Having been born into the congregation of Happy Home Missionary Baptist Church of Savannah, Georgia, I spent a great bit of my early years in close proximity to the notion of mission work. There was a group of elder, black women (sometimes called mothers of the church) who would look in on people who didn’t have someone to look in on them. That is what I first thought of as mission work, taking time to go outside of the church to look after and care for those who are in need. I did not fully come to understand what people meant when they used phrases such as “cross-cultural experiences” until much later in life.
As I maneuvered into young adulthood far away from the church where I first gave my life over to Christ, I was living in a very different community in Northwest Arkansas. There were at that time, in the town where I lived, only three black churches. Most of the students I went to high school with were white and attended white churches throughout the community. One of my friends was a member of a Church of Christ whose membership was almost entirely white. She invited me to a youth activity and the experience lifted a veil from my eyes in a way that I can still feel over 20 years later. Up until that point I had probably only visited two white churches in my life. One was in Atlanta, Georgia, and the other was in Iowa City, Iowa. I had never participated in a program like the one my friend invited me to in Arkansas.
We talked about youth missions and people shared their experiences of traveling to share God’s Word. Everything was laid out and easy to understand. I think that was the first time I can remember feeling “safe” in a majority white environment as an African American female. These were Christians who were talking about doing so many of the things that I held in my heart because I felt a pull to do that work, but we didn’t have those kinds of mission opportunities at my church back then.
I came home and announced to my parents that I was changing my church membership. So convinced was I that the I had finally found a place where I could fully step into my whole self, I didn’t consider how my parents would react.
It did not go well.
Needless to say, I was heartbroken. My parents explained to me that they did not feel that it was right for us to attend different churches because we were a family and we were going to worship at one household of faith. Looking back, I know they were concerned that race would become a negative factor at some point and I know that they were protecting me.
In my youth, I allowed this experience to jaundice my view of the youth programs offered at my home church. I felt a lot of anger in those days comparing my experience and access to ministry work to that of my friend and a part of my heart hardened over what I now can see as a clash of culture between black churches and white churches that is harmful to our children. (But that’s another story for another blog.)
What that experience failed to do was dampen my interest in mission work.
I asked myself the question over and over again, “Why aren’t more African Americans engaged in cross cultural ministries?”
Why is the image of the Church doing mission work overwhelmingly a white person surrounded by a bunch of dark-skinned Africans?
The advent of 21st century technology has allowed me to help sponsor others to engage in missionary work in a number of countries across the years. I have given what I can rather that focusing on saving up to sponsor a big trip. I have also been blessed to be able to read about the mission trips of others. One of the best ones was from my cousin Michael’s trip to Restoration Gateway in Uganda.
I also dug into trying to better understand the differences between how black and white congregations make decisions on how to direct their philanthropy during my graduate studies at The Ohio State University using data from the National Congregations Study (M. Chaves). While my investigation wasn’t what I would call “popular”, the happenings of the world today prove to me that having a greater understanding of these differences could play a significant role in helping the Church to move forward in spirit and in truth.
As I approach another significant age milestone in the next couple of years, I still feel that gentle nudging in my heart that a part of my story has yet to be written on the fields of mission work abroad. My prayer is that the Lord will show me when it is His time for me to fulfill this part of my calling.
To read more on the absence of black missionaries follow this link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april/missing-missionaries.html
Marta C. Youngblood is a writer, education and social entrepreneur based in Lubbock, Texas. For more information on her current projects visit https://about.me/MCyoungblood.