H. Spees and Corrie Sands

Recorded February 26, 2020 Archived February 26, 2020 36:33 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: mby019701


Corrie Sands (44) interviews her father H. Spees (67) about the spaces in which he's been a leader in his life, his role model John M. Perkins, and how he sees the decisions he made throughout his life as having brought him to the work he's gotten to do.

Subject Log / Time Code

HS recalls when he knew what he wanted to do and the decisions he made to get there.
HS tells the story of John Perkins who started in a space of poverty and became "upwardly mobile" to later "get off the ladder for a cause," why he is a role model and the parallels between their lives.
HS reflects on the decisions he and his wife have had to make in terms of moving to Mississippi and fostering children.
HS describes what he got from his marriage and his favorite things about his wife.
HS describes his work as connecting people across barriers for the common good. He reflects on what makes a good leader.
HS reflects on why he wouldn't change anything in his career and work, and how he sees "flow" in his work.
HS reflects on his work as a pastor, doing funerals and being interested in nurturing a legacy of John Perkins.


  • H. Spees
  • Corrie Sands

Recording Location



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00:06 My name is Corrie Sands. I'm 44 years old and today is Wednesday, February 26th. 2020. We are here in Fresno, California. I am with my dad H Spees and I am H Spees. I'm 67 years old. Today is Wednesday, February 26th, 2020. We're here in Fresno the center of the universe and I am being interviewed by my daughter.

00:34 All right. So it's sad. I thought this would be a great opportunity to record some thoughts from you. And so I just wanted to ask you some questions sort of detailing your life and decisions you've made and your marriage because you have some major Legacy things that you've done already and I know you have big plans to come. So I just wanted to record some of your thoughts about how things have gone so far. So when is the earliest you can remember knowing what you wanted to do with your life?

01:13 Well, that's a great question. I think it's changed. I think the thing that has been a constant is I knew I wanted to have a public life and I knew that I wanted to

01:27 Make a difference in the world. I grew up in the sixties. I was born in 1953 to depression-era parents.

01:37 And who were benefiting from the upwardly-mobile rise of folks after World War II and in the sixties you had Martin Luther King you had John F Kennedy, you had all these huge charismatic personalities and a ton of change socially and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.

02:04 That's great. So what was the most important decision that you think you made early that set your trajectory?

02:13 Well, what was one decision that I didn't make is that I was born in a stable family to parents who were just great parents and so as I've I've seen over the course of years how rare that is.

02:34 But the decisions that I made I think we're to really get involved so I ran for office. I was student body president. I invested in a chief meant I was a student-athlete. I got good grades. I was on that upwardly-mobile ladder and

02:56 It was

03:00 I think the probably the biggest decision that I made was there were three three decisions that kind of played into each other one was a decision to follow Jesus Christ, and that was a fairly radical decision because that actually led me to some places that were

03:20 Because my parents great concern.

03:26 But that's a that's another part of the story. The second decision was to marry your mother.

03:35 Because I had no idea that I was Marrying an adventurer and so our life.

03:42 When her words would be we got off track early in the third decision was to go to Mississippi right after the Civil Rights Movement and to work in low-income African-American communities led by folks who had literally been beaten almost to death by Mississippi highway patrolman in sheriff's deputies for registering people about so that decision

04:11 Kind of led me off of a wonderful cliff

04:16 Why I've gone 2 years to USC growing up in Los Angeles, you know, the whole reason for my bipolar nature is that I went to yours to UCLA and USC and then transfer to UCLA primarily because I got married at nineteen. We got married at nineteen and we couldn't afford the private school in the in the ghetto. So we we invested in the public school at in Westwood, right? But after three years of three straight years consecutive years at the University and being accepted problem for my final year at Berkeley. I dropped out and we went to live in Mississippi for 11 years and a my parents thought that we joined some sort of religious cult.

05:04 10 years later. I got my degree and finished up and what have you but I think back to your mother's terms. We got off track early and that off track mess was a source of incredible adventure and liberation.

05:22 Anticipated you were going to say so along my way of going off track according to other people's definition of being on track. Who are your best role models?

05:37 So we we

05:42 Became part of a an organization called voice of Calvary Ministries, which was a comprehensive Community Development faith-based Community Development work that was doing housing of doing Health Care was doing church planting it was doing evangelism. It was doing education and the two people that led that were John and Vera Mae Perkins said they were remarkable people. They've grown up in Mississippi during the time when people were lynched people were killed John Perkins.

06:19 Oldest brother Clyde can't hit return from war in 1946 a Purple Heart veteran.

06:28 And I returned to Mississippi and was shot.

06:35 By the sheriff in a small town called new Hebron where they grew up.

06:41 And that led to his fans John's family sending him for his safety to California. So that was 1946. He was 16 years old. He grew up in California. Can he married his sweetheart. May also from Mississippi. They at Escape poverty, they'd escape the violence at escape the racism. They were having a middle-class glass live in Monrovia near Pasadena, California great jobs, and then he had a radical spiritual conversion as a result of seeing his son come home from church with joy something that he'd never known. He was in incredible poverty brought grew up in incredible poverty in Mississippi in so that led to him beginning to

07:34 To to spend time with

07:38 Juvenile delinquents in the Juvenile Justice camps in the San Dimas fountains and I am Southern California and they realize that a lot of those kids had Mississippi and Alabama and their voices eight you realize that the problem of the urban ghetto in Los Angeles was in many ways the unsolved problem of the South and he just felt this great calling to go back to Mississippi. His wife said absolutely not are you crazy and but long story short he um, he took ill and she got down on his next to his bed and said God if you

08:19 Will spare my husband I will go to Mississippi with him. I mean, it's just dramatic irony is it's like stuff that movies are written about and and that's the quality of people that they were they came back to the South. They spent time investing and kids at in that time and segregated schools. They were speaking to 10,000 young people a month and black schools.

08:48 And they returned a 1960 which was a pivotal time Mississippi was the belt buckle of the of the Bible Belt. But also it was the last Bastion of racism in the south.

09:04 And so they ended up becoming the the leaders of the when the Civil Rights Movement finally got to Mississippi. They were chosen because they were the most well connected to kids and their families and

09:21 And that led them on a huge challenging time. That was very very dramatic and John Perkins was like I said beating along with 21 other folks in a jail house in Brandon, Mississippi because I'll buy it by law enforcement and almost lost his life lost two-thirds of his stomach had a heart attack and then they had all these wonderful breakthroughs and but they stay put they kept at it and and they applied principles that later became known as Christian Community Development the idea of relocating to the community of need and in allowing peep the people with the

10:09 Challenges to lead in the solutions and to bridge racial cultural economic barriers in to redistribute resources in a way that the promoter Justice all these things for your mother and I are just unbelievable. I mean either they were just so authentic real

10:35 They challenged our values and they ultimately let us on the same track that just has the Perkins had become upwardly mobile black folk and Southern California and reverse that.

10:54 Rico got off the ladder.

10:58 For a purpose

11:00 That's that's been the story of Our Lives.

11:03 So you mentioned that parame was not real happy about going back to Mississippi. But I'd love to know what your conversation was like with mom about going to Mississippi.

11:14 But she was actually up for that but we had some other decisions along the way that that were challenging and

11:23 She was remarkable. I mean she we went down together for a summer to serve and she was the first nurse in the First Health Center.

11:34 One of the first nurses in the First Health Center that we started during a summer trip.

11:42 And so when the Perkins asked us it wasn't it wasn't just that they asked me and she was following me. It's just they asked both of us to stay. I was being useful in assisting John Perkins in writing and developing proposals and and and initiating projects and Terry. I was helpful in in the health center.

12:07 And so the call came to us from them.

12:13 Together and together we said yeah, we're going to stay and that so that's summer experience led to us moving there permanently in that led to 11 years. But in the course of that time what's happened over the course of time with this infusion of a sense of social justice and a call by God to embrace the most vulnerable in our society which which I mean he left the most secure gated, you know, it is the Jesus story outside of middle-class evangelicalism or whatever.

12:51 Is that God left the most secure gated community in the universe heaven to come to our hood and not just to come to our Hood but he was born to a couple that were homeless there wasn't room in the end. They became undocumented workers. I mean in all of the all what I'm saying now is a theological lands that we we did not

13:19 Pick up in Glendale, California and Los and middle-class Los Angeles it is so we we we began to see the world differently. So part of that was that on your mother's life. There was this huge calling to include kids in our family that were not our own that were the victims in many ways of the poverty and the oppression that we saw on our world.

13:44 And so when she was pregnant with you six months pregnant still working at University Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. She came home one night after the night shift and said, I think the Lord's telling us to take Jimmy was Jimmy was a kid that was born. So poor his family made. So battleye.

14:08 And he had gotten into the LIE had ingested. It had lost his esophagus. So you had a trach and a gastrostomy tube where he was fed, and it's just straight into his stomach, but then you've been put into a foster home where he was beaten almost to death.

14:26 Huge subdural hematoma on the right side. So he's partially paralyzed on his left side. I've been up there to play with him.

14:33 But we're 22 years old you're on the way and

14:39 I'm keeping the checkbook and I say, sweetheart.

14:44 You know, we've got one in the oven. I don't see it and then she did what y'all do when you want to get your way. She just was quiet.

14:53 So I had to live with that I had to sit with that and I realized profoundly one night when I was praying and

15:06 Searching

15:08 From 10 at night until about 3 in the morning that

15:13 She there was a profound call in her life and I had the responsibility of either following that call on her life.

15:21 Or

15:24 Crushing it and God gave me a vision.

15:31 And the vision was that there was this pathway is like decomposed Granite temp down and over the pathway was

15:41 A shower of water

15:43 Showers, and I knew that that shower Lowe's showers were money and that the idea was the thought was the sense that I had deep sense that I had was that if I put my foot on that pathway, which was God's pathway in this world that he was he was the god of the father of us in that orphan in the vulnerable that if I took that role on his behalf with my wife that we would never lack resource, and so she got up in the morning and she said

16:18 And I I said to her let's do it. So Jimmy came home to be with us. And that was the first of about a dozen foster kids and over the years. We were foster parents for 20 years. We adopted three had three homegrown kids and the rest is history accepted also also, she's then run 3 nursing homes for the most medically Fragile Kids in Fresno, California. So that whole branch of our family tree was born out of that.

16:47 Crazy getting off track and then the other side of it was

16:55 I had this deep sense that we were supposed to move a couple of times one was to leave Jackson where we've established a incredible community of people that were doing great things in the city the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi to go to

17:12 Actually to go to the hometown the old hometown of John Perkins which in 1946 his brother been killed there now Flash Forward 1979 an African-American church leader and a white pharmacist said come to John Perkins said we need your help establishing a Health Center and he gave the job John Perkins gave the job to the white guy from the white kid from Los Angeles and I told your mother. I think we need to move there in order for this to be legit. We cannot recruit people from all over the country doctors and nurses and Dennis to come if they don't have someone there who has

17:58 Done the cultural cross-cultural work because you know, we are putting together a health center with 6 black v white on the board of the black chair.

18:08 And she said absolutely not I'm not move down to a town of 500 when we work hard over five years to build this community that we we had about 200-300 people in our church, and it was great.

18:24 But

18:27 About a year later. She woke up and said let's go.

18:30 So that's happened a couple of times. Another time that that happened was here in Fresno years later when I just had I started waking up in the middle of the night and feeling like we needed to leave our Suburban home in Clovis and move into the highest crime lowest income neighborhood in Fresno.

18:50 So that off track messages goes both ways and we kind of joke. We see we say well God uses me to

19:01 Help lead us to where we're going to live and he uses your mom to fill the house to determine who's going to be in the house and you know, so we had an empty nest up until about a year ago. And guess what now? We have a 19 year old living with us, so

19:28 I'm imagining this isn't really what you envisioned life like when you are newly married. But but what would you say, you know, what are some words you would describe that your life is different because you married mom.

19:44 Well as stable.

19:48 Overflowing

19:53 How risky?

19:59 I mean, you know who you know when you have kids who wake you up every two hours because I have to be suctioned because there a drug baby who

20:13 Can't blink or swallow, you know, those types of situations take you to the end of yourself.

20:23 And one time I just said, you know what you're going to have to help me.

20:29 Understand why we're doing this.

20:32 What do you see when you look at DeAndre? And she said what I see.

20:39 I see what nobody else sees cuz I'm with him all the time. I see the raw value of a human soul.

20:49 And I said, okay that's enough. That's what I got from.

20:58 That's a good one. I'm so what would you say is your favorite thing about Mom?

21:04 Well, I think you know her smile her laugh her she is an introvert and she would say about herself that she's scattered, but she is one of the most focused to trim and hard-working.

21:25 Persons that I know and she calls me up to be better than

21:33 I could be on my own answer.

21:38 Okay, so I like to refer to you. In fact today when I was talking to someone at storycorps about you. I was trying to describe who you are and who you have been and I said well, I would say community activist but that sort of charged in several ways. But the words that came to my out of my mouth were you're a community activist. And so what would you call yourself in your work? Would Mom calls me. She said, you know I so I've I've been

22:14 A public health administrator Fresno County Department of Health I have before that in Mississippi. I set up a network of Health Centers. And so I was a healthcare administrator. There's a lot of my training is in public health my masters in public administration Health Services Administration. I've also been a pastor having been a part of the faith-based group in Mississippi. That was church-based. I was also called to be a part of leadership in the church and have had training in that and in a one-point was pastor of the 3000 member Church.

22:54 And now I ran for mayor lost but supported the guy who came in second. I came in third he won and then he asked me to be director strategic initiatives. So I've had a lot of back-and-forth between Civic and nonprofits and faith-based in church, but what your mother would say is that I've been doing the same thing for

23:22 45 years and she says it's grease and glue.

23:28 So I think I think what that and I think she's right. I think what it what it means is it I'm a leader.

23:36 I was born that way my parents.

23:39 That's part of my parents Legacy.

23:42 But because I've hung out with people like John and Vera Mae Perkins and many other people who have taught me to leave from Below.

23:53 I think what I do is I connect people across racial cultural Geographic political ideological barrier for the common good whether that's reducing poverty crime and violence in order for the city to a community to flourish or that's to reduce human trafficking right. Now. One of the biggest projects that I'm working on is reducing homelessness in the city Fresno on Fresno has the highest concentrated Poverty of any city in America, so

24:29 You know, it's leading from behind just leaving from below its but it's valuing the human person and everybody is having a fierce commitment to follow Jesus Christ who laid himself down for every single person, but without getting caught into the ideological lens that you have to judge the value of other people based on some religious metric.

24:58 But I would say leaving for leading with others for the common good is what I do.

25:06 So what is one of the most important lessons that you've learned in all of this same direction work?

25:15 Well, it kind of ties removal. I just said there is there there's a Woman by the name of Edna Hong who is the foremost Kierkegaard scholar?

25:24 In America and she wrote a little book called the downward descent.

25:30 And I was doing my doctoral work. I did a doctoral work called peace for City's building a christ-centered Civic renewal Network Global christ-centered Civic renewal movement.

25:51 Or something like that. I read this book and we'll have discovered she cheated and I just got it and what it was is the downward offend is that

26:05 The key to

26:08 Really wrote it too radical transformational change for a leader.

26:15 Is

26:18 Is getting out of that upwardly-mobile positional hierarchical quest for power and Leadership.

26:28 It is going down.

26:31 And if it's reversing the law of gravity it is instead of what goes up must come down as what goes down will come up and I've seen that interim leadership you look at John Greenleaf. You look a Peter block and John McKnight with asset-based Community Development appreciative inquiry you look at it in terms of Greenleaf Road on servant leadership in it. It is just about

27:02 What Jesus said is that he who would be great among you must become the slave of all and that the power of that that I saw worked out in the African American community in Mississippi. And then into a movement that became Global is it is probably closest to the core of what I believe in terms of action and Leadership.

27:29 So is there anything in your work life that you would go back and change?

27:41 Well it is it hadn't the things have not been easy.

27:48 But that's not a reason that I would change anyting. I mean, I do have this feeling that.

27:57 If we if we really do give our lives with abandon to follow God.

28:05 That he will

28:08 Trust in the Lord with all your heart do not rely on your own inside in all your ways acknowledge. Him and He will direct your paths.

28:18 And it was Jesus said seek first the kingdom of God and and his righteousness, which also is translated Justice and all these things will be added unto you so I believe we've operated because we got off track so early and because I married somebody whose is flexible and radical is your mother. I think we've had the privilege to risk and do risky things that have cost us something but I've also had great payoffs, so I can't think of anything that I would do differently.

28:57 So let me ask you this other kind of question Daniel pink. I'm sure you've read on some of his work describes flow as the relationship between what a person had to do and what he could do with perfect so deeply in the moment that their sense of time place and even self melt it away. So when you're doing work, what kind of work creates that flow for you?

29:24 Well, when I think that when I when I was just trying he's proverb that's similar to that. It says go to the people live among them.

29:38 Learn from them. Love them.

29:42 I work with what they have build on what they know and when the best leaders.

29:49 Have

29:52 Lad

29:54 The people will say we did it ourselves.

30:01 That's it slow.

30:05 That's magic. And then and I've had a chance to see that you know, and now it's 67 what the the the great privileges to watch you and our other children now leaders.

30:24 But also a whole other generation of young people taking it and run with it and

30:32 And not not feeling like I need to grasp it or hold on to it or preserve some form of Legacy. That was mine. It's just you know, I think the world it wait. We have some huge challenges to face but building Community among people two together face. Those challenges is the flow. Yeah.

30:59 So I would say this is kind of my last question and you've you've sort of alluded to this all the way along and have been building this but if you could Define what you would want your legacy to be what you would want to be remembered for what would you say?

31:19 You know, I have a one of the things that has pastor. This is, you know, I've been with a little bit here, but

31:29 You know, one of those things is stuck up on me is Pastor is, you know you I would preach every Sunday morning to three huge services.

31:39 And and we had a large budget and we have thousands of people but the thing that stuck up on me is my very favorite thing was doing funerals.

31:50 Because you know when you do a wedding weddings are fun, but once the ring is on the fingers All About the Cake the dress on the party. I mean is it weddings are somewhat Superficial by funerals?

32:04 When people show up at funerals, they are open they are ready to they are ready to hear into and it's a Divine appointment and what amazed me and I've done funerals for people who have zero money.

32:21 And where we were weak just as the church offered hospitality and a banquet to their family homeless people.

32:33 And I've done funerals for the wealthiest people in America, but the amazing thing is one of the great things about doing a funeral as you get to see if you're if you're really into it.

32:47 If you sit with the family the night before the funeral because that everybody who is significant has come in from out of town and they're there and you you helped them. Tell the family story and you tell what what what what made Grandma who she was what was Europe and you kind of do it a little bit chronologically sometimes what families do as they say? Well, let's get the kids will put the kids out in the pool let them play so that you can do this real business. I say no no, no. No, they are the real business get them in here. We don't tell our family stories. We don't keep we don't do what storycorps does here. We we don't our families were ruthless in America in many ways and

33:33 So we tell the family story and it's just amazing to me how

33:39 Richer poorer whatever this the stories that the kids and the grandkids. Remember our hey, Grandpa would take his camping and he taught me how to put a hook in the bait and he and grandma would make blueberry waffles and I can still smell her kitchen and it has nothing to do with the achievement or the lack of achievement or it is all about relationship and love and touch and family.

34:16 And I think that's it.

34:21 I

34:24 I'm actually interested at this stage of my life in.

34:29 Nurturing the legacy of John Perkins because I think that you know, he have followed him your mother and I have followed John and Vera Mae powerfully. They've been humble incredible wonderful servants.

34:48 And I think that I assisted him in getting his first book written and then I ghost-wrote his second book based on transcripts that I did on a cassette player and with a portable typewriter before computers and those stories and that movement and I think they they so powerful a picture of a type of transformational life and relationship and Leadership that I'm really interested in in magnifying and preserving that Legacy. So I wrote those two books in my twenties now in my sixties is he is now turning 90 this year and she is also

35:41 I am I'm kind of nurturing a a book that would.

35:49 Maybe capture some of the principles and Core 2 What made them great?

36:02 Thank you for talking with me. And I want you to know that I'm proud of you and what you and Mom have done and I'm grateful because it's shaped my old life and my work and my family so think we're proud of you.