Now let me start off with a word of ignorance: I haven’t been around that long when it comes to Christian Community Development Association. I’ve been to the last three national conferences, been a part of a workshop panel, presented a workshop myself, worked a booth there, and been a part of a couple of soirees in the various cities. But yeah I admit it, I’ve only been to three. And let me also say that I “get” it. I like it and I admire it and I want more of it, but I gotta come clean, I do have a little beef with CCDA. I’m not a hater, but I got a few issues.
First off, I admire John Perkins and think he’s a great and godly man, but from the first year I showed up at national conference, I sensed a strong push to mythologize the man and his legacy. It sounded slightly cultish in the beginning and still feels weird when Coach talks about John Perkins the boy who vowed to love his White bullies and when others talk about his story as part of their own plenary talks – John Perkins this and John Perkins that. (Ironically, Perkins doesn’t talk about himself that much, but everyone around him seems to be rehearsing eulogies already). Now I understand he’s important and integral to the Christian understanding of community development, particularly in evangelical circles. I get that he survived the Civil Rights movement and he’s from Mississippi, I get that, but the projection of the man for some reason makes me feel as though we are forgetting a whole host of other people who have given their lives for the work of reconciliation. We need not make a cult of Perkins just because there is this warped reflex in American culture to plaster someone’s face on a movement and to push the man into the realm of myth. This is dangerous to the movement in my point of view. Mythology about work that is profoundly incarnational and incapable of commodification makes the myth itself (and the object of that myth) a commodity. In other words, John Perkins the man and legend, becomes an idol, whom we all adore but rarely seek to aspire – similar to a Mother Teresa. We make them saints so we can remain pedestrians. Instead of being a path for practitioners to walk through, the myth becomes a sort of ceiling. Granted, I know that much of the ado about Perkins was because he was stepping down from responsibilities and intentionally lowering his profile, but as believers, I think we aren’t doing the movement any favors by wearing Perkins’ visage on our t-shirts and writing premature hagiographies. JP ain’t no JC, I know he knows that but do we?
Second, for as much diversity as the CCDA national conference has, which is awesome by the way. I’m still surprised by the fact that as long as the conference has been running, I only see the tips of the ethnic icebergs. What I mean by that is I feel like the minorities or even the majority represented there are in some cases the “early adopters” (to borrow language from the tech world). You say, of course, these are the people at the front lines of community development! But I say, this is a movement about 30 years old and it’s still only speaking to the periphery of ethnic consciousness? At some point, and maybe we’re getting close to that tipping point, if the tail is really substantive in what it is claiming, it begins to wag the dog. But I don’t see that yet. I don’t see people who are staunchly entrenched in Black identity (for instance, Jeremiah Wright’s crowd) being swayed by CCDA folk. And one of my personal heroes, Soong Chan Rah, I love the man and what he has to say, but he isn’t quite speaking from the heart of Asian American Christianity. Oh no, this is where the fragmentation of even American Christendom renders the potential influence of something like CCDA marginal or ineffective because while I believe in the groundswell of young, socially aware evangelicals, we have yet to really move the needle in our own communities. Which means to me that Christians talk big when no one else is around, but we don’t have as much impact as we dream of having when it comes to diversity as a whole.
Now I know I sound like a hater, but I’m not. These are just the impressions of a relative neophyte. I stand to be corrected, but hear me out. I love CCDA. I rep CCDA. I just gotta get it off my chest.
In terms of solutions, I would like to see John Perkins’ myth be more open to imitation as opposed to flattery. I know that’s hard to convey at the national conference level. Obviously, Perkins arguably is to CCDA what Steve Jobs has been to Apple, but that succession, that formation needs to happen and be more apparent soon. At the same time, there needs to be a deconstruction of Christian celebrity that runs counter to our culture’s bent to idolize him and even others like him. We need to somehow be able to platform failure and celebrate difficulty and pain with the same gusto as we platform success. We need to be able to see dysfunction and not look away — as Christ did with the woman at the well, as Christ did with Zaccheus; we need to stop looking at wonderful outcomes as always being caused by amazing people. Wonderful outcomes are caused by a wonderful God with ordinary, obedient, and faithful people. John Perkins is a giant in the faith, but God is fine with a John Doe too and CCDA needs express that sentiment, not just imply it. And then, we need to do some more soul-searching when it comes to tackling the subject of ethnic identity and its part in mission. The tension of black/white history in this country is still palpable and it brings power to the redemptive narrative that plays out in CCDA, but the various dimensions — Native American v. White; Asian American v. Black; Latino v. White. These dimensions need a more honest appraisal of how to shake the centers of solidarity within each ethnic enclave. I know that sounds ludicrous in a post-racial society and certainly race isn’t the only dimension, but it gives us a ready-made handle in which to approach communities without leaving the movement to some ethos of “random acts of kindness.” Intentional reconciliation should imply that we have a good grip on our self-awareness and identity. In other words, the more diverse a setting is, the more clear we have to be about what we are bringing to the table. CCDA has that potential but sometimes we are more about the work outside than the work inside. It’s natural of course, to work to meet the needs — but we also have to match our actions with reflection.