Lately I’ve been reading Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah, one of the speakers from the GO Conference. As a totally frivolous aside, it struck me pretty funny the first time I looked at the book’s spine–given the author’s surname.
It’s not a frivolous book though, as you might imagine. Lament usually isn’t. Reading it during the second part of Lent has felt pretty appropriate. Especially when the readings in the Anglican lectionary started being from Lamentations, which is what Prophetic Lament is a commentary on. This morning what I read in that book absolutely leveled me. I’m worried I’ll not be able to explain adequately either the extent or the reason.
This morning, in Prophetic Lament, I learned about George Leile for the first time.
George Leile (alt. Lisle) was born a slave in Virginia, freed in Georgia, became a church planter there, and then eventually a quite effective (and thus opposed-by-whites) missionary in Jamaica. George Leile was the first Protestant missionary in the Western world, and finding this out is what devastated me.
You see, I grew up in a very missions-oriented family, and a very missions-oriented church. My parents were missionaries. I’ve been a missionary. I’ve taken classes on “missiology” to the point where I can identify which missiological ideas I agree with and which I don’t. I’ve been on missions committees in churches. One set of grandparents almost became missionaries, and then didn’t because they discovered that the agency they had been planning to work through had, at best (which isn’t very good), a paternalistic attitude toward the people groups to whom they sent their ministers of the gospel. At worst, it was…worse.
I say all this, not to brag, but to make clear two things (which I suppose might, for a second, still sound like bragging): 1) Christian missions is an indelible part of my heritage, and 2) there have been at least some active attempts in my family across multiple generations to combat, or at least resist, racism.
And for all that, I had never heard even a whisper about George Leile. I was told, in my missiology classes, that William Carey (a Brit) was the first Protestant missionary from the Western world to anywhere. I was further taught that Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary. Both of those men have really amazing stories, and the women in Adoniram Judson’s life (there were a few, because they kept dying) were in many ways more remarkable than he was. I am grateful for the work of these men and women and I’m glad I know about them.
But that thing about Carey being the first Protestant missionary and Judson being the first American missionary? Totally bogus. George Leile was the first Protestant and the first American missionary–he went overseas at least a decade before William Carey. I don’t know how to describe the logjam of emotions that tumbled into my heart when I read about him, but I will tell you that I discovered myself crying.
Good Friday 2018 is almost over. On this day, Christians everywhere–of all colors–celebrate that God loved us so much, He came Himself, in the Person of His Son Jesus, to suffer the logical conclusion, the consequences, and the ultimate punishment of our sin. (Yeah, I said sin. We’re going to talk about that here one of these days, too.) I should’ve said Christians everywhere, of all colors–and for millennia.
Jesus died on that Cross over 2000 years ago, and the Bible makes it really clear that the purpose of that death was reconciliation–first between humans and God, but second between humans and each other. How is it that 2000+ years later, in the United States of America, we’re less reconciled than ever? How is it that after all this time, the white church has contributed instrumentally to the diminishment of whole people groups, instead of being what I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to create–a Whole Church, and the flagship and prime example of real image-of-God honoring, fully cooperative, reconciliation in Jesus Christ?
How is it that Christians are still so divided along color lines that in almost half a century, a missionary kid like me never heard of the actual “Father of Modern Missions” (a title usually given to Carey)? Or if I did, it was never in those terms, and I don’t remember it.
And so I want to say I’m sorry, and to ask your forgiveness. I know I’m apologizing for a system larger than I am, that’s been around longer than I have, but I think there’s something important about owning corporate guilt, and the white church in this country (if not around the world), for all its amazing and beautiful contributions to the Kingdom of God, has shortchanged itself–and the Kingdom of God–and done a lot of damage to the crucified Body of Christ by dismissing and ignoring (to the point of actual ignorance), a “great cloud of witnesses” through whom God has also been working, just because they a different color than we are.
Christians of color (I’m not sure that’s an appropriate term–technically neither black nor white are actual colors, and technically none of us are actually black or white–we’re all people of color, but I think you know what I mean), I’m sorry I didn’t know about George Leile. And if by some chance you didn’t know about him, either, then the white church and I have some real accounting to do, and I’m sorry for that, too.
A blessed–and reconciled–Good Friday, everyone.