The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver Rick2251@aol.com preached the following sermon at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on The Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2002.
The 1997 General Convention of the Episcopal Church adopted Resolution A205 designating the last Sunday of Epiphany each year as World Mission Sunday. That General Convention reaffirmed that each and every member of The Episcopal Church is a missionary. This has been the case at least since 1835 when “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society” became a part of the legal name of the Church.
The theme chosen throughout the Church for this year’s World Mission Sunday celebration is, “Companionship in Mission.” More than 80 dioceses of our church have companion relationships with dioceses or provinces in other parts of the Anglican Communion. In addition, thousands of congregations have exciting links with parishes, projects, and persons in countries very different from our own. The Diocese of Chicago has recently established a companion relationship with the Diocese of Renk in the Sudan and the Diocese of Southeast Mexico. Our Assistant Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Victor Scantlebury, is preaching today in the Diocese of Southeast Mexico.
For those of us worshipping in congregations whose congregants consist primarily of people whose historic roots are in the African Diaspora, it’s timely that World Mission Sunday should occur during the month of February, also celebrated as Black History Month in the United States. In addition to the fact that February is Black History Month, the observance of World Mission Sunday during February is timely for at least two reasons. One reason is due to the fact that several weeks ago I received in the mail a copy of Volume 14, Number 4 of World Christian magazine. The general theme for that edition is “Living the Great Commission.” Included in it is an article titled, “Answering the Call: African-Americans Needed on the Mission Field.” A second reason both celebrations are timely is related to a letter, which was sent to every congregation earlier this week from The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations, located in Washington, D.C.
A portion of that letter reads as follows: “I am pleased to forward information to you about the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), an ecumenical organization seeking to articulate and promote a just American policy toward Africa. As you may know, Africa is home to the largest and fastest growing part of the Anglican Communion. Our office, in partnership with WOA, is deeply concerned about the difficult challenges facing the continent, such as HIV/AIDS, debt cancellation, and the use of children as soldiers, development assistance, landmines, and human rights. WOA has launched a Millennial Campaign for Africa with the goal of setting a comprehensive advocacy agenda that addresses our Church’s primary concerns regarding African nations.” I am providing each of you both a copy of that letter and a registration form, which you can complete in order to become a participant in the Washington Office on Africa’s Millennial Campaign for Africa, and to receive packets of materials on the various issues the Campaign addresses.
The World Christian article specifically invites persons of African descent living in the United States to companionship in mission by becoming a missionary to Africa. The Washington Office on Africa’s initiative is an invitation extended to the entire membership of the Episcopal Church to companionship in mission, by participating in the Millennial Campaign for Africa.
Carla Bastos, the author of the article that both laments the fact that very few African-Americans are serving as missionaries in Africa and encourages them to answer the call, offers three reasons why there is a dearth of African-American missionaries serving in Africa. She prefaces her analysis by sharing a statistic. She states, “While making up 12 percent of the U.S. population, African-Americans comprise less than 1 percent of American missionaries, according to Vaughn Walston, African-American scholar and missions speaker.” She further states, “It is a disturbing under-representation, particularly in light of the unique gifts with which God has blessed us for use in his service.”
She then poses and answers a question, “So, why are there so few black Americans on the field? One reason we hesitate to go is divided loyalties. Given the needs in our communities right here in the United States, the African-American church often cannot find room on the agenda for international outreach. Those who have a burden to make a difference in the spiritual, social and economic dynamics of African-American life in the United States must be diligent to seek the Lord’s direction and let him use them right here at home.
“Another hindrance to fulfilling the Great Commission is often finances. Much of the black American community has only recently begun to realize some of the economic and material benefits common to other communities. The notion of giving what we have been blessed with to mercy missions, particularly far from home, can be somewhat daunting. Fundraising is also problematic without a strong foundation and support base. Realizing the funds required to venture into mission can be overwhelming.
“Another obstacle to more African-Americans answering the call to missions may be a lack of information. Because missions has not been at the forefront of our churches’ agendas, there also has not been an extensive effort on the part of individuals to learn more or to seek God’s will for their lives in this area. Teaming up with other missionaries, churches and missions agencies is an excellent way to get to know the work of international outreach and evangelism.”
Ms. Bastos concludes her remarks with the following invitation: “The call of God to the African-American is very real. The need is there and the funding is available, although we must unearth it. The only remaining ingredient is willing hearts from all backgrounds, ethnicities and ministry positions to step up to the plate and answer that call.”
While living in Africa in the mid 1980s, I made it a point to read a book written in 1982 by Walter L. Williams titled, Black Americans and the Evangelization of Africa 1877- 1900. Mr. Williams’ research revealed that before 1880, almost all black evangelists working among indigenous Africans were supported by white churches.
Several white churches used black Americans as their representatives in Africa. In 1835, the Protestant Episcopal Church became the first white denomination to turn over its African mission work to blacks. Mr. and Mrs. James M. Thompson, the church’s first black missionaries in Liberia, served until 1865. The most important Episcopalian in Liberia, however, was Alexander Crummell, whose likeness is featured in one of our stained glass windows.
Why did white denominations send black missionaries to Africa? Let me quote two paragraphs from Williams’ book:
“Christian denominations saw Africa as one of the major areas of the world to be converted, but the first missionaries sent to Africa had little resistance to the many tropical diseases. The continent became known as a ‘white mans grave.’ Faced with a lack of white volunteers, several mission boards hit upon the idea of sending black missionaries. It was believed that; because, they were descended from Africans, Afro-Americans could better adjust to the climate. Blacks also would not cost as much for expensive European furloughs, and they could be paid a smaller salary.”
A second paragraph reads as follows: “Afro-American missionaries were sent by white churches only to tropical areas of western and central Africa, where disease took a greater toll on white missionaries. Consequently, there were no white-sponsored black churchmen in healthy areas like the Kenya highlands or South Africa. This distinction points out the self-serving nature of white church use of Afro-Americans: blacks were not deemed to be of worth unless health factors prevented the use of white clergy. But within tropical areas, black missionaries were often used.”
I might add, though, that African-American missionaries readily embraced the Theory of Providential Design, espoused as the goal of evangelization of Africans by the white churches. The tenets of the Theory of Providential Design meant that the missionary actually went into an area with two goals: to teach the Christian religion, and to westernize the way of life. Everything Western was sanctioned, as the will of God, while everything belonging to the indigenous culture was evil. In reading Alexander Crummell’s biography titled, Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent, written by Wilson Jeremiah Moses, it’s documented that Alexander Crummell, as a missionary, both reflected and enlarged upon the theories of African heathenism and Providential Design. There was in his view no road to personal salvation or to national progress for Africans apart from Jesus Christ. He believed that Christianity is the cause of a civilization’s advancement. Europe was more powerful, efficient and orderly than Africa, and Christianity was perceived as the reason for the existing gap.
Crummell had to combine his Christian message with a secular one. He was painfully aware of African “backwardness,” a backwardness in technology and commerce that seemed to be the direct manifestation of moral and spiritual backwardness. Christianity had a civilizing message for Africa in the broadest sense; its moral message was a social message and therefore a prescription for material as well as spiritual progress.
After his return to the United States from Liberia in 1873, Crummell consistently addressed his sermons to the issue of the “regeneration” of Africa. In their quest for economic advantage, Europeans had marked their presence with piracy and bloodshed, he declared bitterly. Crummell felt that Africa’s “redemption” could not be brought about by white American and European missionaries in Africa. Although he believed that the “dark” continent had to be brought under the “civilizing” influence of the Christian world, he emphasized that “the sons of Africa themselves must be the agents of Christianity.”
Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Afro-American religious community was adapting its attitudes toward the view that black Americans should also assume a “civilizing mission” rather than leave the duty entirely to Europeans. This attitude reflected the growing awareness of the exploitative nature of European imperialism in Africa and of a resulting concern that it be curbed. These African-American missionaries were products of their time, and didn’t realize that their “civilizing mission” also embodied both cultural and religious imperialism.
I’m reminded of the following statement M.K. Gandhi made in his autobiography about Christians who tried to proselytize him, “The pious lives of Christians did not give me anything that the lives of men of other faiths had failed to give. I had seen in other lives just the same reformation that I had heard of among Christians. Philosophically there was nothing extraordinary in Christian principles. From the point of view of sacrifice, it seemed to me that the Hindus greatly surpassed the Christians. It was impossible for me to regard Christianity as a perfect religion or the greatest of all religions.”
Where do persons of African descent living in the United States today and Africans go from here in establishing a genuine companionship in mission? Both groups must repent for those things, which they have done.
Persons of African descent were first brought to the Americas in 1435. Reflecting on that history since 1435, we see that there were those who came to Africa looking for human cargo to take as slaves into Europe and the Americas. While it is sad that strangers came looking for human cargo, it is even sadder that there were Africans willing to sell their own people and therefore became middlemen. These middlemen assisted the slave traders and sold their brothers and sisters for trinkets, guns and gunpowder.
Each of us knows the story of Joseph’s brothers selling him as a slave to the Egyptians. Joseph eventually rose to a position of prominence in Egypt in which he was placed in a position to bless his less fortune brothers. In Genesis 45:5 Joseph speaks to his brothers who sold him into slavery, “But now do not, therefore, be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.” To my brothers and sisters of African descent who are descendents of slaves, I’m not willing to say that God had a hand and purpose in our being snatched from Africa. I am, however, willing to assert that God has blessed us with resources in this country with which we can bless Africa.
Good can come out of evil. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that when the missionaries came to Africa they told the Africans to bow their heads in prayer. When the Africans lifted their heads after prayer, they had the Bible and the missionaries had the land. Archbishop Tutu said that the missionaries, in giving them the Bible, also gave them a powerful tool to work for their liberation. For they read the story of God freeing the children of Israel from slavery and appropriated the message of that story as their own. They came to believe that God was on their side as they struggled to throw off colonial oppression and come to new understandings that in the sight of God every life is precious. The Bible stories became an instrument of their efforts to achieve liberation.
Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” What his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good, because in God’s transcendent glory, God knew that God had the ability to turn the negative into positive; to turn darkness into light; to turn death into life because he is God. What the slave traders meant for evil has eventually been transformed into something that can be used for good.
And so, one reason you are here today, my brothers and sisters of African descent living in this part of the Diaspora known as the United States, is to serve as an instrument of God’s blessing for Africa. He wants you to use your life as a blessing unto the people of Africa. And so, today, let us say to the Lord, “Stony the road we have trod. Bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died. Yet with a steady beat have not our weary feet come to the place for which our fathers and mothers died, and you have blessed us. Let us be a blessing to someone else.”
My brothers and sisters living in this part of the Diaspora, we have work to do, not in a paternalistic way, but work with our brothers and sisters in Africa as companions in mission. You are now placed here with this purpose in mind. I encourage you to rise to the occasion. And most of all you have been given the calling from God. AMEN.
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