Jerry Bates* attracts a lot of attention in Central Asia. As an American, he doesn’t quite fit in. As a Christian who is African-American, he topples the worldview of many of the Muslims he meets.
Bates says when people in Central Asia ask about his religion, they expect him to profess Islam because he is black.
“I seem different,” Bates says. “They say if you have darker skin, you’re probably a Muslim. If you have lighter skin, you’re a Christian.” It’s a deep-seated belief in that part of the world, he contends.
But Bates sees people’s curiosity as an opportunity to share his testimony and spread the gospel.
Of the 4,900 Southern Baptist workers who serve through International Mission Board, Bates is one of only 26 African-Americans.
Although Bates has served with IMB for more than 12 years, it wasn’t something he planned to do growing up. In college, his goal was to become a businessman.
“I didn’t know exactly what a missionary did,” Bates says. “I just knew it wasn’t me. They always lived in strange places and did strange things and learned strange languages.”
A summer mission trip to Central Asia, however, broke Bates’ heart. After only one week of seeing hopelessness on the faces of people who had never heard the name of Jesus, who had no access to the gospel and who had never attended church, Bates knew he had to share Christ with the unreached.
He returned to finish his final two years of college and, after completing his degree, went back to Central Asia as a missionary. It was there he met Fuad.*
A local who transported Scripture across country borders, Fuad is an active evangelist who shares the gospel with everyone he meets. But his zeal for Christ resulted in an arrest on false charges, followed by 18 months of imprisonment.
Bates expected Fuad, a ministry partner, to ask for help in getting out of prison. Instead, when Fuad managed to send a note to Bates, he asked that Bates bring him copies of a Bible printed in the local language.
Prisoners were flocking around Fuad to hear the gospel; even prison guards wandered by to listen.
“Remember those copies you told me you were going to give me?” Fuad asked. “I need them now, because people are coming to faith and they need to read the Scriptures. … Jerry, they’re in there because they’re sinful people. And no one has told them about Christ. They’re hungry.”
When Fuad completed his prison sentence, Bates asked him if he would be more cautious when sharing his faith.
“Jerry, I can’t,” Fuad replied. “People are so open to hear the gospel, even when I was in prison. How can I not tell them?”
Bates, too, has been bold in sharing about God, even when it’s outside his comfort zone. He has pushed past his introverted tendencies to build relationships and share the gospel.
“It’s a joy to see how sometimes I didn’t feel like I was qualified to do things,” Bates says, “but God put me in a certain place at a certain time to live a certain way that allowed people to grow closer to Him.
“He could have called a lot of other people, but He called me,” Bates says. “And sometimes I don’t understand why, but it’s all in His ultimate plan.”
Bates said he believes more African-American missionaries are needed all over the world, especially in countries where people with dark skin are eager to hear the gospel from black missionaries.
“If you go down the list of all the African-American [IMB workers], all of us at some point in time said, ‘That’s not me,'” Bates says. “And we can give you various things, whether it’s because we didn’t think African-Americans could be involved in missions, we didn’t think there was funding there, we didn’t think there was a place for us. And all of these things are just lies the enemy gives to us.
“When African-Americans go out and share the gospel with [the world], that really opens up a whole new can of worms and really turns [people’s] worldview around, their very understanding of God,” Bates says.
“They show that it’s not just a particular society or a particular group — that the gospel is for all people … . The Great Commission wasn’t given to any one people. It was not given to any one segment of society. It’s given to all Christians to make disciples from all the nations.”
— *Name changed. Susan O’Hara is an IMB summer intern.