Ann Jacobs expected to be deeply moved during her first visit to West Africa with Mennonite Mission Network.
What Jacobs did not expect was how a conversation in Accra, Ghana, would affirm the importance of her role with the agency back in the United States.
As an MMN church relations representative, Jacobs connects congregations to the agency, particularly African-American congregations. This is, in part, why Jacobs was in Africa with a small group on a two-week learning tour in July.
Jacobs, who is African-American, said that Thomas Oduro, president of Good News Theological College and Seminary in Accra, shared his delight in seeing an “African-American sister” among the predominantly white delegation.
“Pastor Oduro told me that brothers and sisters from Africa want to see more of us coming as mission workers and often wonder why not,” she said. “He comes to the states often to preach and enjoys speaking at white churches but said he would like to speak at his fellow black churches and visit and stay in homes with his brothers and sisters, too.”
MMN is reaching out to recruit more people of color to engage in mission work abroad and domestically. Church relations staff members have been visiting congregations, hosting gatherings and attending learning tours. The Missional Discipleship Initiative and the DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection) programs are actively engaged in discipleship training, service, learning and leadership development among racial-ethnic and immigrant congregations.
As the global Anabaptist family becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, the agency believes it is vital that people of color be empowered to serve across the world as well as locally.
However, diversifying the pool of mission recruits is challenging for an agency that has inherited traditions and methods of predecessor organizations dating back to the 1800s.
“There has been the historical perception that mission is something that white westerners do,” said MMN executive director Stanley W. Green.
Green, a South Africa native, noted that historically people of color have always engaged in mission work. He cited the African Methodist Episcopal Church in North America as having a long legacy of missions to Africa. Currently, Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Arca de Salvacion in Fort Myers, Fla., and Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va., are two examples of Mennonite congregations of color that have strong mission activities. They support servants abroad and have planted several churches, Green said.
Breaking out of the mold
From Africa to Asia, many congregations planted generations ago have blossomed and are sending their own mission workers abroad. Calvary Ministries in Nigeria sends hundreds of mission workers throughout Africa and to Europe and the Americas.
“There are many signs that we are breaking out of the mold and seeing communities of color being more fully engaged,” he said.
The need to diversify has been discussed for years, said Mauricio Chenlo, denominational minister for church planting, who works with Haitian, Garifuna Hispanic and Anglo leaders across the U.S. He added that MMN needs to continue doing more to bring people of color into mission work and overall leadership roles.
“We recruit better when we immerse ourselves in the realities of the people we want to empower and reach,” Chenlo said.
Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia is another example of an African-American Mennonite Association congregation that has both a domestic and international mission focus. A diverse congregation that serves a multicultural local community, Oxford Circle supports two workers from its congregation who serve among their fellow Dalits in India. Dalits are members of the lowest caste. Pastor Leonard M. Dow, who is African-American, has visited India often to preach.
When he travels abroad, he is struck by how people of color are excited to see people of color from the U.S. He, too, was deeply moved by the enthusiastic welcome — like Jacobs’ experience with Pastor Oduro in Ghana.
“You being there [abroad] changes their world view, too, because, for example, African- Americans are often portrayed stereotypically,” Dow said.
Congregations express pride in playing a part in God’s global mission plan.
“As blessed as we are at Oxford Circle, we’re not so unique that it can’t be replicated in other churches of color,” Dow said.