As American Baptist International Ministries (IM) celebrates 200 years of mission, my attention turns to the presence of African-Americans on the mission field.
I can’t help but lament that, even though African-Americans represent 12 percent of the United States’ population, they send less than 1 percent to the foreign missionary force.
We have every reason to ask ourselves what happened and what can we do about it.
African-Americans have been, and still are, “mission-minded” people.
However, beginning in the 19th century with the rise of colonization around the world and especially in Africa, colonial governments did everything they could to stop African-Americans from serving as missionaries and, if necessary, to deport them from Africa.
While slavery had long existed in Africa, the Arab slave trade of the eighth through 19th centuries and the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries changed its nature.
Slaves became Africa’s recognized “contribution” to the world economy and when slavery was abolished, Africa was almost forgotten.
Colonization began to change that mindset, as Europeans came to understand that Africa was also a good source of raw materials, including timber, minerals and oil.
At the same time, they began to fear that black Americans would inspire local Africans to rebel against their colonial masters, and thus interfere with their economic ambitions.
From 1790 to 1810, 70 black missionaries from different denominations throughout the U.S. served in Africa.
Black Americans responded tremendously to the call to serve in Africa, the West Indies and Asia.
From 1890 to 1910, 200 black missionaries served in Africa and in the West Indies.
Tragically, by 1920 almost all of the black missionaries had been evicted from Africa.
Colonial governments refused fair, equitable treatment and thought of African-American missionaries as “undesirable aliens.”
Some missionary organizations did not want to offend the colonial governments, so they decided to stop extending their call and support to African-Americans.
For a while, even the U.S. complied with the colonial governments, especially in Africa, by not issuing passports to African-Americans.
Those who had passports and came back for furloughs were denied visas to return to the mission field.
American Baptists, however, sought to overcome these challenges.
John Hope, president of Morehouse College, was a member of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society delegation to the 1926 international missionary conference in Belgium.
There he forcefully called on colonial powers to allow African-American missionaries to serve in Africa.
There were certainly a few brave voices fighting for the cause, but it was an uphill battle.
As we lament that we have very few African-Americans in overseas mission fields today, let us not be quick to judge.
In God’s economy, nothing is lost. As Paul said in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.”
In spite of centuries of oppression and being held back from all sorts of mission work, the black church has been a tremendous tool in the hands of God to change U.S. society for the better.
Though barriers once prevented African-Americans from participating in global mission, thank God these barriers are now only history.
It is time for African-Americans to reclaim their full role in global mission once again. This can be done in four ways:
- Participate in short-term mission with residential missionaries and international partners.
Each year, IM and its partners send out many teams for various kinds of short-term service, and individuals are needed to be a part of the next mission team.
- Accept God’s call to global mission as a long-term missionary.
God is calling African-Americans just as he is calling the rest of his church to serve internationally. We know that we have a story to tell to the nations.
- Sponsor those who commit themselves to short- and long-term mission efforts.
In so doing, you will follow the example of Luther Rice (1783-1836), one of the earliest American Baptist missionaries.
After working with Ann and Adoniram Judson in India for several years, Rice returned to the U.S. to raise money in order to fund their ministry in Burma and to build support for Baptist missions around the world.
- Support indigenous missionaries who have been called to serve.
One of IM’s key initiatives around the world has been to provide scholarships to indigenous people, allowing them to study at seminaries and universities in their home countries or, when necessary, abroad.
In Africa, the cost of calling and training a local missionary is only about 10 percent of what it takes to send a missionary from the U.S. We strongly recommend supporting those indigenous missionaries.
The call to global mission is as vibrant today as it was in the day of George Liele – one of the earliest black Baptist missionaries and the first ordained black Baptist pastor in the U.S. May God give us wisdom to discern and to obey his calling.
Eleazar O. Ziherambere is director for African American Mission of the American Baptist Churches International Ministries (IM). A longer version of this article first appeared on the IM website and is used with permission. You can follow Eleazar on Twitter @ziheram.