RICHMOND, Va. — A recent report from the Southern Baptist
Convention (SBC) Executive Committee affirms what Keith Jefferson realized when
he set foot on the mission field: God can use ethnic minorities in a big way.
Jefferson is the new African American mobilization strategist for the
International Mission Board.
The ethnic involvement report, containing a number of recommendations for
greater ethnic diversity within all areas of Southern Baptist life — including
international missions — will be presented to messengers at the Southern
Baptist Convention annual meeting in June.
African Americans “can serve God all around the world,” Jefferson says, “not
just in places that have people of African origin.”
The call to missions is not optional, he says. “It is an obligation; it is a
commandment; and no child of God can get around the Great Commission that Jesus
gave us — preaching the gospel to all peoples.”
Jefferson spent 16 years as a Southern Baptist missionary sharing Jesus among
Brazil’s Quilombola people, descendants of escaped African slaves. More used to
traipsing through the Amazon Basin than sitting behind a desk, the role of
African American mobilizer is new to Jefferson, who accepted the role following
the retirement of David Cornelius last December.
“My focus is to encourage, challenge and train African American churches and
individuals in being on mission with God,” Jefferson says. “Some think that
missions is for people who are spiritual giants. … Actually, it only takes a
person who is available and willing, has the strength to get on and off an
airplane and hold a conversation with somebody about the love of God.”
A lack of exposure to international missions and sometimes-overwhelming
domestic problems have led some ethnic congregations to be less involved
overseas, as Jefferson sees it. He points out that though African Americans
make up an estimated 6 percent of Southern Baptists, they represent less than 1
percent of IMB missionaries serving on the field.
“People have myths and misconceptions about people who do missions,” Jefferson
says. “Before I went to the field, about the only missionary I knew was an
older white guy with black-rimmed glasses, white socks and flood-bottom pants.
“Now, I’m an African American who met Christ in a Southern Baptist church at
the age of 18 and I never saw an African American missionary until I turned 42,”
“When I finally met this guy, I realized that African
Americans can be missionaries. People identify with their same ethnicity — I’m
black, he’s black. He’s doing it, so I can do it…. You’d think this wouldn’t
be necessary but people are people. It’s always helpful for them to see someone
from their ethnic group doing God’s work.”
It was Cornelius who first challenged Jefferson, then a bivocational church
planter and chaplain, to consider serving God on “foreign soil.”
“Honestly, I was a little bit irritated that he didn’t think that my mission
pastor work was sufficient,” Jefferson laughs. “I mean, here I am, a mission
pastor and a full-time chaplain — I am serving God.”
But when Cornelius asked Jefferson’s wife Deborah the same question, she
surprised her husband by immediately saying she would pray about it. After two
fortuitous encounters with missionaries from the two countries that Cornelius
had suggested the couple consider working in, Jefferson says God confirmed the
family’s call to missions, and within a year they were in Brazil.
“David (Cornelius) told me that in Brazil there are many people of African
origin that were asking our missionaries, who at that time were all Caucasian, ‘Are
there black Christians in America?’ And our missionaries said, ‘My goodness,
sure — there are many black Christians and black churches.’
“And they said, ‘But you are here and they aren’t. If there are black
Christians, wouldn’t they be here too?’ That was an awakening to me that there
is such a lack of African Americans serving around the world.”
Among Jefferson’s top priorities is a greater networking of African American
churches to connect them with African American missionaries already overseas.
“We have African Americans serving on the field, and their city and state
associations may not know that they’re there,” Jefferson says. “We want to put
African American missionaries in front of congregations by video, voice and
Though he admits he misses his ministry in Brazil, Jefferson says he’s excited
about challenging African American believers to consider missions in the same
way Cornelius challenged him.
“Working to bring more laborers to the field — at my age (57) — that’s not a bad
move. The roads are pretty rough into Quilombola villages,” Jefferson laughs.
“A missionary can be from any background because there’s someone that he can
reach that no one else can reach. That missionary with the black-rimmed glasses
— he reached people that I could never reach. I can reach people that he’ll
never reach. And so God uses our unique personalities to click with somebody in
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Graham is a writer with the International Mission Board.)
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