she grow? Does she have cucumbers, or tomatoes? I have the sweetest tomatoes in my garden this summer. You can eat them like apples. Your grandmother like tomato sandwiches? I bet she does. Let me ask you another question: Does she like blueberries? I love blueberries,” the then-50-year-old Perkins said excitedly. And in great detail he described all the ways he loved to eat blueberries: freshly picked, over ice cream, in blueberry pie, with syrup.
“I always keep blueberries in my refrigerator. When we get to the house, I’m gonna give you a bag of blueberries, and I want
you to take them to your grandmother and tell her they’re a gift from me.”
I drove back to my grandmother’s house carrying a plastic bag of sweet blueberries from a man who had grown up under the iron-hard rule of Jim Crow racism, to a white lady whose grandparents had been founding members of the Ku Klux Klan.
I didn’t realize then what Perkins was showing me, but I now see that evening was something like an altar call, a moment of grace. I was the recipient of a gift that marks you as a new kind of person. I haven’t been the same since I accepted those blueberries.
Dr. Perkins didn’t hit me with guilt and judgment—as he might have and which I no doubt deserved. He surprised me with mercy; he exemplified to me the miracle of forgiveness and justice that spring from new life in Christ, from the deep and abiding gladness of the Easter world. I deserved thorns and lashes; and I was offered blueberries. I deserved a No, but I received a Yes and an Amen.
The great atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said—in one of his seething rants against the Church—that Christians “must sing better songs” before he would believe in their redeemer. I wish the angry, tragic Nietzsche could hear the beautiful songs sung in love and compassion; I wish he could hear the songs that I so often hear; and I wish he could have experienced the simple, life-changing grace of blueberries.
|Charles Marsh, an English major while at Gordon, is professor of religious studies and director of The Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He is the author of six books including Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community, which he coauthored with John M. Perkins. His book God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He is currently writing a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Marsh is also the recipient of a 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Fellows in the Creative Arts Award.|