An Early Homecoming
"My sister wants me to be home," Marilyn Lewis said, speaking of her roots in Baltimore. She was in Mission Frontiers' Pasadena office taking care of details on what was for her something of a side project--serving as guest editor for this special African- American edition of the magazine.
As we talked and laughed and ironed out details that Thursday afternoon, there wasn't a hint of foreboding that her time on this earth would end in less than three days. On Friday, she was back in her teacher's seat at Pasadena's John Muir High School where this "lover of history" taught AP students. Saturday, again, she was at John Muir for a conference. Again, there was no warning of the heart attack that took her life that very night.
Her principal at John Muir describes her as "a real solid lady, she stood for something. She had integrity and a commitment to do the right thing." Marilyn had taught at John Muir since January of 1998--a position she took at least in part to prevent incurring debt while doing doctoral work at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of World Mission.
Marilyn certainly stood for something. She poured her life into the work of the Kingdom. "No doubt, she was a very sacrificial woman, willing to live on next to nothing," recalls Dr. Michael Pocock, Professor and Chairman of the Department of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, where she did her Master's degree.
This sacrificial passion drove her and kept her plate more than full. In addition to her teaching commitments and her graduate work, she was the founder and director of the Pasadena Institute of the Bible--designed for training lay workers in the African-American community. Apparently, Marilyn also generously funded this institute with her teaching salary. She had also joined the staff of the U.S. Center for World Mission and was laying the groundwork for the Center's long-desired African American Mobilization division. She also spoke of one day serving as a missionary in Brazil reaching descendants from Africa.
When she was dropping off some material for the magazine earlier in the week, she passed on a document entitled "Food for the Soul." "It was in here," she said, placing her hand on her chest. "I had to get it out. Use it however you want, but I had to get it out." Her words, on the adjacent page, leave us a window into her heart.
Marilyn's contribution to the Kingdom in her 49 years was certainly substantial. But the sadness of many was heightened by the fact that her future looked so very bright. Ray Carlson, the Director of International Films and a co-laborer for career development in Marilyn's classes, admits to being set back by her loss. "When I heard, my first thought was 'why, Lord? She was doing so much and had such great plans and everything.'"
Rick Wood, Managing Editor at Mission Frontiers recognized her passion for fueling vision for the frontiers of mission. "My hope and dream would be that she, as a grain of wheat falling to the ground, would raise up many sprouts of light within the African-American community--of vision to reach the unreached peoples," Wood says.
Clearly, her loss has been felt most immediately by her family and her classroom, where her tough love was evident. It was said that students loved and hated her, because she pushed them. One student wrote, "She taught us so much and she knew we were all smart enough to succeed. She was the best teacher and my favorite teacher this year. She will be greatly missed."
Marilyn never made it to Baltimore for a visit with her sister. Instead, in the words written on her funeral obituary, she "was suddenly called home to her Father."
But those who knew Marilyn don't think she would want anyone to be crippled by grief. Her heart didn't seem given to soft sentimentalism or excuses. Her principal recounted a conversation she had with one of Marilyn's co-workers at the high school after Marilyn's death: "You know, Brown, Lewis would expect you to step up to the plate. Because she knows that you know what to do." The teacher responded: "Yeh, I can hear her telling me now, 'Brown you know what to do, so let's do it.'"
Maybe Marilyn's words to the African-American church and their role in cross-cultural mission service would be something quite similar.
Recent efforts within the African- American community have made it clear what needs to be done. Pocock said Marilyn was "concerned because the pattern shows that there was even greater African-American involvement prior to this century." Now it's a matter of stepping up to the plate and doing it.
Some Food for the Soul
Parting thoughts from a faithful laborer and visionary
Mission is not one of the programs of the African-American church. Nor is it a group of women dressed in white for the fifth Sunday of the month. Mission is the purpose of the church. “Home missionaries”—those who are called to stay home—can be extremely beneficial to the helps ministries of the local church. But they are not missionaries in the truest sense of the word. We must learn to call a spade a spade.
It is unfortunate when we attempt to compare the African-American missionary thrust with that of other ethnic groups. The experience of each ethnic group is unique. The African-American community has faced obstacles like no other group in world history. Years of oppression in America has taught them that the constant fight for equality is ever at the doorsteps.
But today African-American children are born into a much different environment. They are not slaves, they are not segregated, they are not second-class citizens. Indeed, they can enjoy the “rights and privileges” of being a Christian and an American.
Just look at an African-American church today and you can see testimony to our new era: richly decorated, air conditioned sanctuaries with carpeted floors are now quite common. Many drive to church in the latest model cars. Today, instead of working the tables at restaurants, many African Americans own them. God has blessed us. Now it is time for the African American to bless the world in evangelization efforts. In the past many African Americans cried because they could not become involved in missionary work. But now the doors are wide open—and we are without excuse.
But we still have a problem. We have been an inwardly-focused church. Now we need to go out—into Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. But where are our missionaries? And where are the church budgets for sending and supporting them? What would Jesus do?
The African- American church and pastoral leadership need a new mindset. The African-American Christian must recognize that God has called us to be involved in world evangelization. If we fail to heed the call, then people will not hear the Gospel—and be lost for eternity. The cost of disobedience is great.
But 95 percent of Black church leadership today do not actively support missionary endeavors. To “actively support” means providing more than lip service—it is not what we say but what we do that counts! An actively supportive church is one that is actively involved in propagating the Gospel: sending and supporting missionaries; maintaining and posting correspondence with missionaries; praying consistently for individual missionaries and world evangelization; giving sermons demonstrating the centrality of the Great Commisson; and sponsoring Christian education courses for the congregation such as Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.
In my research, I have discovered a simple but critical correlation: In churches where pastors are passionate about the Great Commission, the church supports missionary endeavors—not only short-term projects but career missionaries and thriving missions programs.
The African-American pastor is responsible for the missionary thrust of his or her congregation. Missionaries must come from every African-American church. If your church is not mission-minded, one of the first things that you can do is pray. Pray that God touches the heart of your pastor, the ministerial staff and the people. Then, ask God what you can do to open the door to more mission awareness. Then get up and do it!