I recently had the pleasure of listening to an exciting presentation of a foreign mission trip. My pastor provided his account of ministry and newly established relationships with some brethren across the pond. During his presentation he alluded to something that I remember hearing on a similar trip to Kenya in 2011. He described conversations with Kenyans about the the scarcity of African American Christians coming to Africa on mission. In their minds we were absent. They were used to seeing our Anglo brethren take that trip, but few ‘brothas’ ventured. I am sure there are many reasons why large numbers of African Americans Christians have not raised support to answer the call to go on long term or short term mission trips abroad.
It needs to be stated that the lack of mission trips to foreign lands does not indicate in itself a total lack of missional fervor. I also believe that it needs to be mentioned that Acts 1:8 confirms that missions can happen in a local or foreign context. While many White missions organizations have been organizing and raising support to take foreign trips to countries like Kenya and Uganda, the Black Church has been doing missional work in the cities of North America since the Northern migration. I consider it vitally important to mention that there are many in the African American community who have answered the call to go abroad. My church, Great Commission Church, has supported foreign and local missions. Within our thirteen year history we have also partipicated in at least four foreign trips.
Missions is close to my heart. I grew up with an abiding understanding of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. You hear a lot about missions and outreach in a ‘Missionary Baptist Church’. My home church was eventually affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In retrospect, the concept of an urban black Southern Baptist church is kind of a historic oxymoron. Nevertheless, the SBC with its folksy white Bible belt culture became an early introduction to missions. My early exposure to missions conferences, short-term mission trips and cross cultural internships proved to be the practical beginnings of my understanding of what it means to be missional. There were many summer internships and short term trips where white SBC-ers from places like Georgia and Tennessee would contribute their time, skills and resources to help the ministry efforts up North. The culture shock went both ways.
My father’s love for missions was matched by my father-in-laws love for missions. These are two very different individuals, but their love for reaching the lost brought them together to do ministry in the Tasker Home Projects of South Philly in the mid 80′s. In the midst of ministry is where I met my beautiful wife to be. I look back and the circles that my wife and I have traveled in have been so focused on missions that I could probably spend a couple of hours recalling folks who have walked away from lucrative careers in secular society to follow God into the world. My father-in-law, left a career as a chemist to become a faith missionary along with my mother-in-law to inner city ministry in Philadelphia. I came to know Christ because a urban missionary who was hosting a neighborhood youth Bible study at my house decided to share the love of Christ with me at 8 years old.
As an awkward teenager the Lord brought yet another urban missionary into my life to help me navigate the crazy world of growing up as a pastor’s kid. It seems that my exposure to urban missionaries, mostly black, provided an important early introduction that would be contradicted by what I sensed from white Evangelicals. What I remember during my time in Bible college was mission conferences where missionaries would talk about mission efforts to reach lost cultures and people in third world countries in need of a culturally acceptable Jesus. No doubt, many of these individuals were well meaning believers, but many seem to lack cultural intelligence and a general respect for God given cultural distinction. Missionaries would recall how “native” repentance was equated with tribal women finally covering their breasts and children being able to sit in a chair and learn the king’s English. In all of this, it was subtly and sometimes overtly suggested that it would be nice if the black church would step in and save their brethren. The assumption is that the black church was too busy celebrating and having choir rehearsals to do mission work.
It was around this time that I had my first opportunity to go on a short-term missions trip to Jamaica under the leadership of Dr. Ed Harris, one of the very few Black professors at Philadelphia Biblical University at that time. Dr. Harris has since gone home to be with the Lord. He represents yet another missions effort by blacks, in this case within the Brethren movement. Many know about Dr. B. Sam Hart , who was also a part of the Brethren Movement, and the impact of his world wide ministry. (Please check out the link to a blog post about Dr. B. Sam Hart–there is a beautiful tribute by Dr. Hart’s grandson Drew Hart).
My early missional education continued as I had the opportunity to do an internship in Camden, New Jersey with a pastor who was a former missionary to Liberia. During these conversations I quickly recognized that his love for the people of Liberia. I remember spending hours listening to his account of ministry in the bush, starting churches and educating pastors. He bristled with sadness recalling the Liberian civil war. The people and events around the time of the civil war weighed heavy on him. I look back at those four years of internship with fond affection at lessons learned about reaching the lost and ministering to the whole person. I recall another missionary who also has ties with Liberia. He was sent by an African American Mission organization named Carver International Missions . I remember with excitement the times he would give an account of how the Lord was changing hearts across the Atlantic.
In addition, there are number of dedicated black women who have served full time on the field. These women have committed their lives to serving Christ whether it is foreign or domestic. Many have remained single and some have walked away from a career in the secular world to follow the example of Christ. (Philippians 2:6-8) There’s an African American church in the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia which has been at the forefront of missions for decades. I personally know of at least three full time female missionaries directly out of that church who’ve served on the foreign field. One of the more widely known missionaries, Daisy Whaley, recently went home to be with the Lord after years of service in Ivory Coast. The are others who currently serve the people of Ghana, Uganda and South Africa. These are only my personal limited accounts, but they go to prove that blacks are not ignorant or resistant to foreign missions. God has used many black men and women to fulfill the call of Christ to make disciples. (Matthew 28:19-20) The scope of my account is Philadelphia and the surrounding region, but I know there are stories left to be told.
Rediscovering the tradition of following God into the world is something that African American’s recognized early on as a priority. I recently read a blog post about George Leile, a former slave who set off to become a missionary to the island of Jamaica in 1782. Although William Carey is the most celebrated missionary in the Baptist tradition, it deserves mentioning that George Leile was the true forerunner for Baptists. C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya reference a number of other early pioneers in black Missions in their ground breaking and still relevant book entitled, “The Black Church in the African American Experience.” They refer to African American trailblazers like Lott Carey, and Daniel Coker,who were both early missionaries to Africa. During reconstruction African American Christians would often came together to form mission societies to support efforts overseas to share the gospel in Africa. These organizations were formed by ex-slaves and their descendants to provide opportunities to blacks that were previously denied by many white missions organizations. As sad as it is, the efforts of Mary McLeod Bethune were cut short because a racist Presbyterian mission organization refused to send her to the continent of Africa.
What’s next for the African American church and the subject of missions? Have we lost the fervor? Have we become comfortable with joy nights, five day revivals, convocations and conferences? We must wrestle with reconnecting to a fruitful past and denying the malaise that comes with comfortable Western style Christianity. The question from my Kenyan brethren keeps ringing in my head–”Why haven’t we seen more of you?”
I would love to hear your stories of African Americans in Mission–please comment below.
I have not read Dr. Joseph Jeter’s book (Have Christ Will Travel) but I am sure it is rich with additional untold stories of African Americans in missions.