Western Missions and the Black Missionary Part 2

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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.

Systemic Injustice

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.

Fund Raising

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.

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Keeping it Lite

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This blog is a place to discuss marketing, race, missions and my all the ideas rattling around in my mind. Because there can only be so many deep issues discussed at one, I thought that on Thursdays I would liten things up.

Currently I am doing a group reading event- 26 books in 2015. If you want to join please do! It has been a lot of fun and I am reading FanGirl by Rainbow Rowell. YA is easy, light and this one is well written.

I also love music!! This week JPoetic dropped his first full length album, and it is insane! He is a great guy and his heart really shows on this project, with lyrics like Blessed are the despised, feeble, and the lonely/Blessed are the broken/For I know in Him they’ll be restored what is not to love? Truth and depth, oh and he posts fantastic instagrams!

I am streaming The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt it is super funny, the acting is good, and yet there are some heavy moment at the same time.

I love to bake! This week a made a round of Chocolate Banana Muffins, and they were perfect with a cup of coffee.

So there you have it, Keeping it Lite on Thursdays!

Western Missions and the Black Missionary

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I grew up in a church that loved missions. On Sunday nights when missionaries would share photos and stories, I would watch and listen with bated breath – I wanted to know everything! I would ask how to say words in the language native to their mission field and about customs and clothing, all with true interest and curiosity. There was even a period of time where I collected missionary prayer cards. I had them in a binder and convinced my AWANA friends to collect and trade them. When I would visit any other churches, I would go to their world map and pilfer my treasures.

I sometimes wish I still had this binder, because when I think back on all the missionaries from around the world – all the cards gathered, traded and catalogued – I cannot remember one black missionary. When I read biographies about missionaries (yes, my parents fed my missions obsession with books) I knew of no black brothers or sisters on the field.

Where are the black missionaries? Some, like Mary Mcleod Bethune, were denied the opportunity to serve overseas because of the color of their skin. The work of others, like George Lisle, go unrecognized because of their skin color. Mary went on to be one of the most influential black women in history. George was the first foreign missionary to be sent from America; he was a former slave who bought his wife’s, children’s, and his own freedom and went to Jamaica to start churches and spread the Gospel. I did not grow up hearing these missionaries’ stories.

It is said that today there are between 200 and 500 African-American missionaries worldwide. That is a drop in the bucket compared to their white co-laborers. What is the culture of missions that there seems to be very little space for our black brothers and sisters? Several years ago I was at a HUGE college missions conference, recruiting for World Impact. Black students would consistently come to our booth, having been sent to us by other booths. As we talked with these students and heard about their hearts for Asia, Kenya, Spain and more, we were left wondering why these students were sent to us when we serve in urban areas in the US? Was it because we had one of three black recruiters at the event (the other two were from seminaries)?

Missions organizations are so ingrained in the white evangelical church, that they often have no idea how to engage the African-American candidate or church. Traditional fundraising techniques are not culturally transferable. Missions organizations have been systemically amputating a much needed part of the Body of Christ. In order to remedy the lack of of all limbs, radical surgery, physical therapy and healing are needed. Missions organizations need to deal with their pasts, reconcile where needed and look to new models of funding in order to re-engage the entire body. This will not be easy, it will be messy and it will take all of us. I want the next generation of missionaries to be able to read stories of multicultural, multiethnic and reconciled missionaries of the 21st century. It should have never taken this long to begin with.

White Privilege

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White privilege. Over the past few months I have heard, seen and watched many dialogs on this topic. I am white, and due to the color of my skin I have been granted opportunities that others have not. Growing up I did not see this; I grew up in a very mono-cultural community in a lower socio-economic bracket. I was never looked down on, but I felt the sting of things being out of reach, but it had nothing to do with the color of my skin.

When I think of white privilege, I remember my college roommate and I walking over to Cabrini Green (a Chicago housing project that no longer exists) to a ministry she worked at. On the walk to or from, a police officer would ask us if we needed a ride back to campus. This always made us so mad! What about the teen girl who gets harassed while she walks on this same street or the little boy who is being forced into gang life because he lacks a father figure? It was the color of our skin that made us the targets of the officers’ good will. We were white and most of the residents were black.

When I think of white privilege, I remember my friend Melissa, she was leaving the apartment of a child she worked with and a black man was being accosted by the police. She knew him and spoke into the situation. The next day she found out the police backed off, saying, “If she cares about you, then we will leave you alone.” She was white, he was black.

When I think of white privilege, I remember my neighbor in Chester going to apply for a job at Burger King, but the manager with a shaved head would not give her an application. “We are not hiring,” he had told her. But a week later he gave one of my white teens an application. He was white, my neighbor was black.

Whether I like it or not, white privilege exists, and I am a part of it. I benefit because of the color of my skin, I benefit because my parents happen to be white, I benefit and sometimes I don’t even realize it. So, what can I do to change this? What can I do to ensure equality for all people? One thing I know I can do is keep the conversation open and look for opportunities to stand up for what is right. I can continue to be a reconciler, a woman who longs for justice and a child of God who seeks justice. If each of us does this, the Church may be able to set the tone for a new type of privilege, the privilege of reconciliation.