I only learned about this a few weeks ago. For most people, you’re probably like, “I don’t even know what a missionary is, so what if the first one was black?” But when you’re a missionary kid like me who grew up in church hearing stories of missionaries all the time, the fact that this was unknown to you throughout your childhood is kind of a big deal.
I grew up hearing stories about Hudson Taylor and the Judsons (I distinctly remember two-tone flashcard pictures to go along with these Sunday school lessons) who were missionaries to Asia. My parents were always good about colouring the flannel-graph Jesus in a little bit darker to be more realistic for the Bible stories, but we didn’t do that with the missionary stories because, duh, they were all from England or America (or Sweden) and all very white.
And then, in the online course we’re taking, I learned about George Lisle. He was a freed slave who became the founding pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Georgia in the 1700’s . And in 1782 he went to Jamaica (partly to escape being enslaved again by the American South) but began to preach and teach. He was supported by English funders to continue his work among the slaves and free slaves on the Island. This was 30 years before the Judson’s left for Burma, and about 70 years before Hudson Taylor’s first trip to China. He is actually the first American missionary.
What. And I can’t put a picture of him in here because I can’t find any on the internet. But you should go read his wikipedia page.
It reminded me once again how easy it is to just tell a single story.
Either the story that says: “We, the colonialists and missionaries have all the knowledge and all the smarts and whatever it is you don’t have. We will rescue you. We’re the best.”
Or the counter story:
“All white missionaries are evil agents of colonialism and go around wiping out indigenous cultures with their religion.”
Those are nice, easy stories, but they’re not necessarily true. The true story is a lot more complicated. There are good missionaries, and bad missionaries. There are missionaries that are agents of colonialism and white power, and missionaries who have preserved dialects and local culture. Christianity may have been wrapped up in whiteness, or used as a tool of white oppression but it’s not a white-people religion. Not only was one of the earliest converts recorded in the Bible African, but the first missionary from the Americas was of African descent.
Today, more missionaries are sent from the global South (Asia, Africa and Latin America) than the white western nations. Christianity is more colourful than our stories make it out to be.