College junior Lauren Dugas had never met an African-American missionary prior to this year’s Black Church Leadership and Family Conference. Neither had many of the other 900 men, women and children from predominantly black Southern Baptist churches who spent the week at LifeWay’s Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center.
Of the 4,900 Southern Baptist workers serving overseas through the International Mission Board, only 26 are black; eight of them were on hand for the week’s events July 22-26, encouraging others to engage in international missions. The theme for this year’s conference was “Leave all, follow fully, make disciples.”
At the conclusion of IMB’s July 24 presentation, Southern Baptist Convention president Fred Luter described how he met his first African-American missionary at the conference years before. David Cornelius, a retired IMB missionary and staff member, had urged Luter to visit the mission field. But Luter never did, believing he was too busy.
After his election as SBC president, part of Luter’s role included going on an international trip. He spent two weeks in Africa.
“It was one of the most rewarding times in my life,” he said. “I regretted, pastors, that I didn’t do this a lot sooner … . So let me challenge you: Don’t let it take you to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention to go to the mission field.
“Ask God right now, ‘God, put upon my heart and upon the heart of my church a passion to go onto the highways and byways of life.’ Pastors, the harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few,” Luter said. “Let’s take up the commandment and the commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s make disciples.”
Raising the number
Dugas sat in the audience and listened to various presentations as she flipped through a booklet about IMB.
A student at Louisiana College in Pineville, La., Dugas knows God has called her to the international mission field. As a child, she was even dubbed “little missionary” by one of the men in her church.
Her mother Tammy also attended the event, becoming more comfortable with the idea of her daughter serving overseas as the week progressed. She said meeting African-American missionaries and attending breakout sessions was helpful.
“I believe it’s preparing me for what I believe God is doing in my daughter,” she said.
When Dugas arrived at Ridgecrest, she was surprised that so much of the conference revolved around missions.
At an exhibit for Black Missions Link, a website of resources for African-American pastors and their churches, Dugas spoke with several IMB workers who encouraged her to apply for the Journeyman Program (for college graduates willing to commit to two years of overseas service).
“You don’t see too many African-American missionaries,” Dugas said, adding that it was “amazing” to meet black missionaries at the conference. “[We] as African-Americans, we do care about our third-world countries and we are praying for them. And we should go over to these countries and share our faith. We shouldn’t be in our comfort zone. We need to get uncomfortable….”
Besides lack of exposure to black missionaries, Keith Jefferson, IMB’s missional strategist for African-American churches, said other barriers for church members include financial difficulties and fear of the unknown.
Nearly all of IMB’s black missionaries are veterans who have served 12 years or more, he said. Just a few years ago that number stood at 31, but as workers completed their terms or resigned, there were no new African-American missionaries to take their place.
“There are around 300 Asian missionaries, around 90 Latinos and then there are 26 African-American missionaries,” Jefferson said. “From the perspective of African-Americans, we know there are roughly 1 million African-Americans in the SBC, about 6.5 percent. If we were to represent in Southern Baptists’ missionary force what we represent in the convention’s membership, it would be over 300.”
Instilling a passion
Luter also spoke of the importance of raising up young black missionaries.
“In the churches I grew up in as a kid, I never heard a thing about foreign missions,” Luter said. “So I think it’s just a process of educating our churches, to start our kids very young, to put this in the back of their minds that foreign missions can be an option.”
Luter’s son Fred “Chip” Luter III did just that during the conference.
While their parents attended sessions, youth ages 12-18 attended Centrifuge camp led by Chip, pastor of youth and young adults at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
On the final evening of the conference, Chip challenged the students about missions service. He and several other pastors had recently returned from taking a group of about 40 youth to South Africa.
“What about leaving the comfort of home to make sure a world that doesn’t know Jesus Christ has a chance to hear witnesses?” he asked, telling the youth to seek out people “far from God, but close to you.”
Jefferson said unique doors often are opened to African-Americans sharing Christ overseas. In places like East Asia, dark skin attracts interest and curiosity, drawing people to listen to the gospel. In other countries, people with dark skin are eager to hear the gospel from black missionaries.
“When African-Americans go to places that have people of color,” Jefferson said, “there are people in those countries that say, ‘You know, the white missionaries have always come, but when you come, the people here know that [Christianity] is not a religion for whites only, it’s a religion for all the people of the world.”
— Susan O’Hara is an IMB summer intern. To learn more about how your church can be involved in international missions, visit blackmissionslink.org or call Keith Jefferson at 1-800-999-3113, ext. 1422.