John Perkins believes social change is possible, but he knows it doesn't come easy.

A sharecropper's son with a third-grade education, Perkins began ministering about reconciliation between blacks and whites in rural, poor Mississippi in 1960.

The small ministry founded by Perkins and his wife, Vera Mae ("Good movements don't usually start with a whole lot of people," he says), grew into a nationwide network encompassing two churches, two community centers, an elementary school and the Christian Community Development Association, which tries to improve race relations with its own social programs in poor or crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Perkins, 76, says he avoids pie-in-the-sky Christianity, instead grounding his efforts in the belief that God helps those who help themselves. Next week, Perkins will speak in Portland at "For the Least of These," the spring conference of the New Wine, New Wineskins program of the Multnomah Biblical Seminary's Institute for the Theology of Culture. WW spoke with Perkins about evangelism, civil rights, gay rights and politics.

WW: As an African-American Christian coming to a predominantly white city with a secular reputation, what do you hope to convey?

John Perkins: Mahatma Gandhi said, "You gotta be the change that you want to see in society." That's why we concentrate on community, so that community will reflect what we are trying to get people to be. When you look at the kingdom of God, there are people of every language and every tongue, singing and praising God together. We believe that is relevant anywhere.

In your 1976 book Let Justice Roll Down, you claim to have forgiven the cops who nearly beat you to death in jail after a 1970 civil-rights demonstration. Do you still flinch when a cop passes you?

Not anymore. And that was a long process. Some police officers even helped me go through that process. If a policeman would stop me now, I'd jitter a little. But I think that's sort of natural because you know you might be doing wrong and might get a ticket. But before, it was horrifying because you'd almost expect to be beaten.

What can Portland police do to regain the trust of residents who point to some violent officers?

It's gotta take some training and strong leadership, because in most cases when they're going at somebody, they are going at people who are pretty set on doing something wicked. And that almost gives the police in their own mind the mandate to treat those people inhumane. They do that somewhat in the military, like with Abu Ghraib. Persecuting people sexually is a power trip, because when they was brutalizing us [blacks], they was trying to destroy us sexually, because [the white man] sort of thought that black men and women displayed more sexual emotion than white people.

What do you think about people comparing gay rights to the civil-rights movement?

If it was equal rights, I think I would be for that. I don't think it's equal rights. I think they would like to see everybody become gay. But I know I might be wrong. I would be using some of my prejudice. I am really sad that we are destroying the natural sexual behavior.

I don't think that's happening. I'd say gays are trying to gain social acceptance.

I don't think nobody need to fight or brutalize no gay people. But I feel bad that we are trying to make society totally accepting of that behavior. I don't think that's what God intended.

African-Americans tend to vote Democratic; evangelicals vote Republican. How do you vote?

To a certain degree, the Democratic Party accepted the gay and lesbian agenda. The conservative Republican Party more or less...rejected those gay/lesbian issues, but they married themselves to segregationists. So what you have is two fallen groups. The right is in a very difficult situation because who are they gonna run for president? The best candidate they have is a Mormon [Mitt Romney] that has family values. [Rudolph] Giuliani has had [three] wives, John McCain has had two. So it's the Democrats whose three top candidates look better morally. Ms. [Hillary] Clinton stayed with her husband in a difficult situation. [Barack] Obama has been married to one wife. [John] Edwards is sticking with his wife. They've got the best slate of their family values, and Republicans don't.

Perkins will speak at Multnomah Bible College, Imago Dei Community Church, Reed College and Cedar Mill Bible Church, Tuesday-Sunday, April 10-15. See or call 251-6767 for a complete schedule.