I have always been a studier of the fridge. Who and what is plastered on the doors and sides tells me most of what I need to know about a person- magnets from travel, graduation pictures, Bible verses, missionary prayer cards, drawings, and Christmas cards speak to diversity of interests, socio-economic status, and friendliness. As a child I viewed the success of a missionary by how many refrigerators they were on; this is how one made it as a missionary to a twelve-year-old. And yet, in all the Christian homes I was in and out of, I rarely, if ever saw a black foreign missionary on the fridge. I saw sponsored African children, but no missionaries. So why were the only black people on the refrigerators of my youth kids in Africa? What was keeping black men and women from becoming missionaries?
I do not know for a fact why there are fewer black missionaries on the foreign field than I think there should be. What I do know are four things I have seen in western missions and evangelical culture that have prohibited many talented and called brothers and sisters from joining in mission.
Race is hard to talk about
The church, in general, does not easily talk about race. Politics, money and sex are at times easier to talk about than race. The Bible can seem very clear on the tough issues, but race is left more to interpretation. This has to be something we talk about. We need to be aware of our preconceived notions. We need to talk about cultural differences and deal with them. We need to uproot hate and grow roots of reconciliation.
I have seen the seeds of reconciliation planted during hard and honest conversations at Christian colleges. I have had the honor of leading a workshop called Race, Culture and Misconceptions at many colleges. The students who came were often diverse and honest. I have seen light bulb moments. There was a white student who had a breakthrough while I was explaining that my neighborhood was expressional and very celebratory, not loud or noisy, words I had heard summer missions trip groups use. There was reason needed to celebrate or dance, we just did it because we could. This student got it. He literally said, “My neighbor is not loud, he is just celebrating and expressing himself.” This cultural difference had never been explored; it had solely been looked down upon. We must have the conversation.
This one is a doozy, so bear with me. Due to northward migration post-slavery and white flight during the mid-20th century, many African American churches were left in what are now under-resourced communities. The location of these churches has lead to a plethora of issues. I only want to address one: The church can be so focused on the mission field outside their front door that international missions are not the priority.
As an urban missionary who has surrendered her life to serve in under-resourced communities in the U.S., I do not think the focus on the local mission field is bad. The problem is that international missions may never even be presented to those in under-resourced communities as an option. The church must work together through Urban Church Associations, camp opportunities, and no-strings partnerships to bring needed resources to the amazing men and women of God who are working tireless hours to bring community transformation in urban areas and empowering them to expand their work outside of their immediate neighborhoods to the global missions field.
Lack of Exposure
Lack of exposure goes far beyond missions in urban communities. Having spent seven years in the midst of a low income, under-resourced community working with teens, I saw the lack of exposure daily. Most summers I would take teens to see the Liberty Bell, twenty minutes from their home, because they had never seen it before. The shore was the same way, an hour and a half away – the whole ocean and it had never been seen. Partnerships and extra resources make new experiences attainable, and new experiences broaden the horizons of youth who think they have limited options. The Church must provide the experiences. Whether it is art, music, education, books, camp, or travel, exposure to the world outside of the neighborhood is key.
When it comes to missions, my teens knew about me, the missionaries on my fridge, and the stories I would tell them. My heroes found their way into Bible studies, and girl time, and youth group events. While I wanted to spend hours talking about missions, most of my time was spent talking about sex, forgiveness, family issues and Jesus’ unfailing love. Exposure to missions was not a high priority.
Money. Sometimes missions comes down to money. Churches need rethink how they support missions, and missions organizations need to be more creative with raising funds. My home church is a sending body of believers. They are constantly looking for new missionaries and asking what needs I have; I am so grateful for this and yet I know this is not the norm. Raising support is sticky and complicated and steeped in decades of tradition. That western tradition holds low-income brothers and sisters hostage – men and women who are called, committed, and competent but lack the personal contacts to bring the capital to the table. We need to dream together a new way of doing this. I have no answer, but am willing to dive into the conversation.
I am now a grown-up with a refrigerator of my own. My fridge tells a tale of diversity, friendship, and urban life. Cityscapes, teenagers, and missionaries litter the doors, and yet there is only one prayer card for someone who is not white. Let’s work together to change this. Let’s make western missions diverse and expanding.