Known as “Big V” in her youth, Vera Mae “Grandma” Perkins is a striking woman with an incredible smile and an all-encompassing heart full of the love of Jesus. I first met her in 2009, when I spent a summer in the Perkins household nursing her back from a serious illness. She shared the wisdom she had learned in the eighty-two years since she was born into a farming family in New Hebron, Mississippi.
Raised by her grandmother, from a young age Vera Mae was expected to work alongside the rest of her family, dragging a sixty-pound bag of cotton while watching the white children from the next farm over playing on swings. She came to love Christ early and was baptized at age eleven in a stream outside the preacher’s house.
Vera Mae’s husband John Perkins, also from Mississippi, came from a bootlegging, sharecropping family; together they had eight children. Theirs was the first Perkins marriage to stay together since slavery. John’s conversion to Christ came about after their wedding, through the childlike faith of his young son Spencer, who asked his father to come with him to church. John’s life changed completely.
Although John and Vera Mae had started married life in California, away from Jim Crow, they now felt called to return to Mississippi. Arriving in rural Mendenhall in 1960, they established a host of community ministries – day care centers, thrift stores, health clinics, Bible classes, and housing cooperatives.
As the Mississippi civil rights movement gained traction after “Freedom Summer” (1964), both John and Vera Mae were on the frontlines, organizing boycotts and leading marches. In February 1970, he was arrested by local police, who tortured him for a night and beat him unconscious. At one o’clock in the morning, Vera Mae got a phone call from a stranger: “Have they hung him yet?” With no way to know what was happening in the jail, she could not sleep for worry. John was released in the morning, but still lives with the effects of the abuse he received.
As the children grew, Vera Mae dedicated herself to raising them while John traveled as a speaker for Voice of Calvary Ministries, which they had founded. She wouldn’t complain: “JP is doing the Lord’s work. I want him to continue even though half of me is gone when he is gone!” Occasionally, though, she would remind him of his priorities. Her daughter Elizabeth remembers, “The first time Daddy saw his picture on a big poster, he came home so excited and told Momma. She looked at him and said, ‘That’s nice. Now go clean the toilets!’”
Recently Vera Mae has been confined to her bed. She once told me, “You know, when you get to my age, you think about that other place, that other city.” She quoted a gospel song: “My soul has got to move to another building – a building not made by man’s hands.”