Patrice Hunt knows people wonder why she is working at Wycliffe Bible Translators, a black woman surrounded by white people. She’s asked God that question herself.
“Why did you make me black,” she said, praying in the mirror one morning, “if you’re just going to have me around white people?”
It doesn’t always happen this way, but she got an immediate answer. She felt God say, “There are things I need you to learn from them that your community can’t teach you.”
As the senior director of human resources in Wycliffe’s Florida office, Hunt has learned a lot of things. One, she told CT, is that God has equipped her and other African Americans for mission work.
Some experts say that less than 1 percent of American missionaries are black. In many missions organizations, that actually seems like an overestimate. According to a 2020 report, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board—the largest sending agency in the world—has 3,700 career missionaries and only 0.35 percent are African Americans.
The reasons are varied. Many African Americans who are called to ministry have prioritized the needs in their own communities, focusing on preaching the gospel or pursing justice locally. Global travel and exposure are a privilege and less accessible to racial minorities. The historic relationship between missions and colonialism is complicated, and missionaries, for many, are associated with the idea of a “white savior,” not a black Christian. Black churches have different traditions of giving, making the most common models of fundraising more difficult for African American Christians. And most missionary institutions and sending agencies are predominantly white and can be uncomfortable spaces for black people.
But young African American Christians are increasingly interested in international mission work, according to a recent Barna survey. Sixty-one percent of black churchgoers between the ages of 18 and 35 say they could become a missionary, depending on their sense of calling, whether or not they would be helpful, and the tasks they’d do on the field. By comparison, less than half of young white Christians who regularly go to church say the same.
“They’re becoming more missions and globally minded,” said Sherry Thomas, an African American missionary who has served for 22 years in African countries, most recently Nigeria. For many years, she said, the only missionaries she met were white, but now there seems to be a generational shift.
It could create an unprecedented opportunity, according to African American missionaries currently at work around the world.
“What has intensified is our voice,” said Ron Nelson, founder of Sowing Seeds of Joy, an organization that mobilizes and trains African Americans for overseas mission work. “Our voice has become more significant. Our voice has become more needed. That’s what has changed.”
‘We can connect like the others don’t’
Nelson notes that many African American Christians remain skeptical of missions. He remembers a black pastor telling him and his wife, Star Nelson, “I love what you’re doing, but missions is not our thing.” In fact, the Barna study shows that about half of young black churchgoers agree with the statement that “Christian mission is tainted by its association with colonialism,” and 40 percent agree with the statement that missions work has been unethical in the past.
But some say that because of the history of colonialism, slavery, and white oppression, black missionaries can be more effective than their white counterparts. Star Nelson said that in Haiti, there were people who were willing to listen to her talk about Jesus because she is black.
“Most people know our African American story,” she said. “So, we can connect like the others don’t. Sometimes we connect in a way that is exactly what they need.”
The past generation of African American missionaries was mobilized with the phrase “blessed to be a blessing”—a call to use their relative wealth, education, and privilege to serve those in under-resourced areas. But today, black missionaries say that one of the important gifts they can bring to the world is an understanding of trauma, suffering, and loss.
“So many of our images of missions [show] the white person of middle-class status taking care of an Indian widow,” said Lily Field, executive director of Ambassadors Fellowship, an African American sending agency, at the recent virtual conference of the National African American Missions Council (NAAMC).
“I don’t relate to being the savior in this picture,” she said. “I relate to the sufferer in this picture.”
That can be a powerful point of connection, Thomas said. She has worked as a trauma healer in Mali prisons and recently started working with pastors in Nigeria to establish a trauma healing center there. Her skin color has been an advantage in the work, both because she personally knows the trauma that racism can bring and because she doesn’t have to deal with the additional distance that white people sometimes can’t overcome.
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Source: Christianity Today