(RNS) — Two months ago, I stood in Providence Baptist Church in Monrovia, Liberia, listening to the stories of Africans and Americans — the latter freed from slavery in the United States — who had banded together to establish the first republic on the continent of Africa two centuries before.
Providence, the oldest Baptist church in the West African country and the second oldest on the continent, was founded in 1822 by the Rev. Lott Carey, who had come as a missionary to the fledgling country and had brought a team of African American settlers home. Now, 200 years later, the Rev. Emmett L. Dunn, CEO of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention, had brought a team of African Americans home.
I have traveled to several countries in Africa, and each one is imprinted on my heart in a special way. But hearing the stories of the African American settlers was cause to pause. I connected with the history of Liberia in a way I didn’t expect. I felt blessed beyond measure.
Landing in Liberia my spirit leaped like the baby in Elizabeth’s belly when greeting Mary, the mother of Jesus. The sights and sounds of Liberia greeted my senses, sending my head and my heart into overwhelming joy.
The Rev. Lott Carey. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
In Liberia, I was at home. Home in the land of my ancestors on World Communion Sunday. Home, where a sense of “double consciousness” — a concept coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe African Americans’ sense of dislocation from Africa and ourselves — liberated my thoughts and linked them to my theology in a free-spirited dance of deliverance.
It’s often said we must step back before we step forward. Walking in the footsteps of Lott Carey in the motherland afforded us the opportunity to do just that.
Born enslaved in 1780 in Charles City County, Virginia, Carey became a disciple of Jesus in 1807, purchased his freedom in 1813, and led the first Baptist missionaries to Africa from the United States in 1821.
After settling in Liberia, Carey and his pioneering missionary team engaged in evangelism, education and health care. He served as a missional and civic leader until his death in 1828.
Our pilgrimage relived aspects of this journey and the experiences of his team. We explored Providence Island, where Carey landed in Liberia in early 1822. Before we landed in Liberia, Dunn told us, “We expect that this journey into the past will bring home to us the love and sacrifice of those who walked this journey before us.”
The Door of Return at the Slave Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana. It was once dubbed “The Door of No Return,” signaling the last time enslaved persons would see their homeland. Courtesy photo
Our next stop in Africa took us nearly 1,000 miles east along the coast of the Assin Manso Slave River and the Cape Coast castle in Ghana, unofficially dubbed “the Door of No Return” by our Ghanian sisters and brothers, through which so many of our ancestors were shackled and shipped into the slave trade in the New World. It has become a portal for African Americans, pulling us back to Ghana.
Before walking to the Slave River, where my ancestors received their first bath after being captured and their last bath before being carted off to the Americas, we held a ceremony of protection over Lott Carey’s life. In my sanctified imagination, my African ancestors’ prayers came to fruition in the proclamation made that day. What was meant for evil, God had used for good some 400 years later.
How ironic is it? In a whitewashed slave castle used to destroy the African spirit, a group of spirited African Americans reconnected with a long-lost history, historically whitewashed in American culture and the church universal.
My Bible says, “Be steadfast and persevering, my beloved sisters and brothers, fully engaged in the work of Jesus. You know that your work is not in vain when it is done in Jesus’ name.”
It was in that spirit that the last leg of our journey in homage to Lott Carey ended with saluting our ancestors on the same shores where they passed, returning where no return was promised. In the Twi language of Ghana, “sankofa” is a word meaning “go back and get it.” We did.
(The Rev. Angelita Clifton is president of Women in Service Everywhere and an associate minister at Fountain Baptist Church in Summit, New Jersey. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Benjamin Watson is a Superbowl Champion and former NFL Player who is outspoken about his faith and has turned to speaking and sharing it full time in retirement. His brother Asa Watson is a former NFL player who is now a full time missionary. But both of them were formed for the football field and mission field by their father Rev. Ken Watson.
UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with the Watson men to discuss how their upbringing contributed to their success and what they are doing now in ministry.
Ten American missionaries are jailed in Haiti for attempting to rescue needy children whose lives were uprooted by the earthquake. The missionaries’ plight underscores the potential costs of discipleship, but also the consequences of good intentions gone awry.
A group of Americans, comprised of church volunteers from two Southern Baptist churches in Idaho, recently left on an emergency mission trip to Haiti. Their mission: to rescue children recently orphaned or abandoned in the aftermath of the horrific earthquakes that rocked the region in January.
Unfortunately, they ran into an unforeseen complication that torpedoed their endeavor and thrust them into international headlines: It was against the law.
As was the case in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, many across the U.S. have left the comfort and security of their homes in order to help the masses affected by the calamitous quake in Haiti. Relief work always has its risks, but lending a hand after a monumental earthquake in an already poverty-stricken country like Haiti is a difficult undertaking with a unique set of challenges.
So, the last thing that any of us want to do is diminish these missionaries’ acts of service by playing armchair missiologist and publicly second-guessing every detail of their decision-making. And given their denomination’s sterling reputation for disaster relief, I’m sure that this group of Southern Baptists had nothing but the noblest intentions.
Nevertheless, these Americans are in a real pickle, and I can’t help but wonder if things might have gone differently had they taken more time to count the cost of their actions beforehand.
According to variousreports, the group had not established much of an infrastructure to support their stated intent of building an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Not only that, they apparently had little experience with international charity work. And a Dominican official has recently gone on record as having warned the group that their plan was illegal. Despite their pastors’ best efforts to defend the team members through the media, they have been unable to provide any evidence to counter the perception that they acted, if not maliciously, then irresponsibly. And now new reports about lead missionary Laura Silsby’s dubious history with relief work complicates the picture even more.
Lacking expertise in either international adoption or relief work, I’ll leave it to others to pontificate on the specific hows and whys, but I can say that these kinds of rescue efforts are tricky, nuanced affairs. And if, as was reported, there were actual Haitian parents who begged the group to take their children in the hope that they might have a better life, I can understand their sense of urgency in wanting to establish this orphanage.
But it saddens me to ponder the possibility that, amidst all the rush of preparation and the emergency fund raising and the packing of clothes and the righteous momentum that would accompany such a crusade, no one considered the possibility of a backlash.
Innocent as their motives may have been, it’s hard not to view this incident as one more example of well-intentioned White people with an abundance of resources rushing into a situation with a savior complex, doing more harm than good in the process. When celebrities like Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie make headlines with their adoptions, there’s an implicit assumption that all you need to become an international hero is to be White and have money.
Far past being a trend, it has literally become a punch line. Christian Lander, author of the blog Stuff White People Like, recently appeared on the new TBS late-night series Lopez Tonight with the following bon mot:
“And White people love having Black friends, because they possess the most desired accessory of all — Black children.”
This pattern is problematic because it sets up the well-intentioned do-gooder from the outside (whatever their skin color) to think that if they are to give downtrodden children a better life, they must be the ultimate arbiters that decide what a better life should look like and where it should take place. (Indeed, this is one of the main gripes that many folks have against the Oscar-nominated film The Blind Side, in which a wealthy and compassionate White family uses its money and connections to create a better life for a homeless Black teen, who goes on to become a successful NFL player.)
In his best-selling classic Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby offers a timeless nugget of wisdom for those who are struggling to discern God’s will for their life: “Find out what God already is doing and join him there.”
The idea here is that if God stirs up a desire in you to go someplace and undergo some form of ministry, you need to understand that when you arrive, you’re not bringing God with you — He was already there in the first place. And if you go with a spirit of humility and continue to listen to His leading, He’ll show you how you’re supposed to fit into His plan. If God gives you a burden to feed and clothe and love on orphans in Haiti, then find the people who are feeding and clothing and loving on orphans in Haiti — because you’re probably not the only one.
The truth is, despite all the criticism that has been heaped upon these intrepid volunteers, there are some great positive takeaways. Among them is the fact that, while most people were content to give only $10 by sending a text message, two churches sent a real team of real people that actually had a real, tangible, viable presence on the ground. That, in and of itself, is impressive.
And while it’s easy to criticize their lack of planning, if everyone in an emergency waited to act until there was an airtight plan, nothing would get done. We need people in the body of Christ who can marshal resources and champion causes and actually get people moving in the right direction, just like we also need people who can help navigate treacherous hazards.
After all, the point of that passage in Luke 14 is that Jesus wants us to count the cost of discipleship — and become full-blown disciples anyway. Too often, too many of us have become adept at counting the cost as a means of disqualifying ourselves, and thus, maintaining the status quo.
As I was bouncing these ideas off of my wife Holly and getting her feedback for this column, she crystallized perfectly the tension that we must live in if we are to represent Christ well:
While we don’t want Christians to be seen as people who act without proper planning, on the other hand, we also don’t want Christians to be seen as people who don’t go to Haiti to help, but instead sit at home criticizing those who do.
Amen to that.
And as my pastor used to say, if you can’t say “amen,” then say “ouch.”
The team members from Chapel Hill Bible Church prepare for their missions adventure in Nairobi, Kenya.
Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims: 1. Humankind is made in the image of God. 2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of. 3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.