An African Explains Why @TGC’s Article on Africa and Western Missionaries Is Offensive and Wrong

I hope The Gospel Coalition will issue an apology for contributing to the stigma that Africa is a dark place. Africa is, in fact, the most beautiful, colorful, dignified and diverse continent. Let us tell our own stories.

(Photo: Madi Robson/Unsplash)
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Editor’s note: The following letter was written July 17, 2017, by Mekdes Haddis in response to an article published July 13, 2017, by The Gospel Coalition titled “Why Africa Still Needs Western Workers.” It has been edited for publication on Faithfully Magazine.


Dear TGC,

Your website is one of my favorite online ministries and I highly admire the work you all do. However, I recently read an article on your website that disappointed me so much that I had to share why I wholeheartedly disagree with the article’s approach. Here are a few reasons why.

1. I am an Ethiopian who came to the U.S. to pursue my full-time ministry calling. I attended a large Christian university and have worked for three majority White megachurches. I have had the honor of discipling Westerners (to use the article’s terms) and understand where the intent to call for more missionaries comes from.

faithfully magazine no 2 evangelicals and race

2. I have led two mission trips to my own country that were pivotal in helping me grasp how some short-term missions were damaging, a waste of money and an unnecessary phenomenon. This led my husband and I to shift our support to long-term local missionaries who are natives and have been blessed to build a partnership with our previous church here in the U.S. Our previous church continues to send pastors from the U.S. to train pastors and strengthen the men and women who are doing ministry work in their indigenous cultural contexts.

This organization is doing the amazing work of helping to redeem people’s hearts for Christ through an appropriate way of discipleship. I use the term “appropriate” because these people are not asking locals to change their culture, language and livelihood to follow Jesus, but are helping them understand how Jesus can be a part of their world. They are slowly helping them grow into disciples who forsake all to follow Christ wholeheartedly. This type of work takes years and years of dedication, a love and calling to a specific group of people and a sincere desire to know and understand their history and culture. We are blessed to have such faithful partners.

3. I am writing as a by-product of an African Christian mother who raised me to fear God, prayed on her knees day and night for her children and is still a prayer warrior. She made such a deep impression of Jesus on my heart that I knew I could do nothing but follow Him. I am writing as the daughter of my dad, a Coptic Christian who believes we have been scammed by the “White man’s religion” and  abandoned our roots of true Christianity. My dad still believes that the gospel as taught by a White man is a means of taking our land and abusing our people, therefore we need to protect ourselves from “them.” Because of the damaging work of some long-term missionaries, our churches have been persecuted.

I have lived through the torment of growing up in a home with a divided view of Christianity. My dad accepts Christ’s lordship but refuses to go to an evangelical church because, to him, leaving his church means abandoning his heritage. Although I would much prefer that he go to church with my mom and be baptized as an adult and proclaim Jesus as his savior, I trust God’s saving work in his heart and let him worship God the way he knows best.


“Africans are very proud and strong people and we open up only to those who come with a learning posture.”


4. I am writing as someone who believes that missionaries are needed but not just Western missionaries. I believe the best American missionaries who should be sent to Africa might be African Americans, since I have seen them go with an awareness that they need what Africans have to offer—which is their cultural heritage and roots—as much as they desire to share Christ with them.

Africans are very proud and strong people and we open up only to those who come with a learning posture. The problem with the TGC article is that it exalts the White man and gives the air of “these savages need our civilization and way of life” rather than of “these lost men and women of Africa need Jesus.”

What I love about my interaction with African Americans in the U.S. is that they have the learning posture. They are genuinely curious about Africa, where they come from, who their people are and how they can be a part of the beautiful culture. Some desire to even trace their lineage back to a specific country so they can adopt the culture as their own. They go with an attitude that says “teach me,” which is the only attitude that a servant of God needs to have in going into someone else’s home to hopefully subversively share the gospel.

Does that mean White Americans do not qualify for the job? NOT AT ALL. However, I think there is a deep heart-work of racial reconciliation and awareness of privilege that needs to be a part of a White missionary’s journey.

(Photo: Avel Chuklanov/Unsplash)

5. Starting from the introduction, the TGC article paints such a dark and desolate picture of Africa that I wondered if I was reading about my Africa. I quickly decided that this was a Westerner’s idea of Africa, which was a very offensive, unwelcome and disrespectful portrayal of the continent. The TGC article seems to totally overlook the fact that there are many churches doing good work and making disciples. It does not quote a single African author or pastor; it just talks as if Westerners somehow are a spiritual authority over the ENTIRE CONTINENT.

6. Africa is depicted as one country rather than a continent with 54 countries, thousands of tribes, languages, dialects and cultures. This is a horrible generalization and oversimplifies the complexity of the work that needs to be done to reach such complex and diverse people groups. The article leads us to believe that if we can just go there, they will listen. The article does not share facts about colonization and Africa’s history of suffering in the hands of Westerners, which would make some Westerners unwelcome in some areas.  

The local pastors who are doing the real work really do not want Westerners there long term. However, they have learned that to get the resources they need they have to play nice with them, so they let them stay. It is like a necessary evil and comes with the territory. Sometimes I wonder who is going to tell these people who are spending decades in another country that they are actually not wanted, only their resources are and their temporary presence. They need to equip and let the locals lead.

For example, I spoke with one of our local partners about how much money he would need per month to reach the entire country of Ethiopia with the intentional discipleship method that has been effectively working there. He said $3,000 per month would support their entire staff all around Ethiopia. That would cover their salaries, travel expenses, food and even supplies for locals. With $36,000 a year they could effectively reach the country with the gospel and make disciple-makers, but they still have yet to find sources of income.

7. The article portrays Africa as being first reached with the gospel by martyred White men and completely ignores the fact that the first missionary to Africa was an AFRICAN. Acts 8 tells of the Ethiopian eunuch who was searching the scriptures for himself and how the Holy Spirit sent Philip to him and helped him understand the gospel. After being baptized, the eunuch took the message of the good news back to Ethiopia.

The TGC article says nothing about the Coptic Church and the beautiful heritage we have from the early Egyptian churches and current spirit-filled churches that are producing an army for Christ. The TGC article only talks about the prosperity gospel, totally discrediting the work God has been doing for more than 2,000 years in Africa and discrediting our fathers and grandfathers who gave their lives for it!

africa christian photo
The Demna Baptistry, a Christian baptismal font from the sixth century AD found in Tunisia. (Photo: archer10 (Dennis) 100M Views )

 

8. This type of thinking of missions is the perfect example of when helping hurts. The TGC article diagnoses Africa’s problem as savages that need civilization when it states: “These early men and women laid down their lives to disease and a hostile population for the sake of the gospel. As historian Ruth Tucker notes, ‘Africa has claimed the lives of more . . . missionaries than any other area of the world.’ Yet still they came. It was these 19th-century missionary pioneers, Tucker writes, ‘who risked all to open the way for Christianity in Africa.’”

My question is, what is compelling us to serve? Is it a desire to see people’s hearts turning to Jesus and glorifying God in their lives, or a desire to be the hero in the story? A book that opened my eyes about the right approach to missions is The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again by George G. Hunter. We need to love the people of Africa as they are before we share the gospel with them.

9. The TGC article is written to appeal to the white savior complex and, unfortunately, it works for the majority of Western Christians because it affirms the notion that “we are perfect as Westerners and can go change the world.” As an African missionary to the U.S., I would like to challenge that thinking by simply asking American Evangelicals to search their hearts and consider spending a week or two in the redline districts of their cities. I would ask American Evangelicals to first deeply be convicted of their own racially-divisive and man-centered theology and repent; to reconcile with their Black brothers and sisters and reclaim the gospel of Jesus as the good news and not the rich White people’s country club. Then, American Evangelicals can go to someone else’s continent and learn how to be a part of what God is already doing there.


“Religious freedom is a privilege Americans have and think is a God-given right, because that is what privilege lets you believe…”


10. I would argue that the way the prosperity gospel is described as evil in Africa in the TGC article is the same as how Black Christians would describe Patriotic Evangelism in America; both are blinding and so appealing to the needs of a man’s heart to self-exalt and self-serve. I do not deny that most of Africa is struggling with the prosperity gospel, but one thing we can learn from those false teachers is that they are letting people live where they are, and going and “evangelizing” them in their own language and culture. They are not trying to “civilize” them and make them conform to their way of living. It is one thing when missionaries go into villages to build hospitals and schools to help what is already there, but the TGC article appears to be demanding westernization and even, audaciously, religious freedom.

11. Religious freedom is a privilege Americans have and think is a God-given right, because that is what privilege lets you believe. The gospel is not supposed to be something we share to make this side of heaven perfect, civilized and simple to the liking and understanding of simple-minded man’s heart and mind; it is supposed to cost us our lives. We are supposed to be persecuted for our beliefs…and Africans understand that. When we give our lives to Christ we do it with that in mind, therefore our walk with Christ is full of deep pursuit and dedication to the Lord. Because we actually lost something to follow Him, every breath we take with Christ on this earth is worth something to us, and means another day to do His work faithfully.

12. The TGC article talks about young people as a selfish, self-centered and irresponsible group. It says nothing about the movement that is within the African Diaspora involving young people who who are starting businesses, churches and moving back home to take up the leadership of our fathers and grandfathers. The article makes Africa seem helpless and in need of saving. That is simply not true. We have an army of young leaders who are taking up the cross daily and following Christ wholeheartedly. We are fighting false teaching with truth, appealing to our youth’s heart by keeping their dignity intact. We speak their language, love them the way they understand best and do not demand that they become something Christ does not ask of them. We are missionaries, transplanted around the world and praying for our neighbors.

***

Do we Africans welcome missionaries? Of course we do! To be clear, I know many missionaries working in Africa. One in particular, a sister I have known since college in Uganda, is doing an amazing work of equipping young girls and teaching them to study God’s word and to teach it to others. She has been discipling these girls for several years and I get her newsletter every month. I pray for and with her. The difference is she is there to serve and not to dictate.

I think it is very problematic that The Gospel Coalition is allowing a Westerner to diagnose Africa’s problem as a lack of Westerners and offer a solution that says Africa needs more Westerners. It is offensive, to say the least, and does not even touch the tip of the iceberg.

As someone who loves and follows The Gospel Coalition and use it in my day-to-day ministry and discipleship, I find it very hard to believe this post was vetted by people who are actually Africans. I would gladly offer my help to The Gospel Coalition, if it is ever needed, to vet these types of articles in the future. I am a student at a seminary and a part of the Gordon-Conwell Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience launching this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina. I would be honored to serve The Gospel Coalition in any capacity.

I believe Africans need to lead these conversations on missions, to diagnose the problem of our own nations and come up with solutions. We also need to invite Westerners, Middle-Easterners, Asians and so forth, into that process. Doing it the other way around goes back to a really bad history we have with the West, discredits everything Christ stands for and gets in the way of unity and furthering the gospel.  

I hope my assessment and opinion are taken into serious consideration. I hope you will respond appropriately, and that the article will be taken down. I hope The Gospel Coalition will issue an apology for being a part of perpetuating a very negative view of Africa and contributing to the stigma that Africa is a dark place. Africa is, in fact, the most beautiful, colorful, dignified and diverse continent. Let us tell our own stories.


Editor’s note: A version of this essay was first published at http://bygraceimsaved.blogspot.com.


Mekdes Haddis was born and raised in Ethiopia, moved to the states for college when she was 19 and graduated with a Communications Degree from Liberty University. Mekdes and her husband, Ermias, who is also Ethiopian, have a daughter named Natania. Mekdes has worked for three mega-churches and currently serves as a Discipleship Director at her local church while also attending seminary part-time. She is a bridge-builder in her community and an African missionary living in the U.S.

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