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Reviving an African American Missions Movement

As this nation languishes in the exposure and consequences of our historic inefficacies (both institutional and self-inflicted); fresh trauma threatens to deeply impact the trajectory of young ethnic minorities for decades to come. However, I believe there is a redemptive purpose to our generational pain, a transcendent wisdom within our conundrum, and a glorious future beyond the perplexity of today.

Increased government intervention, socio-economic initiatives, educational reforms, and voter participation have proven futile in the face of the systemic injustices, homicidal violence, and epidemic patterns of destruction present within America’s predominantly black and minority communities. Through the recent shakings of civil unrest and the national conversations around racism and injustice, God is examining our hearts and exposing our allegiances. Will we continue in a powerless form of religion? Will we adhere to an Afrocentric Gospel that appeals to our temporal identities and inflames a desire for social justice without moral righteousness? Will we continue to assuage a Euro-centric Gospel that multiplies a Pharisaical form of righteousness with little regard for biblical justice?

These times demand a revelatory vision beyond the hopelessness of our societal position within the biased and broken systems of men. Proverbs 29:18 instructs us that without vision or revelation, people live lawlessly and die. Disillusionment with “progress” and the weariness of deferred hope has revealed the great need for a radical call to purpose. These present crises bid us to return to a Christo-centric Gospel that embraces the Jesus of the Book of Revelation. We must look to the One who purchased for Himself a people out of every tribe, every tongue, and every nation, and broke the dividing walls of hostility by His own blood. We must release the Gospel of the Kingdom which tangibly expands the justice and the righteousness of God’s society into our physical space. Jesus is the Nazarite whose love compels men and women of every color to walk the apostolic road, regardless of their socio-economic station. We must follow the ancient paths of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, even unto death, so that Jesus might receive the fullness of His reward. As a result, I want to present a bold and audacious challenge to the Body of Christ: raise up a global missions movement out of every predominantly black and minority community in America.

In the Fall of 2003, during a prayer meeting in downtown Nashville led by Bishop Rice Broocks, I had a profound prophetic vision. I saw a young black man staring straight ahead with a gun pointing to his forehead in a clearly urban context. Suddenly the background shifted from America to a sub-Saharan background like the Middle East, and he was still staring straight ahead with a gun to his forehead. I heard the Lord say, “These are warriors without fear, you will lead armies.” At that moment I snapped out of the vision to hear Bishop Rice say, “JT, why don’t you come up here and pray for God to send African-Americans to the nations.” In February 2004 at 23 years old, I was commissioned by Bethel World Outreach Center as a full-time missionary to what was then the most violent and socioeconomically oppressed neighborhoods of Nashville, Tennessee. It was in this context that I witnessed the explosive power of the Gospel, made manifest through the yielded servant, to rip young gang-committed African Americans out of the grip of darkness and set them into the Kingdom of light. However, I also witnessed the impotency of the local church due to our inability to immerse these spiritual babies in a holistic discipleship experience. I realized that spiritual formation in this community demands meeting the felt needs of families, addressing the core concerns and unique challenges of the community, and biblical worldview training.

In 2013, I dreamed that I was in England studying Isaiah 19 with Canon Andrew White who is known as the Vicar of Baghdad. Suddenly, Andy Byrd from Youth With a Mission in Kona, Hawaii and Brian Kim from the ACTS School in Colorado Springs walked in and said, “Hey JT, guess what we’re launching?” I said, “What?” They turned and wrote on a chalkboard behind me: “One Million African-Americans for Israel.” At that point in the dream, I began to burn with jealousy and I said, “Wait, you’re doing that? I thought I was supposed to do that?” Then I woke up with a strong sense from the Lord that He was commissioning the African Diaspora to the middle east to play a unique and critical role in the global end-time harvest. However, this commissioning must start with evangelism and reformation movements to the most challenging neighborhoods in America, followed by the establishment of disciple-making missional communities. In these communities, we can cultivate prepared laborers to participate in what the prophet Isaiah saw thousands of years ago: “repairing the generational desolations and rebuilding ruined cities” (Isaiah 61:4).

Several studies and recent articles have been published acknowledging the huge disconnect between the current global missions movement and the black churches in America. The Southern Baptist convention reports that only 27 of their 4,900 missionaries are black. Leroy Barber, president of Mission Year, says that African Americans represent less than 1% of domestic and foreign missionaries.(1) There are several major barriers to the missional dilemma facing many in the African American church. One is the notion of taking care of our own communities before going somewhere else. Many believe that it is treacherous for blacks to commit their resources to other communities or people groups when the need at home is so great. However, this paradigm cannot endure the test of biblical faithfulness since through scripture we have been commissioned to go where we live, to those who live further away, and to the ends of the earth. As a result, most African-American churches don’t have a sending mechanism, nor are they producing disciples with a theological framework for engaging in global mission. Furthermore, many of the most prominent Western missionary training organizations are almost completely disconnected from relationship with historically black denominations, ministries, and communities.

Another major barrier to such sending capability has been access to funding. There is great disparity between many predominantly white churches and predominantly black churches in both finance and priority. I believe that the current globally accepted model for financing mission work—building personal financial partnership teams—may not be sustainably scaled to the African-American context en masse. If we are serious about launching a significant amount of minority volunteers into full-time mission, there must be a new financial infrastructure that includes entrepreneurial business incubation which could help create new and sustainable streams of revenue. But this barrier is incredibly small compared to the historic sins that caused the divide from the beginning.

Mary Mcleod Bethune was born in 1875 as the 15th of seventeen children who had mostly been born into slavery. She was educated in a one-room black schoolhouse called the Trinity Mission School, which was run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. She was the only child in her family to attend school, so each day, she taught her family what she had learned. She eventually attended Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) on a scholarship and then she attended Dwight L. Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now the Moody Bible Institute), hoping to become a missionary in Africa. However, when she attempted to be sent, she was told that black missionaries were not needed on the foreign fields. Therefore, she became a teacher and eventually founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black private college in Daytona Beach, Florida. Beyond the fact that the first missionary ever sent from American soil was a former slave named George Lisle (1783) and a black missionary named Lott Carey (1819) founded Liberia, this pronouncement that “blacks are not needed” has had a profound and generational effect on the global missions movement as a “spiritual breach.” According to Isaiah 58:12; before we become restorers of the streets, we must become repairers of the breach.

On February 23rd 2019 in Orlando, Florida, Andy Byrd (the guy in my dream) lead a stadium gathering called The Send. Focused on the commissioning of a whole new generation of Gospel laborers, this gathering was held at Camping World Stadium. Ironically, or rather providentially, it was adjacent to the former Tinker Field; the only place Dr. King visited in his one trip to Orlando. Practically, I believe The Send and its future gatherings are catalytic in helping to launch the Body of Christ into a greater covenantal realization of this multi-cultural dream in God’s heart.

Beyond the powerful moments of foot washing and the extensions of forgiveness that have happened through years of reconciliation events/moments, I believe it is critical for us to develop a wineskin that can receive and release the wave of volunteers that have yet to arise out of our black and minority communities. In addition to launching individuals, we need to launch some infrastructures that do not currently exist while adding strength to some of those that do. Leveraging this moment rightly could lend significant aid to the spiritual, emotional, and psychological healing of an entire people group while catapulting us into the reality of our prophetic destiny. I see several critical alignments in general that need to take place in order for this happen.

We need to see a convergence around this dream between:

1. Established Missions Training/Sending Organizations and Agencies

2. Historically Black Churches/Ministries

3. Ministries engaging Historically Black Colleges and Universities

4. Ministries engaging college campuses and urban communities

5. Community Development Groups

6. Business/Corporate/Entrepreneurial Leaders

7. Suburban Congregations

Apostello: pronounced ap-os-tel'-lo means to send out (properly, on a mission) literally or figuratively: put in, send (away, forth, out), set (at liberty). The year 2019 marked 400 years since the first ship of African slaves arrived on the shores of North America. Though we’ve operated in measures of freedom, we’ve still been hindered by the accumulated pain of our forebears' involuntary service in addition to the restrictive structures. Therefore, I’m declaring by the Spirit of God that 2020 will be the year of the African American Apostello, where we begin to voluntarily step into and release the glory of our great possession and worth in the nations. The race related crises of today must drive us into a higher revelation and manifestation of our heavenly adoption as sons and daughters of God. Through diligent exploration of where we’ve been, humble recognition of where we are, and faithful proclamation of where we are going, I am hopeful that we can enter this glorious apostolic path and push forward one of the greatest Gospel movements that the earth has ever seen. -

Jonathan Tremaine Thomas

President/CEO, Civil Righteousness

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