Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about African Americans and Missions with Timothy Byrd,a missionary with Campus Outreach in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our conversation will be posted in five parts.
Part 1: Why don’t we see many African American missionaries?
David Crabb: What particular challenges do African American missionaries face both pre-field and on the field?
Timothy Byrd: In my personal experience, and in the experience of several of my African American contemporaries, the pre-field challenges are (1) finding long-term financial partners or support, (2) skepticism and (3) opportunities to be a missionary.
For example, many people in my church community loved the idea that I wanted to do cross cultural missions, but there were only a few who had a clear category to put me in. These were godly people who loved the Lord yet had never met a missionary who wanted to live in another country just to share the gospel for a lengthy period of time (3 years or more). Therefore, getting people excited was easy. Finding partners and churches to send me was the challenge. I have met very few African American churches that have mission committees or a missionary selection process. This makes it hard for the church to find out about you, encourage you or challenge you regarding your potential calling.
The second challenge which is skepticism. There are so many scams people try to pull on churches that some churches are very guarded. Therefore, when someone you know (and especially someone you don’t know) comes with a new or foreign concept, in many black churches it can feel like you must prove over time that you are a legitimate missionary. If a number of churches operate like this, the missionary may waver in hope and give up, or never get enough support to even go overseas.
The last thing that I would mention is the biggest pre-field and on the field challenge for African American missionaries: money! The bottom line is many long-term African American missionaries battle with raising support from African American churches. Love offerings and one time gifts do go a long way, but if missionaries are going to live in a foreign country with their only source of income coming from sending churches and individuals, there has to be significant partnership. I have had several friends who have full-time support raising jobs in the U.S. who have had to get jobs because they couldn’t pay every day bills. In some instances “tent-making ministry” is encouraged, but we can’t expect full-time ministry workers working part-time jobs to give the same time and energy as their counterparts who are doing ministry full-time with full support. When support does not come in for a cross cultural missionary this typically means you go home. Some requirements for work permits or visas are so restricted to special gifts sets it is nearly impossible to get a job. It is even more complicated when locals may feel like you are taking their jobs. I have heard it said money follows ministry, and I agree. But if the money does not follow soon enough, many agencies (and missionaries!) begin to wonder, “Is this what I should be doing?”