Building foundations for authentic discourse and collaboration
by José LaMont Jones, mission co-worker | Mission Crossroads
CONGO — The Congo Mission Network’s 2020 annual conference was held virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the world’s reaction to the killing by police of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, the conference focused on the legacy of white supremacy and racism, using the Confession of Belhar as its guide. Born out of the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and approved by the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon, Belhar and its themes of unity, reconciliation and justice call for holy action, transformation and new life.
Dr. Elsie Anne McKee, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian University of Congo, is a third-generation Presbyterian missionary. View her Nov. 7 presentation at the conference, “Evidences of Racism in the Early Presbyterian Missionary Circles, U.S.A. and Congo,” which is abstracted in this article.
King Leopold II of Belgium carved out a fiefdom in central Africa, which he ruled as the Congo Free State from 1885 until 1908. Businesses such as the Compagnie du Kasai routinely employed Africans to compel other Africans to harvest prized natural resources, such as rubber. The most famous example was the use of the Zappo Zaps, people of the eastern Kasai region, to enforce rubber collection and to punish those who did not produce the demanded quota by chopping off their right hands.
William Henry Sheppard, one of the earliest African Americans to become a Presbyterian missionary, led efforts to expose this labor trafficking. Sheppard and fellow missionary William Morrison were sued, and later exonerated of libel, prior to the Congo Free State being turned over to Belgium as a colony in 1908. The Brussels government began to regard African American missionaries with suspicion after Sheppard’s trial. By 1922, the colonial power refused to allow African Americans to be appointed as missionaries. When Alonzo Edmiston retired in 1941, for the first time in 50 years, there were no African American Presbyterians in Congo, and no more were admitted until 1958. The white church leadership in the U.S. and the white missionaries accepted the Belgian policies without protest.
For the African Americans, there were many hurdles. The most basic was the conviction by white Christians that they must always be in charge. Sheppard petitioned for years to be sent to Congo, but the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) refused until they found a white man, Samuel Lapsley, to lead the mission. After Lapsley’s death in 1892, Sheppard led the mission, to the considerable discomfort of the sending church.
When Sheppard spoke about Congo mission, the white congregation would listen, but when they sat down to eat, Sheppard was sent to take his meal in the kitchen with the servants. When he published the story of his early years in Congo, it was presented by the church as being led by Lapsley.
Medical missionary Althea Brown Edmiston’s term of service in Congo — 35 years — is among the longest ever served by a Black woman in the U.S. Presbyterian Church. She first had to join the church to serve on mission in Congo. A Nashville congregation agreed to admit her to membership; however, its “whites only” policy meant that she could not enter the Sunday service or sanctuary but had to be sneaked into a Thursday prayer meeting. When she fought for her Bakuba grammar guide and dictionary, she had to wait 20 years and find her own subsidies because white missionaries insisted they needed only Tshiluba and weren’t interested in Edmiston’s linguistic studies. When the Edmistons sought to return to Congo in 1911, there was a long delay because the PCUS was determined to find six “first-class people,” that is, “white” missionaries, obviously trying to limit African Americans to accommodate Belgian prejudices.
The climate of racism in the southern U.S. and the PCUS was an important factor in the attitudes toward the appointment of African American missionaries in the era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings. Having fully established the principle that white missionaries must be in charge, the PCUS accepted a number of African Americans to be appointed in the first 20 years of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission. It seemed that those of African heritage could better withstand the tropical climate.
The standards for admitting African Americans to mission were somewhat contradictory. White leadership was uneasy with classically educated Fisk graduates like Althea Brown Edmiston, but they also excluded older or less well educated African American applicants like Maria Fearing, who decided to finance her own way, establish a ministry to girls and learn the language.
By the mid-20th century, African American missionaries returned to Presbyterian mission in Congo.
Looking at past relations through the lens of race helps bring out essential truths … a past that must be reconciled with justice if we are to proceed with authenticity. This also is a practical step for a Presbyterian denomination living into its Matthew 25 vision to dismantle systemic racism and oppression. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There can be no peace without justice.”
We walk this road in the hope that God will open our eyes to truth, our minds to wisdom and our hearts to understanding.
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This article is from the Spring 2021 issue of Mission Crossroads magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers’ homes within the U.S. twice a year by Presbyterian World Mission. To subscribe, visit pcusa.org/missioncrossroads.
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