As a follow up to my article about Why Africa doesn’t need more western workers, Gena Thomas of #justmissions interviewed me about my thoughts on Missions, my upbringing, and how that has shaped my walk with Christ. I talk about Immigration, the global church and living out the great commission as the body of Christ and supporting the global church financially. click the link below to watch the video.
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Your website is one of my favorite online ministries and I highly admire the work you all do. However, I recently read an article on your website (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-africa-still-needs-western-workers) that disappointed me so much that I had to share why I wholeheartedly disagree with the article’s approach. Here are a few reasons why.
- I am writing to inform you of the huge and damaging impact your recent article about “why Africa needs Western workers” can have on myself and my African community. Please carefully read my response and reply accordingly. I am an Ethiopian who came to the U.S. to pursue my full-time ministry calling. I attended a large Christian university and have worked for three majority White megachurches. I have had the honor of discipling Westerners (to use the article’s terms) and understand where the intent to call for more missionaries comes from.
- I have led two mission trips to my own country, which were pivotal in helping me grasp how some short-term missions were damaging, a waste of money and an unnecessary phenomenon. This led my husband and I to shift our support to long-term local missionaries who are natives and have been blessed to build a partnership with our previous church here in the U.S. Our previous church continues to send pastors from the U.S. to train pastors and strengthen the men and women who are doing ministry work in their indigenous cultural contexts. This organization is doing the amazing work of helping to redeem people’s hearts for Christ through an appropriate way of discipleship. I use the term “appropriate” because these people are not asking locals to change their culture, language and livelihood to follow Jesus, but are helping them understand how Jesus can be a part of their world. They are slowly helping them grow into disciples who forsake all to follow Christ wholeheartedly. This type of work takes years and years of dedication, a love and calling to a specific group of people and a sincere desire to know and understand their history and culture. We are blessed to have such faithful partners.
- I am writing as a by-product of an African Christian mother who raised me to fear God, prayed on her knees day and night for her children and is still a prayer warrior. She made such a deep impression of Jesus on my heart, that I knew I could do nothing but follow Him. I am writing as the daughter of my dad, a Coptic Christian who believes we have been scammed by the “White man’s religion” and abandoned our roots of true Christianity. My dad still believes that the gospel as taught by a White man is a means of taking our land and abusing our people, therefore we need to protect ourselves from “them.” Because of the damaging work of some long-term missionaries, our churches have been persecuted. I have lived through the torment of growing up in a home with a divided view of Christianity. My dad accepts Christ’s lordship but refuses to go to an evangelical church because, to him, leaving his church means abandoning his heritage. Although I would much prefer that he go to church with my mom and be baptized as an adult and proclaim Jesus as his savior, I trust God’s saving work in his heart and let him worship God the way he knows best.
- I am writing as someone who believes that missionaries are needed but not just Western missionaries. I believe the best American missionaries who should be sent to Africa might be African Americans, since I have seen them go with an awareness that they need what Africans have to offer—which is their cultural heritage and roots—as much as they desire to share Christ with them. Africans are very proud and strong people and we open up only to those who come with a learning posture. The problem with the TGC article is that it exalts the White man and gives the air of “these savages need our civilization and way of life” rather than of “these lost men and women of Africa need Jesus.” What I love about my interaction with African Americans in the U.S. is that they have the learning posture. They are genuinely curious about Africa, where they come from, who their people are and how they can be a part of the beautiful culture. Some desire to even trace their lineage back to a specific country so they can adopt the culture as their own. They go with an attitude that says “teach me,” which is the only attitude that a servant of God needs to have in going into someone else’s home to hopefully subversively share the gospel. Does that mean White Americans do not qualify for the job? NOT AT ALL. However, I think there is a deep heart-work of racial reconciliation and awareness of privilege that needs to be a part of a White missionary’s journey.
- Starting from the introduction, the TGC article paints such a dark and desolate picture of Africa that I wondered if I was reading about my Africa. I quickly decided that this was a Westerner’s idea of Africa, which was a very offensive, unwelcome and disrespectful portrayal of the continent. The TGC article seems to totally overlook the fact that there are many churches doing good work and making disciples. It does not quote a single African author or pastor; it just talks as if Westerners somehow are a spiritual authority over the ENTIRE CONTINENT.
- Africa is depicted as one country rather than a continent with 54 countries, thousands of tribes, languages, dialects and cultures. This is a horrible generalization and oversimplifies the complexity of the work that needs to be done to reach such complex and diverse people groups. The article leads us to believe that if we can just go there, they will listen. The article does not share facts about colonization and Africa’s history of suffering in the hands of Westerners, which would make some Westerners unwelcomed in some areas. The local pastors who are doing the real work really do not want Westerners there long term. However, they have learned that to get the resources they need they have to play nice with them, so they let them stay. It is like a necessary evil and comes with the territory. Sometimes I wonder who is going to tell these people who are spending decades in another country that they are actually not wanted, only their resources are and their temporary presence. They need to equip and let the locals lead. For example, I spoke with one of our local partners about how much money he would need per month to reach the entire country of Ethiopia with the intentional discipleship method that has been effectively working there. He said $3,000 per month would support their entire staff all around Ethiopia. That would cover their salaries, travel expenses, food and even supplies for locals. With $36,000 a year they could effectively reach the country with the gospel and make disciple-makers, but they still have yet to find sources of income.
- The article portrays Africa as being first reached with the gospel by martyred White men and completely ignores the fact that the first missionary to Africa was an AFRICAN. Acts 8 tells of the Ethiopian eunuch who was searching the scriptures for himself and how the Holy Spirit sent Philip to him and helped him understand the gospel. After being baptized, the eunuch took the message of the good news back to Ethiopia. The TGC article says nothing about the Coptic Church and the beautiful heritage we have from the early Egyptian churches and current spirit-filled churches that are producing an army for Christ. The TGC article only talks about the prosperity gospel, totally discrediting the work God has been doing for more than 2,000 years in Africa and discrediting our fathers and grandfathers who gave their lives for it!
- This type of thinking of missions is the perfect example of when helping hurts. The TGC article diagnoses Africa’s problem as savages that need civilization when it states: “These early men and women laid down their lives to disease and a hostile population for the sake of the gospel. As historian Ruth Tucker notes, ‘Africa has claimed the lives of more . . . missionaries than any other area of the world.’ Yet still they came. It was these 19th-century missionary pioneers, Tucker writes, ‘who risked all to open the way for Christianity in Africa.’” My question is, what is compelling us to serve? Is it a desire to see people’s hearts turning to Jesus and glorifying God in their lives, or a desire to be the hero in the story? A book that opened my eyes about the right approach to missions is The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again by George G. Hunter. We need to love the people of Africa as they are before we share the gospel with them.
- The TGC article is written to appeal to the white savior complex and, unfortunately, it works for the majority of western Christians because it affirms the notion that “we are perfect as Westerners and can go change the world.” As an African missionary to the U.S., I would like to challenge that thinking by simply asking American Evangelicals to search their hearts and consider spending a week or two in the redline districts of their cities. I would ask American Evangelicals to first deeply be convicted of their own racially-divisive and man-centered theology and repent; to reconcile with their Black brothers and sisters and reclaim the gospel of Jesus as the good news and not the rich White people’s country club. Then, American Evangelicals can go to someone else’s continent and learn how to be a part of what God is already doing there.
- I would argue that the way the prosperity gospel is described as evil in Africa in the TGC article is the same as how Black Christians would describe Patriotic Evangelism in America; both are blinding and so appealing to the needs of a man’s heart to self-exalt and self-serve. I do not deny that most of Africa is struggling with the prosperity gospel, but one thing we can learn from those false teachers is that they are letting people live where they are, and going and “evangelizing” them in their own language and culture. They are not trying to “civilize” them and make them conform to their way of living. It is one thing when missionaries go into villages to build hospitals and schools to help what is already there, but the TGC article appears to be demanding westernization and even, audaciously, religious freedom.
- Religious freedom is a privilege Americans have and think is a God-given right, because that is what privilege lets you believe. The gospel is not supposed to be something we share to make this side of heaven perfect, civilized and simple to the liking and understanding of simple-minded man’s heart and mind; it is supposed to cost us our lives. We are supposed to be persecuted for our beliefs…and Africans understand that. When we give our lives to Christ we do it with that in mind, therefore our walk with Christ is full of deep pursuit and dedication to the Lord. Because we actually lost something to follow Him, every breath we take with Christ on this earth is worth something to us, and means another day to do His work faithfully.
- The TGC article talks about young people as a selfish, self-centered and irresponsible group. It says nothing about the movement that is within the African Diaspora involving young people who who are starting businesses, churches and moving back home to take up the leadership of our fathers and grandfathers. The article makes Africa seem helpless and in need of saving. That is simply not true. We have an army of young leaders who are taking up the cross daily and following Christ wholeheartedly. We are fighting false teaching with truth, appealing to our youth’s heart by keeping their dignity intact. We speak their language, love them the way they understand best and do not demand that they become something Christ does not ask of them. We are missionaries, transplanted around the world and praying for our neighbors.
Do we Africans welcome missionaries? Of course we do! To be clear, I know many missionaries working in Africa. One in particular, a sister I have known since college in Uganda, is doing an amazing work of equipping young girls and teaching them to study God’s word and to teach it to others. She has been discipling these girls for several years and I get her newsletter every month. I pray for and with her. The difference is she is there to serve and not to dictate.
I think it is very problematic that TGC is allowing a Westerner to diagnose Africa’s problem as a lack of Westerners and offer a solution that says Africa needs more Westerners. It is offensive, to say the least, and does not even touch the tip of the iceberg.
As someone who loves and follows TGC and use it in my day-to-day ministry and discipleship, I find it very hard to believe this post was vetted by people who are actually Africans. I would gladly offer my help to TGC, if it is ever needed, to vet these types of articles in the future. I am a student at a seminary and a part of the Gordon-Conwell Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience launching this fall in Charlotte, North Carolina. I would be honored to serve TGC in any capacity.
I believe Africans need to lead these conversations on missions, to diagnose the problem of our own nations and come up with solutions. We also need to invite Westerners, Middle-Easterners, Asians and so forth, into that process. Doing it the other way around goes back to a really bad history we have with the West, discredits everything Christ stands for and gets in the way of unity and furthering the gospel.
I hope my assessment and opinion are taken into serious consideration. I hope you will respond appropriately, and that the article will be taken down. I hope TGC will issue an apology for being a part of perpetuating a very negative view of Africa and contributing to the stigma that Africa is a dark place. Africa is, in fact, the most beautiful, colorful, dignified and diverse nation. Let us tell our story.
This is the edited and published version by Faithfully Magazine on August 6, 2017
Video Interview with Gena Thomas @genaLthomas from #justmissions https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02YlwyUjixM&t=425s
Many international students move to the U.S. to pursue higher education and follow their own American Dreams. I did the same almost 14 years ago to pursue my call into full time ministry. This journey has been multi faceted, as I have not only experienced a culture shock, homesickness and loneliness but also a forced identity as I carried a lot of underrepresented identities in the American Evangelical Church. When I first came at the age of 19, I knew myself as a young girl who was passionately pursuing Christ and on a journey with the Lord, stepping out in faith to follow wherever He lead. The sky was the limit, the world was mine to discover, explore and conquer and America was the best place to do it because I believed it’s where all my dreams would come true. My family sent me with all their hopes, dreams and unconditional love poured into me and with confidence that I was going to change the world. I left hopeful and excited trusting God as I entered the unknown, with full anticipation of what he has in store for me.
What I quickly discovered was that, I not only would experience regular culture shock but for those interacting with me in the U.S, especially in the church, I represented a group of people they’ve isolated themselves from, maybe see less than and are even angry at or afraid of. I discovered to them I was first Black, second a Female, third an Immigrant, and lastly if we got there a Christian. It was an experience that forced me to view myself as “Other” mainly because of the color of my skin seemed to keep getting in the way of me building community and being protected in the body of Christ. It also seemed to prevent people from hearing my story as I told it and not as how they expected it to be.
This “Other” was something I grew to hate, because it felt like the roadblock to being normal and noticed for who I am rather than who people think I should be. I couldn’t escape it, I wore my otherness on the outside therefore when people looked at me that was the only thing they identify with first, whether that was a good thing or bad that’s where most conversations started, it was exhausting and it still is. At the time I didn’t know what I was experiencing was a form of racism and prejudice, and in my naivity I put all the blame on myself. I thought if only I didn’t look different, have an accent or a curly big hair, I would blend in and have friends. I carried the burden of making people feel comfortable around me, when they asked me what my name was I spelled it for them before they asked me to because I knew they would ask and I just wanted to make this getting to know you stage go a little bit faster and easier. I wanted them to skip the out loud recognition of me being black, female, immigrant part and just get to know me, so I did the hard work of making it easier for them. I came up with a shorter version of my story, the kind that was whitewashed that they’d get easily. That way, I didn’t have to explain the nuances they couldn’t conceptualize and exhaust myself.
It was tiring and I didn’t have community to support and affirm me because I was immersed in a monolithic body of Christ that was supposed to be my community but fell short of it’s commision to care for me. I was weak, and in a good place for the enemy to take me out of God’s call for my life, so it’s only by God’s grace I’m here to tell my story. No one could bear this burden with me, so I walked into a season of self hate. I worked hard to assimilate in the areas I could control, like straightening my hair not because I didn’t love my curls but so I could avoid that awkward unsolicited hair touch from a stranger telling me they couldn’t resist. I made sure I got rid of the little accent I had so I wouldn’t be asked where I’m from, what my country looks like, do we have cars, why I’m here, when I’m going back and be painfully reminded of how unwanted I was in this version of “the body”. In college and right after, I successfully assimilated into the majority culture that I started hearing “you’re not really black” a lot, I didn’t take that comment as good or bad at the time because I knew very little about the History of America and what that comment implied. Honestly, I was happy with my ability to disguise my otherness and build relationships that let me be ME right away (an assimilated version of me). We got to skip a lot by me doing all the hard work and making myself “acceptable” so others can see past their prejudices to get to the beautiful story God was writing in my life.
It was such a difficult and soul wrenching reality especially because I grew up affirmed, loved and accepted for all these things I’m now experiencing rejection for, this new found rejection was something I had to bring to the throne of Grace and try to figure out how all of it could bring glory to the one who created me, ordered my steps and positioned me to be where I was. My pastor’s wife at the time used to say “God doesn’t waste our Pain” and I held onto that…I didn’t want this pain to be wasted and trusted that God would give me an answer. In that season, I didn’t have the energy to fight for justice, nor the emotional capital to spend, mainly because my identity was taken from me, now that I look back God allowed it so He could burn up all the false identities I carried with me and rebuild my identity in Christ alone! And to know Him so sweetly, to be comforted by Him, to know my rightful place in His Kingdom, I’d do it allover again. Back then though, I decided to assimilate to what was around me and ask the questions only God could answer. Why do you let me suffer in the hands of my own siblings?
Through all the confusion and imperfect paths before me God still continued to draw me close to Him, His supernatural provisions continued and I grew in my walk with Him. When I graduated college, I was given the opportunity for a Teaching Assistantship scholarship to do my Masters BUT because I had spent what was meant to be my precious, young and fun years fighting something I didn’t understand I didn’t have the energy to spend another day in a small town where my otherness was magnified so I sacrificed the opportunity for my sanity and moved to the most diverse city where I would find the largest Ethiopian community, and that was D.C. For someone who left her country to pursue higher education leaving this amazing opportunity to not only further my education but also to gain a teaching experience was very painful and a true sacrifice. I still hurt over that loss but I knew I had to preserve myself and my sanity before I could pursue my dream. When People of color talk about their experience in the Church there are real wounds that are attached to their emotions. It’s not theoretical for us, it’s personal, it’s shaped our lives, made us choose what we don’t want for the sake of our survival.
In D.C. I attended an Ethiopian Church for 2 years before the Lord called me into full time ministry in the American Church. I remember wrestling this decision and asking God to change His mind, but He specifically spoke to me through the book of Jonah and made it clear I needed to stop running so, I chose to listen and obey. I joined a fairly diverse church in the area and got accepted into their ministry internship program where I studied systematic theology, fell involve with reformed thoughts and pursued vocational ministry with like minded and dynamic young leaders. This was where the Lord strategically placed me under amazing leaders who saw me as a daughter of the King first and allowed me to flourish in ministry. I got to serve the most diverse congregation and started embracing my otherness of being black as a gift. Now I could breath a little, and I had role models that looked like me leading the body of Christ and I could see myself in the. I got to sit under them and learn how to excel for the kingdom and the best part of it, not dreading being a trailblazer but seeing it as a unique calling and blessing.
As wonderful as this season was, my second otherness that is being a female in vocational ministry was a road block which prevented me from fully being my outspoken, achiever and challenge loving self at church because there was a part of me that was misunderstood as being rebellious or angry rather than a critical thinker. I grew up debating my dad and uncles because that’s how our oral culture teaches critical thinking and this gift my family and culture gave me became a stumbling block for my American brothers and sisters in Christ who unfortunately defaulted to label me as an “angry black woman”. I was yet to meet an angry black woman in the sense they understood it, so I wondered what that stereotype was all about, and started studying American History. Part of my assimilation story is learning to reign it in a bit so I don’t cause confusion and discomfort for my evangelical brothers. Yet, I have found ways to preserve the greatest gift I have of being an outspoken woman and I intend to keep it and pass it on to my daughter. One thing I know is that God is big enough for my strong opinions and has room for me to debate and He is all knowing, there fore I can ask all the questions I want and He’ll have all the answers to them.
One of my biggest struggles still is being part of a christian culture that lacks a dignifying missional work towards Africans. When I see the typical pictures of a white teen girl holding a snotty black child hung on the walls of many of our outreach ministries, my heart hurts. My people who are warriors and hold the history of early human civilization seen as less than because their financial situation is looked down on as “impoverished” where in reality true poverty exist in the hearts of us who would dare to consider God’s image bearers as our projects and don’t take the time to listen to or learn from them, and we minimize the voices of those who represent them in our midst. My heart aches when I see immigrants being labeled as lazy, poor, beggars, thieves and criminals when in reality we’re the hardest working, family oriented and peaceful citizens. Yet no one tells our story because those with the pens to write it dont have the proximity to us, to hear our stories, to love us as a brother and a sister, to be pastored by us, to be challenged and lead. It’s easier for them to observe us, hypothesize and diagnose a solution for us as if we are lab rats that are there for their experiments, spinning in their wheels and being examined. If they were to ask, they would know that: we can speak, we can lead, we can teach and we can tell our stories. I wish believers would just let God inform their worldview, I wish they would do as His word says and welcome strangers into their homes and neighborhoods and get to know them, if only we could hear each other’s stories, how robust would our faith be, how beautiful our outlook in life and how whole would our picture of God become.
God’s goodness and his redemptive work in my life, has allowed me to discover what it means to be a godly black woman in ministry, He has allowed me the blessing of owning my call to living in the U.S. as my mission field. He is using my otherness to speak for the marginalized that’s not given the pen to write their story themselves. Understanding that in America because of how systemic racism has allowed walls to exist between different skin colors note* not necessarily different cultures, I walk on uncharted waters when I fully and proudly proclaim I’m first a Christian, but I’m also my otherness which is highly misunderstood.
My God is big enough for my otherness and He has made all of my circumstances work beautifully for His glory and it’s ok if you can’t put me in your category because I worship a God who has no bounds and He’s not interested in putting me in one. To Him I am not other, I am exactly who He created me to be, the right skin tone, the right hair, born in the right continent, speaking the right languages, walking the right journey of faith, having the right gender and most importantly carrying the great commission to the right group of people He’s called me to. My otherness informs my views and gives weight to the message of the Gospel I get to share with my neighbors. Most importantly, I get to have the honor of experiencing a fraction of the suffering that makes one cry “come oh Lord, Maranatha”
To those that I meet outside of the U.S. I’m an Ethiopian living in America because they see culture first, but to Americans I’ve found I’m first black, then an immigrant and a woman because unfortunately it’s normal to see otherness first. In this culture where most people are used to seeing only people that look like them everyday at work, in their neighborhoods, their schools and churches, sticking out like a sore thumb is something I’ve gotten semi comfortable with. That’s why I embrace being a bridge builder for the kingdom, working towards racial reconciliation in the church by dismantling white supermacy and how it’s crept into how we carry out the great commission locally and globally. My dream is that the body of christ reflects the whole world he created and not just one part of the body. My father’s word says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” Matthew 5:9 My greatest calling is to be called a daughter of the king and that trumps every nuance. I pray for the church to be filled with peacemakers who are together called sons and daughters of God from every tribe, tongue and nation.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.
May God bless you with the courage to speak truth in love, to pray for the provoker of injustice and to walk with wisdom and grace as you advocate for the oppressed.
May you not be tempted to take vengeance upon yourself but trust the one who said never avenge yourselves but leave it to Him.
May the word of God wash over your heart and mind and guide your piece as you encounter the news and social media, may your eyes remain fixed upon Jesus.
May you walk with integrity carrying the torch of truth and justice even in front of those who may mock, abandon or mistreat you.
May God give you the joy of experiencing the honor of identifying with His Son in suffering as you suffer with the oppressed.
May you be able to love, honor and care for the fellow image bearers of Christ as you advocate for them.
My you not fall into the trap of oppressing the very group that you mean to protect and speak for.
May your heart always be tender towards the sweet love of Jesus, and when you’re weary may you return to your first love who is Christ for rest and restoration.
When you’re tempted to give up, to shut down, to build a wall and not let people into your life anymore THEN, may the Lord remind you that “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 THERE IS NO LAW against loving, and being joyful, and seeking peace and patience, being kind and good, being faithful and gentle and having self control…NO LAW…so may your heart always abound in love.
As you help others realize their privilege to help the marginalized, may you be aware that God is interested in sanctifying you through the process as much as he’s called you to point out the sin of culture.I pray you would abound in love and forgiveness so you may see the face of the savior who loves relentlessly.
God is Love and Love is patient, and kind; it doesn’t envy or boast; it’s not arrogant or rude. It doesn’t insist on its own way; it’s not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love BEARS ALL things, BELIEVES all things, HOPES all things, ENDURE all things. Is there a greater calling to dying to self that this? To love someone inspite of their direct hurtfulness to you? Kinda like what Jesus did for us, when we were dead in our own sin and helpless without any hope, He gave HIS LIFE to save OURS, yea the sinful ones.