by Leslie Pelt
In Nigeria, I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have said to me, “You are the first black missionary we’ve ever seen. Aren’t black people in America Christians? Or, “Please tell more black missionaries to come.”
In Nigeria, I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have said to me, "You are the first black missionary we’ve ever seen. Aren’t black people in America Christians? Or, "Please tell more black missionaries to come."
The fact that there are so few black American missionaries serving cross-culturally is disheartening. Historically, blacks have been deeply involved in missions all over the world. (See chronology following this articleâ€”Eds.) But in this century the vision seemed to die and the missionary force dwindled. Today in the average black church the missions committee focuses on nursing home visitation and food distribution. Very few blacks are going across cultures with the gospel.
But there are signs that the black church is beginning to awaken to Christ’s command to spread the gospel throughout the world. The Destiny ’87 Conference proved this. Approximately 1,600 black Americans gathered in Atlanta for a conference on the significant contribution we can make in reaching the world for Christ. Testimonies from some of the few black Americans who are serving as missionaries, as well as challenges from national church leaders, inspired conference participants to take Acts 1:8 seriously.
Representatives from a number of well-known mission sending agencies attended. Sensitive to the scarcity of blacks in their organizations, they came with their displays and application forms, seeking out those who sensed God’s call. As I observed the mission representatives interacting with the conference participants, I thought of the many challenges these predominantly white mission organizations will face in their attempts to recruit and retain black missionaries.
I wish I’d had the opportunity to ask each mission agency represented why they want to bring blacks into their organization. A respectable motivation is fundamental. It sometimes seems that mission boards are spurred to action by current missiological trends: unreached groups, Muslims, "world class" cities. A current trend now seems to be minorities in missions, and mission organizations are endeavoring to bring blacks, as well as other minorities, under their umbrellas.
But in their efforts, I hope that the motivation isn’t merely to keep up with the times. If it is, that is painfully near to the tokenism that we experienced 20 years ago when blacks were given a few conspicuous jobs to make the employer look good.
I remember when someone from my mission said, "I’m glad you joined the mission because we need more blacks." This person meant well, but I would rather have heard, "I’m glad you joined the mission because I think you’ll make a valuable contribution." Blacks should not be recruited because mission agencies feel they need to have black missionaries, but because their gifts can be used to expand and strengthen the ministry.
UNIQUE CHALLENGES FOR BLACKS
As mission agencies strive to bring in more blacks, they need to realize the unique challenges we as black Americans face as we awaken to our global responsibilities.
A principal reason why so few blacks serve as missionaries is because all too often we still consider ourselves to be a mission field. "Come over to the inner city and help us" many black churches have called for a good part of this century, and for valid reasons. Between 1910 and 1930 close to a million blacks from the South migrated to northern cities in search of jobs and in hopes of escaping poverty, lynchings, and discrimination. They soon discovered that the north held few solutions to these problems and most were forced to live in crowded, rundown slums. The black church began to focus on developing the black community and dealing with the poverty, crime, unemployment, and despair that were destroying our race. Assistance from outside the community was generally welcomed and the inner city became a mission field.
Today many blacks still live in inner city communities, urban problems are as prevalent and corrosive as ever, and people are still going to the inner city as missionaries. But urban squalor no longer describes the situation that the majority of black Americans find themselves in. Millions of them have moved into the mainstream of American life. Good jobs, quality education, nice homes, and strong, stable churches are all part of the scenario.
Although many of our communities no longer need outside help, we haven’t totally left behind the mission field mentality that we had in the ghetto. I asked the pastor of a large, wealthy black church in California if they sent out or supported missionaries. He responded, "Why should we? We are looking for missionaries to come to California and work with us."
This church was meeting the needs of its Jerusalem in exciting ways, but it was also teeming with talented, well-educated Christians who could make an impact on the world, yet lacked the vision. Far too many black churches have this limited perspective, but fortunately not all.
I put black churches into four basic categories related to their response to the Great Commission. Many are unable to get involved in missions outside of the community because their own needs are so great. Many are unwilling to get involved in missions outside of the community because they still consider themselves a mission field. Many are unaware of the role they could have in missions outside of the community and have yet to discover their potential. And many would love to get involved in missions outside of the community, but they don’t know what they can do or where they are needed. These churches need mission agencies and mission agencies will find such congregations enthusiastic and responsive. The secret is discovering these churches.
MISSION BOARDS UNKNOWN
During my furlough I spoke in a number of black churches that wanted to get involved in missions. In these churches I found that almost no one had ever heard of my mission board, even though it is very well known in all the white churches I spoke in. Few black churches are familiar with any mission boards.
I’ve also observed that most blacks serving under non-denominational mission agencies come from predominantly white churches. People learn abut mission organizations through missionaries, but because very few missionaries are in contact with black congregations, mission organizations are virtually unknown. As a result, hundreds of potential missionaries have no idea about what to do to get to the mission field.
Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to this problem. Mission boards and black churches won’t come together naturally, primarily because there is a polarization between the black and the white church in America. I’m not saying this as a criticism. Black worship reflects black culture and proponents of the homogeneous unit principle would say that this division is ideal for church growth. But we must find ways to bridge this chasm if we want to work together to reach the world for Christ.
Mission organizations can take the first bold step by encouraging culturally sensitive representatives to make contact with black churches and build bridges. As the churches learn of the ministries of the mission, many will be interested in having missionaries come and speak, as well as national church leaders when they are in the country. Young people could be encouraged to participate in short-term projects, thus giving the church its initial taste of what it’s like to send out a missionary, as well as an inside perspective into what the mission field is like. As trust and understanding are built, more blacks will join these mission organizations.
Another major challenge in getting blacks to the mission field is financial support. Imagine that a black congregation has a burden for missions, is familiar with a sending agency, and a family from the church senses God’s call to Papua New Guinea. The church will be thrilled until they learn that the yearly support for a family of five could be over $40,000. For a church that has never supported a missionary before, this figure is astronomical. The shock might be enough to extinguish their missions vision.
I know a family of four from a black church who have been raising support for almost two years and are still painfully short. Mission organizations will lose a lot of candidates at this point, unless they are aware that support raising is a foreign concept in many black churches.
But if mission boards are willing to strategize with black appointees, and help them to network with other churches, they will be more successful in getting these new missionaries to the field. For example, if mission agencies are aware of churches that have financial resources, have the desire to support missionaries, and perhaps have no prospective missionaries of their own, they can bring these churches together with black churches that are overwhelmed by the responsibility of supporting their first missionaries. This could produce an exciting partnership that could break down racial barriers, to the benefit of all the members of both congregations.
PERPLEXING FIELD SITUATIONS
This is just a sampling of the many issues mission sending agencies will need to work through as they recruit blacks for missionary service. But the challenges don’t end here. Once black missionaries are on the field, they face another series of perplexing situations that may initially be difficult and discouraging, but if handled properly will strengthen the mission organizations.
When I arrived in Nigeria, I was immediately welcomed and warmly embraced in a way that most missionaries are not. It was a great feeling and my initial conclusion was that it is definitely advantageous to be a black missionary in Africa. But I soon noticed that people seemed to have higher expectations of me than of my white counterparts. I sensed that the Nigerians thought, "Because she looks like us, and because her forefathers probably came from this area, she should learn our language faster, have an inherent understanding of our culture, and not have any of the white man’s peculiar habits."
As time passed, I realized that when I made cultural mistakes, and when I displayed some of the white man’s peculiarities, their disappointment was much greater than if I had been white, because their expectations were so much higher. Fortunately, I loved the culture and I adjusted quickly, because I later concluded that being black could also be a disadvantage. Because of the Nigerians’ expectations, if a black missionary is a cultural imperialist and has little appreciation of the national way of life, he or she will be ostracized twice as quickly and much more severely than a white person who behaves the same way.
I’ve talked to black Americans who have visited Africa and said they were in shock when after a few days the Africans began to call them "white men." I’m sure this was because they were expected to be more understanding and accepting of African ways, but when they proved to be typical American tourists, their skin color was no longer visible and the Africans made it a point to let them know.
If a black missionary doesn’t live up to the higher expectations, if he or she is culturally insensitive or arrogant and thus made to feel unwelcome in the host country, they probably will leave the ministry, and, instead of seeing their mistakes, believe the old myth that Africans don’t want to see black Americans anyway.
But I found that if a black missionary is sensitive to culture, many extraordinary avenues of ministry that don’t ordinarily present themselves to missionaries will open. So, mission organizations should be prepared to deal with such issues before the black missionary is sent to the field, to reduce the chances of failure and promote unique ministry possibilities.
The black experience in America will give the black missionary a unique perspective on a variety of situations. A common practice that black missionaries might be particularly offended by is exclusivism among missionaries. Fortunately, in many parts of the world the days of hospitals, schools, and compounds being restricted to missionary personnel are over. Nonetheless, shadows of this era still linger. As I talk to missionaries serving on various fields, I learn that in many subtle ways the missionary subculture still excludes national Christians from many activities and conveniences.
To black Americans, this is reminiscent of the old Jim Crow laws in the South, or apartheid in South Africa. The black experience in America has made our race sensitive to issues, attitudes, and practices that offend people of non-western nations. While missionaries often must be told that something is offensive, the black missionary may already have an innate awareness of this. Because of this, an integrated missions force can help mission organizations better perceive subtle acts of discrimination that can hinder the gospel.
The black missionary might also find himself in an uncomfortable position during times of church-mission tension. Once again, the black experience will affect the black missionary’s perspective. When national church leaders voice such complaints as, "Missionaries underestimate us. They dictate what ministries are most important and try to exercise too much control over church government," the black missionary may immediately remember the years of feeling dominated and powerless in America, and find himself much more sympathetic to the national church than the mission. Caught in the middle, the black missionary could act as a bridge to help resolve these recurring issues. But such problems could also result in division, if Satan is allowed to get the upper hand. However, if these situations are dealt with in patience and love, the mission organization can only be strengthened.
Many unique challenges and numerous hurdles confront blacks as they move into the mainstream of evangelical missions, but the benefits will be immeasurable. Many black churches are ready to connect with mission agencies. I’m convinced that God will use this new partnership in ways beyond imagination to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. A multi-ethnic mission society is a testimony to the unity we have in Christ, and, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, that is our best apologetic.
A CHRONOLOGY OF BLACK MSSIONS
Prior to 1800
1770s. John Marrant, a free black from New York City, was already ministering cross-culturally, preaching to the Indians. By 1775 he had carried the gospel to the Cherokee, Creek, Catawar, and Housaw Indians.
1782. George Liele, former pastor of First Africa Church of Savannah, Ga., upon hearing that the British were declaring peace with the colonies, indentured himself to a British officer in order not to be re-enslaved by his former master’s heirs. He and his family moved to Kingston, Jamaica. After two years he had paid back his indenture and was able to devote all of his energy to preaching. With four other former American slaves, he formed the First African Baptist Church of Kingston. In 10 years the church grew to over 500. He is considered to have been the first American missionary.
David George, of the Silver Bluff, S.C., Baptist Churchâ€”the first black Baptist church in Americaâ€”went to Nova Scotia and ministered to exiled blacks there. Later, in 1792, he traveled with 12,000 black settlers to Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Brother Amos, from the Savannah church, sailed for the Bahamas and settled in New Providence, where he planted a church that grew to 850 members by 1812.
1783. Moses Baker and George Gibbions, both former slaves, left America to become missionaries in the West Indies.
1790. Prince Williams, a freed slave from South Carolina, went to Nassau, Bahamas, where he started Bethel Meeting House. In 1801, he and other blacks organized the Society of Anabaptists. At age 70, Williams erected St. John’s Baptist Church and pastored there until he died at age 104. Subsequently, 164 Baptist churches were planted in the Bahamas.
BLACK MISSIONS IN THE 1800S
1815. Lott Carey, America’s first missionary to Africa, was born a slave in Virginia. He became pastor of the 800-member African Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., and in 1815 led in the formation of the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. After collecting $700, Carey and his wife, together with Colin Teague and his wife and son, sailed for Sierra Leone. After establishing a mission among the Mandingoes, Carey moved to Liberia. By 1826, he had formed a missionary society in connection with his church in Monrovia.
1818. John Stewart, a free-born black from Virginia, was converted at a camp meeting. He went to the Wyandot Indian reservation in Ohio, where he met Jonathan Pointer, a black who had been taken prisoner in his youth by the Wyandots. Pointer knew their language, so he interpreted for Stewart. In 1818, his successful ministry came to the attention of Ohio Methodists, who licensed him to preach. Even though the Methodist Episcopal Church officially formed its missionary society in 1819, John Stewart’s ministry among the Indians is considered to be the actual beginning of Methodist missions.
1820 to 1860. The primary sending group was the American Colonization Society, which repatriated American blacks to Liberia.
1821. Daniel Coker went to West Africa with the first group sent out by the American Colonization Society.
1823. Betsy Stockton applied to the American Board of Missions and went to Hawaii. She is recognized as the first single woman missionary in the history of modern missions. She served as a domestic assistant and conducted a school. Prior to going to Hawaii, she had lived in the household of the president of Princeton College and while there had read extensively in his library. She was well qualified to teach.
1827. Scipio Beanes sailed for Haiti.
1836. The Providence Missionary Baptist District Association was formed, one of at least six national organizations among Negro Baptists whose sole objective was African missions.
1849. Robert Hill was sent to Liberia by the Southern Baptist Convention.
1860 to 1877. General missionary activity increased after the Civil War, as the number of free blacks increased from 68,000 to over 665,000. The gains made in education, politics, and civil rights began to manifest themselves on the mission field. By 1868,12 of the 13 Presbyterian USA staff in Liberia were blacks. Blacks serving under the Protestant Episcopal Church outnumbered whites by 21 to 5 in 1876.
1883. William Colley and five others left Virginia for Liberia.
1890. William Henry Shepherd went 900 miles inland in the Congo. Liked by the Africans, he became skilled in their language. He was a teacher and preacher who offered medical aid when he could. He also helped to ransom slaves.
1894. Mary Tearing was 56 years old when she left America for the Congo. Because of her age, she was not accepted for support, so she sold her house, collected her savings, and raised $100 per month support from local church women and went to the Congo. She was instrumental in starting homes for girls and young women. Her work was so exceptional that within two years she was receiving full support from her board.
BLACK MISSIONS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
The 20th century saw a decline in black missions, in part for the following reasons:
1. The growth of independent black churches from 30,000 in the late 1800s to over four million by 1916. This cut off the blacks from the mainline sending denominations. More blacks interested in the ministry stayed at home to serve this growth.
2. The Student Volunteer Movement, the chief recruiter of missionaries, worked primarily at colleges and universities where blacks were least likely to be found.
3. The development of quinine to fight malaria reduced the fears of whites about going to Africa, thus reducing the needs on one of the primary fields that blacks were recruited to serve.
4. Lack of money caused a drop in the ability of many black churches to support missions.
5. Paternalism of the blacks by the whites on the mission field caused less interest by blacks in working under white missionaries.
6. Some American blacks were not welcome in some countries for political reasons.
7. Growing black materialism choked off concern for missions. "If we expect to see an increase of black missionaries on the foreign fields, the black churches of America must awaken to their own financial obligation to their missionaries" (Howard Jones).
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