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.