It is impossible to be “the great White hope” when you are not White. But skin color is neither a prerequisite for a successful mission trip nor an automatic bridge to any non-Western culture. Yet African Americans play a unique and important part in the global Church’s pursuit of the Great Commission.
On June 22-24, the fifth annual National African American Missions Conference (NAAMC) will celebrate this—by hosting plenary sessions and workshops for people at all missions levels.
“In our community, short-term missions is a novelty. We use it as a way of exposing people. Our thing is training and preparation. We see the NAAMC is really bringing synergy to this movement and excitement,” said Ron Nelson, workshop leader at the conference and co-founder of Sowing Seeds of Joy, a missions training and mobilizing nonprofit. After years of working in law enforcement, Nelson left his career and followed a call to missions. He served as the missions director for five years under pastor Tony Evans at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, introducing the congregation to the course Perspectives and exposing members to local and global missions.
“Everywhere we went, we were asked, ‘Where are the African Americans?’ We saw that part of the [Church] body was missing,” he said.
African Americans are an underrepresented presence on the mission field, according to the NAAMC website. The statistics on how underrepresented they are, however, are hard to find. According to the 2007 “African American Missions Manifesto”, Blacks account for just 0.04 percent of U.S. missionaries. According to statistics cited in a 2016 Training Leaders International article, that number could be even smaller—0.01 percent. The number is small due to several factors, including historical hindrances, as the “African American Missions Manifesto” lays out: “We acknowledge that our history is full of hindrances to engagement in global evangelism such as Jim Crow segregation in the U.S., colonial leaders abroad who did not see the value of our contribution as missionaries, and our focus on the challenges facing the African-American community in the U.S.”
While Nelson’s work proves history is no excuse to not get involved, he does admit that some of those hindrances still exist. “One of the biggest challenges outside of our community is being taken seriously [in missions],” Nelson said. There are not many African American-led missions agencies. It is easy to feel lonely in Nelson’s line of work, so when he first attended the NAAMC, he was happy to find hundreds of like-minded people.
Black missionaries sometimes also find similar camaraderie overseas. From Nelson’s experience, rapport is gained easier in some places because of his skin color. “It’s not everything,” he said. “But it’s one thing.”
A church leader in Kenya told him, “Because you look like me, I don’t have to put on airs, or bow down to you. I can take you to lunch and feel comfortable buying you lunch.” And in Haiti, a man told Nelson’s wife, “You’re a foreigner but you look like me. Because you’re telling me about Jesus, and you look like me, now I can entertain this Jesus.”
For Nelson, though, working with the NAAMC is not about African Americans alone, but about working together as the whole Church.
“My biggest word is ‘collaboration.’ We all have to be the Body of Christ. It’s all for Christ,” he said.
Brittany Gardner, the NAAMC’s 2015 Young Missionary Scholarship recipient, described the conference as “amazing and a joy.”
“It’s great to be able to connect with people I met last year before I moved overseas and to now see others that have taken the leap of faith themselves,” she said. “It’s incredibly important for African Americans to know that we have a place in missions and then to know how to get involved!”
The NAAMC, which emerged from a partnership between Boundless Ministries Inc. and SIM USA, will be held this year at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Virginia. Workshops will include:
- “The History of African Americans in Missions” with the Rev. Dr. Phillip Nelson
- “Send Me: Single Women Discerning the Missionary Call” with Sherry Thomas
- “Short Term Missions for Long Term Impact” with Casely Essamuah
- “Go as a Disciple-maker: Why Discipleship is Crucial” with David Bempong
Find out more about the NAAMC at www.thenaamc.org.
Gena Thomas was a missionary to Mexico from 2009-2013. Gena co-hosts a monthly Twitter chat on missions called #JustMissions and is the author of the book A Smoldering Wick: Igniting Missions Work with Sustainable Practices. She, her husband and their children live in North Carolina.