June 30, 2020

Black Lives in Missions?

Bill MacLeod with Rev. Dr. Phillip S. Nelson

Mission leaders have wondered for years why there are not more African Americans involved in international missions. Much has been written about the historical reasons for this while some groups have made valiant efforts in the past.

In the early 1980’s I became good friends with Phil Nelson, an African American pastor here in Portland who was always about the gospel, and unity in the body of Christ. He was our speaker at Mission ConneXion Northwest 2005, in part, because when he left Portland in 1993, he went to work with SIM International, a mission organization with more than 4,000 workers serving in more than 70 countries.

Rev. Dr. Phillip S. Nelson has had a storied career serving with numerous organization (see below), and currently as an SIM Associate, and Church Growth Consultant for the First Episcopal District of the CME Church residing in Charlotte, NC. I recently interviewed him to get his perspective as an African American who has dedicated his life to world missions to ask him why more Blacks are not involved in missions:

Bill: Is there a single reason why more African Americans are not actively involved or pursuing a calling to missions; and related: How much does personal support raising affect either African Americans’ involvement, and/or the mission agencies’ ability to recruit African-American missionaries?

Rev. Phillip Nelson: These questions are related because the support raising paradigm is an impediment, but it is not the only or even the most important obstacle.  The historical hindrances are numerous, including slavery and segregation, and all they entailed. The structures and institutions that over the years have been developed to sustain missions: i.e. agencies, Bible colleges, seminaries, networks of supporting local churches foundations universities which excluded Black people and many others all contribute to limiting black involvement. Years of disconnect make it difficult to connect now.

Bill: What in your experience caused it to “stick” when the prospect of becoming a missionary with SIM was presented to you? What were the circumstances?

Rev. Phillip Nelson: I had already heard from God concerning my call to be involved in His Global Cause. I had been a staff member with CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ 1973-75) and traveled to the first Lausanne Conference in Switzerland.  I had developed a Biblical World View through teaching Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 1985-1990 (which I continue to do national to this day).   As a founding member of The Third World Missions Association, I had traveled to Brazil, Indonesia, and Japan.   Through the CME Church, I traveled to Haiti in 1979.   I was teaching churches to develop a Global Missions strategy through Global Focus.  In 2002, I traveled to Ethiopia with CCC as a participant in Operation SonRise Africa. All these experiences led to connecting with SIM. Confirmation came when I was offered the use of a SIM office to pursue the ministry I was doing independently. The incoming US Director of SIM, Steve Strauss, asked me to join the agency and secured a two-year foundation grant to fund my office. He also set aside funds from his discretionary account for five years after the grant ended to continue the effort. The result was a one-hundred-person office with all white personnel becoming a diversified organization. We added an African American Board member Bishop David Perrin who eventually became Chairman of the Board for SIM International.  We introduced SIM to black churches throughout the US.

Bill: The Black Lives Matter Movement has a “mission statement” that is explicitly anti-Christian. How do we as believers embrace the sentiment of BLM without embracing the movement? 

Rev. Phillip Nelson: The cry for justice and the need for police reform is a multi-faceted issue which needs to be responded to with Christian bi-cultural and multi-cultural leadership. The fact that all people are created in the image of God and have intrinsic worth are Biblical truths that unite us if we simply take the initiative and come together to affirm them and seek ways to work toward lasting change. There is space for an expressly Christian response to the systemic injustice.

Bill: Do we want to encourage Black people to join mostly white organizations or would it be better for them to start new structures that are founded by African Americans?

Rev. Phillip Nelson: We need both. Some white agencies are seeking to diversify: i.e.. SIM, OM, Cru, Wycliffe, and others.  There is also opportunity for our white brothers and sisters to join with existing African American mission structures: ie NAAMC – National African American Missions Conference (see more in this Newsletter) Sowing Seeds of Joy, Ambassadors Fellowship, Shalom etc. We need more traditionally white agencies to be intentional about diversity while new generations of black leaders are raised up to mobilize the black community for Global involvement.  Another alternative, is for new structures to be formed with a multicultural leadership foundation.

Bill: Flesh out what a “white ally” would look like to you as it relates to a person of color choosing a missions career. 

Rev. Phillip Nelson: Using my experience as a guide without making it the norm, there were many allies along my journey. Dr. Bill Bright inspired me with his single-minded devotion to the Great Commission; Dr. Ralph Winters with his commitment to educating and mobilizing multitudes through the US Center for World Missions and the Perspectives Course;   Beth Nance, a former missionary/prisoner of war to China, founder of North Portland Bible College who recruited me to teach Perspectives during my time in Portland;  Dr. Steve Strauss and the SIM family who welcomed me, my wife and children and allowed us to exercise our spiritual gifts in pursuing God’s heart for the nations. All of these influences led to a lifetime of commitment to missions.

I so appreciate my friend, Pastor Phil Nelson, for his life-time commitment to international missions and for his thought-provoking insights here. If you would like to invite him to speak at your church or interact with him further, you may reach him by email at: Phillip.Nelson@sim.org[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]