As we entered the KMP Church School situated in the heart of Bangalore, capital of the Indian state of Karnakata, we were met with gleeful squeals and greeted with warm hugs by the young students. The children were all beautiful varying shades of brown, neatly dressed in bright blue and yellow uniforms, brimming with enthusiasm. As part of an American-based missionary team of 15 members, we visited the school during the course of our journey to speak with the students and share the everlasting love of God.
“Pardon their excitement,” their instructor said, “they have never seen your kind of people before.”
There was a significant factor about our team that is rarely reflected in today’s mission fields. We were (for the most part) people of color, with a vast majority of the team being of African descent. This was an extremely rare occurrence, as Black people are highly underrepresented in missions. While Black travelers are an anomaly, Black “travelanthropers” in missionary work are virtually non-existent despite the fact that the earliest American missionaries were emancipated slaves of African ancestry.
The first American missionary, George Liele, was born in 1750 to slave parents on a plantation in Burke County, Virginia. Liele is a fairly unknown historical hero in missions as very little has been written on his life and journey.
Liele worked on the plantation of Henry Sharpe, a notable British loyalist. After being baptized in his young adulthood, Liele recited scripture and inspired other slaves on the plantation to sing hymns while imparting the powerful meaning of the words they sang. As a result of Liele’s calling to motivate and uplift others through ministry, his masters emancipated him to empower him to freely utilize his gift. He eventually planted churches in South Carolina and Georgia.
Near the end of the Revolutionary War, Sharpe’s surviving children attempted to re-enslave Liele and had him imprisoned. Liele was able to regain his freedom by successfully producing his “freedom papers.” Shortly afterward in 1782, he set sail to Jamaica with his family and resumed his ministry there. Although Liele faced much persecution at the hands of the government, he went on to plant a church in Kingston, and he also built a school for black children. Under his tutelage, other early American missionaries like David George, went on to conduct missions work in West Africa and beyond. [Source.]
Today, Black people are unfortunately underrepresented in the world of missions for the very same reasons why Black travelers are virtually considered a rarity. Perceived lack of access, limited financial means, fear of racism, and the list goes on. However, the unique experiences that Blacks encounter places them in a position where they could properly connect with the “disadvantaged” nations they aim to reach.
It was empowering to participate in a unique missionary team where we were able to identify with the people of India through our shared historical experiences of racism, colorism, colonization and marginalization. Despite the rough patches that permeate our history and current affairs, we represented a beacon of hope and strength through our testimonies. We were able to bond with one another as we learned about the unique struggles we each face in our respective countries. As a team, we understood the significant power of our diversity and the impact that this had on the school children as well everyone else we encountered during our travels. Our fellowship was a special experience we will never forget.