by Richard Coleman
The African American Church desiring to get involved in world missions faces unique opportunities and challenges.
Many mission agencies and groups have been asking the same question: “Where are the African American missionaries? Where is the African American Church in global missions?” These seem valid questions. After all, the number of U.S. African American career (or long-term) missionaries remains below five hundred.
But there’s another angle to this story. The number of African Americans in short-term missions is increasing. This is good news. As the director of mobilization for a 25-year-old mission agency (whose 200-person missionary roster, by the way, consists of only three African Americans), I can imagine this trend could have very positive implications for world missions. I say that because increasingly the world’s unreached regions are being closed to Caucasian North Americans. People of color—even those from the United States—may more easily gain entry into some of these unevangelized parts of the world. So the African American Church being more awakened to missions—even short-term missions—is exciting on many levels. As an African American myself, I’ve been learning more about African American mission activity. What I’ve realized is that the African-American individual (man or woman) or the African American church that wants to be involved in missions has some unique opportunities…and some unique challenges.
Returning to the Motherland
Many African American short-term team participants elect to serve in Africa, which should come as no surprise, given the ancestral connection. These trips to Africa usually turn out to have a two-fold purpose—not only for service or ministry (which might include donating and distributing material goods), but also for visiting the “motherland.” Africans are generally very receptive to their returning kinfolk and greet them warmly with the words, “Welcome home!” (As a matter of fact, some Africans see this dynamic as the fulfillment of an age-old story. According to the legend, “Mother Africa” was pregnant with twins. Aware of her bleak future, she underwent a violent C-section and sent one of the children away, hoping that the child would grow strong and return to help his family in Africa.)
African Americans are given the opportunity to understand their lives in a larger context and even to find a missing piece to their identity. Thus, mission trips to Africa become for them not just a way of helping others, but of taking a pilgrimage home.
Connecting this realization with the story of Joseph, who rose from obscurity to deliver his family, LaVerne Stevens founded The Joseph Alliance, a non-profit, short-term mission organization that encourages African Americans to make long-term personal commitments to missions by involving them in various forms of evangelism and mercy missions (including medical work and orphanage ministry). The trips include visits to sites of African American significance. For example, during a trip to Ghana, The Joseph Alliance team might visit Elmina Castle, a former slave castle. Other short-term activities might include an experience of reconciliation during which Africans apologize to African Americans for selling them into slavery, and African Americans apologize for their lack of involvement in Africa.
The resulting warm feelings are authentic. However, the sense (and assumption) of connection can be misleading. African Americans might go to Africa thinking their ancestry alone will make them effective in cross-cultural ministry. But shared ancestry does not guarantee that one will be received as a cultural insider. Unfortunately, there have been quite a few examples of African American short-term team members who went as condescending know-it-alls, more interested in tourism and adding missions to their resume than they were in connecting with the people. In response to one of these teams, a pastor in Africa said, “It was painful when the whites came over and colonized us. But what is even more painful is the way African Americans come to Africa and use their status and riches to manipulate us.”
I believe the African American Church can be powerfully used by God to reach unreached and under-reached communities in Africa and throughout the world. But African American church leaders must recognize their need for training, and mission agencies and educational institutions must be proactive in offering training and counsel to the African American churches and organizations that have an interest in missions. Let’s praise God for the witness of the African American Church. Let’s pray that the African Americans God is calling to serve as short-term and career missionaries will hear his voice and obey. Pray that they will in turn give themselves to training that will make them, by God’s grace, effective cross-cultural witnesses for him.
Richard Coleman is director of mobilization and candidacy for The Mission Society. Previously, he served as director of missions at a mega-church in metro-Atlanta. He has also taught mission classes and planned and led short-term mission trips to several countries, including Kenya, Honduras, Nova Scotia, and the Dominican Republic.
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