Dr. John M. Perkins lends his voice to the cause of Christian community development, and has, in his long career, proved instrumental in establishing a number of ministry centers and schools, the Christian Community Development Association, and the John M. and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development. The Spencer Perkins Center grew out of the latter, specifically to serve the youth of the Jackson, Mississippi community. Named for John and Vera Mae’s son, the SPC was distinguished from its parent foundation in 2010.
Thad Winkle first visited the Spencer Perkins Center the following summer, as a 2011 summer intern through the Jubilee Fellows Program of Calvin College’s Congregational and Ministry Studies department. His placement came about through the connections of Nate Bradford, co-associate chaplain. Thad returned from the summer to discover that Calvin’s connections to the Perkins Center didn’t end there—the Service-Learning Center was sending a spring break group to Mississippi the following March, and in need of leaders for the trip. “One of the other Jubilee Fellows told me about it and it was like, the week that the application was due… so I quick ran over there and filled it out,” Thad remembers. A few months later, he and former S-LC interim director Gerry Fondse brought eight students south to Mendenhall Ministries, a partner of the Perkins Center.
As a spring break trip leader, Thad passed along some of the lessons he’d learned during his summer in Mississippi. “The big takeaway that I was trying to communicate…was that you can take a lot of different skills or interests and serve with that. So there were some guys who were a little more introverted but great with computers, so they were able to go through Mendenhall Ministries computer lab, and go through and totally reprogram all of their computers and get them working right again. That’s a huge blessing to this ministry, and they were able to see—oh, I don’t need to be a super compelling speaker, with dynamic charisma and all this stuff—I’m able to serve with the gifts that I have,” he says. He took the group into Jackson to meet Dr. John Perkins and revisit the city that had shaped him as a rising senior.
After graduating from Calvin in 2012, Thad moved to Mississippi to work for the Perkins Center full-time. He took the opportunity to foster a deeper relationship between the work of the Perkins Center and Calvin College. “One small part of my job is facilitating the short term mission trips, handling all the logistics beforehand and walking with people through that whole experience. So I really quickly reached out to the Service-Learning Center, and said, ‘can we make sure to get Calvin on the schedule?’” Thad says. “So we did that, and this coming spring of 2014, the new John Perkins Fellows program at Calvin will do a service-learning trip down to Jackson.”
As a host for short-term missions trips and Calvin’s spring break service-learning program, Thad wrestles with the tensions of community development. “When you come on a trip, you want all the work to be meaningful, and you want people to be transformed through it, and you want them to feel like they’re contributing to something greater,” he says. But the challenges of urban Jackson are not a quick fix, and any effort requires tenderness. When orienting students to their work, “I talk a lot about beautification, that that’s a real part of living in a community—instilling a sense of pride.”
The work of the groups is accompanied by an education, from and about Dr. Perkins, his development perspectives and activism. “We take a day off of work and I take people on a Civil Rights tour,” Thad explains. “We’re in the South; this is a reality of the history of where we are right now—Medgar Evars was assassinated here on this driveway for being a civil rights activist. Dr. Perkins was arrested here, and he was beaten in this jail, and he did a boycott march here… my hope would be that the takeaway from the trip would not purely be built upon what was done on the trip, what tasks were completed, but more about the character development and the heart development and the mind development.”
Thad hospitality and instruction is an investment in Calvin College as well as in the youth of Jackson, Mississippi. “We want to develop young people of moral integrity, with leadership skills, who don’t just view this community as a place to get out of as soon as possible but want to actually come back and claim ownership over it,” he says of the young people who attend Perkins Center summer camps and after school programs. But students who visit Jackson through the Service-Learning Center spring break trips receive the same education— a lesson in faithfulness, and a broader vision of the kingdom of God.
BY KATIE VAN ZANEN