The changing face of U.S. missionaries

Diversity: Once predominantly white, the mission corps has witnessed a big boost in minority participation.

August 09, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

When Vickie Stewart began saving souls on the streets of Brazil, skin color was among her greatest assets. Combining a mocha complexion with fluent Portuguese, she passed herself off as a local long enough to draw people in.

"I would come up and say: `Would you like to come to Bible study?'" said Stewart, a black Baltimorean who returns to Brazil on Wednesday for a three-year tour as a Southern Baptist missionary. "They automatically thought I was Brazilian. It was really easy to connect."

Once upon a time, the face of the American missionary was almost exclusively white. Today, as many as 10,000 long-term U.S. missionaries are minorities, according to Doug McConnell, dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. The majority of those are Korean-Americans, followed by African-Americans, Hispanics and other Asian-Americans.

Scholars say a more diverse mission corps has clear advantages, including the ability to penetrate foreign cultures faster. Whether it is Hispanics operating in North Africa or Koreans living in northeast China, minorities can often blend in more easily than whites. In addition, minorities are more likely to have linguistic skills.

`Go right into a culture'

"If you take a [white] missionary and send him over, it takes two to four years to get a real facility for the language," said George Braswell, distinguished professor of missions and world religions at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. In most of Latin America, "Hispanics can go right into a culture and start speaking."

Several factors have driven the increase in minority participation. A growing African-American and Hispanic middle class can better afford to fund individual missionaries. Racially integrated churches and seminaries are also generating more ethnic candidates.

And then there are the Koreans.

Of the minority U.S. missionaries overseas, more than 5,000 are Korean-American. Evangelized largely by Presbyterians in Korea beginning in the late 19th century, many Koreans developed a deep commitment to spreading the faith.

"Korean missionaries are everywhere," McConnell said. "I've traveled in 75-plus countries, and I've never been in a country where there weren't Korean missionaries."

Some of the nation's most ethnically diverse missions are run not by denominational churches, but by private organizations. They include Youth With A Mission, an interdenominational group with 11,000 full-time missionary staff, more than 40 percent from the developing world. YWAM, founded in Southern California in the 1960s, also fields more than 30,000 short-term missionaries who serve from two weeks to two years.

U.S. missionaries do a wide variety of work overseas, ranging from evangelization, community development and health-care training to construction of schools, hospitals and churches.

A late start

The Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board has more long-term U.S. missionaries - 5,400 - overseas than any other evangelical organization. But the mission board has been slower to shed its white middle-class image than some other groups.

For nearly a century, until 1972, the mission board sent no minorities abroad. And it was not until the past decade that the mission board began to permit foreign-born people to serve overseas.

"We started late," said Larry Cox, vice president of the mission board's mobilization office.

Since the 1970s, the mission board has made gains that officials say better reflect the slowly emerging diversity of the Southern Baptist Convention. The convention has 16 million members and is the nation's largest evangelical denomination. About 85 percent of its churches remain predominantly white.

Today, the board maintains about 30 African-Americans, 56 Hispanics and 227 Asian-Americans in long-term missions abroad.

As with other denominations, the Baptists' most active ethnic mission group has been Korean. In North America, Korean-Americans proved themselves by founding 750 Southern Baptist churches.

In 1989, the mission board sent its first Korean-American, Jacob Shin, a pastor from Rockville, overseas to work with some of the 600,000 Koreans living in Japan. About 150 Baptist missionaries were already there, but most were white and struggling to master one Asian language, Japanese.

"It is almost impossible for them to learn two languages," said Shin, who speaks fluent Korean. Shin spent a decade in Tokyo, where he founded the nation's first Korean Baptist church with a congregation of 120.

Dan Moon, who spent years as a go-between for Korean churches and the mission board, credits more open thinking at the top for the growth in minorities and a less hierarchical approach to mission work. No longer does the mission board recruit exclusively from Baptist seminaries, he said. In addition, the operation has shifted away from what Moon described as a paternalistic mode.

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