As The Navigators observes African American History Month, the past is remembered, the present is reinvigorated, and the future is full of God’s hope.
“For sixteen years, we’ve given ourselves to increasing the number and strength of African American staff and laborers in The Navigators,” says African American (AFAM) Network National Director Dr. Rich Berry. “In the last 15 years, African American staff numbers in The Navigators have risen from less than 10 to 96.”
Next Gen AFAM Discipleship
“Georgia has more AFAM staff than any other state,” Rich says. “These are mostly young staff who have committed themselves to advancing the Gospel on campus and in the community. The ministry that my wife, Jane, and I started in the late ’70s has been revived through the work of these young new staff in Atlanta.”
BJ Thompson and Kareem Manuel are two of these next generation staff, working with college students on four historically black colleges in the Atlanta area (Atlanta University Center).
The Navigators hadn’t been present on the AUC since the 1980s, so it was essentially new territory when BJ and Kareem began looking for opportunities to share Christ there.
“We didn’t know a soul, so we decided to start by meeting students in the cafeteria over conversation,” BJ says. “We prayed that God would send us the men He wanted.. In the first few weeks, we were sitting in the cafeteria, and a group of young men overheard our conversation and asked if they could join us. They were looking to connect with a mentor. The strange thing was we also happened to meet a group of young men who desired to impact the world but didn’t know how. From there we took three of them to the Navs fall collegiate conference, and afterward started meeting regularly for Bible study. It was clear that God had answered our prayers.”
Justice, Remembrance, and Grace
African American History Month is a time for America to reflect on the often overlooked contributions of African Americans.
Kareem remembers first discovering the depth of his heritage and the impact of AFAM citizens, too often pushed off the pages of history.
“The gas mask, which has saved many American lives, was invented by Garret A. Morgan, a black man who also invented the traffic light,” Kareem says. “Daniel Hale was the first man of any color to successfully perform open heart surgery. The only time I heard these stories was African American History Month.. I discovered that my people were more than just former slaves. That we could write, invent, create, save lives, and strengthen our nation.”
As Christians, BJ says we also need to realize that African American History Month is more than a highlight of the meaningful past contributions of African Americans.
“It’s a time to grieve,” BJ says. “A time to remember. A time to repent. And a time to work together as a collective community to honor the diverse people groups who share a global narrative.”
This month holds profound meaning for Rich as well.
“African American History Month should remind all people, regardless of their background, that God has worked deeply in the lives of African Americans to call the Christian community and the world to practice justice,” Rich says. “We can celebrate what God has done in giving us the emotional and spiritual capacity to stay strong through the worst of times.”
Kareem says he learns God’s grace and forgiveness through confronting that injustice and brokenness.
“My great-grandparents were slaves,” Kareem says. “My grandparents weren’t allowed to enter certain libraries in the south, and drank from ‘coloreds only’ water fountains. They live in a city where confederate flags fly high and lynching stations still stand. The world’s system says that I am supposed to hate Caucasians for what some have done to my people, and for the inequalities still existing today. Yet, in the Word, I read of grace and love. I see my sin, and how God intervened and paid a price I couldn’t. I know what it is to be the Good Samaritan, loving a man who probably hates you, because God was that to me first. My heritage makes me know forgiveness deeper and deeper.”
Grace and justice meet in Christ, and fill the Bible’s pages.
“Proverbs 31:8,9 says, ‘Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.’” (ESV) Kareem says. “We need to spend time listening and learning this rich history of the African American people—the good and the bad—so that we can continue to move toward repentance and understanding. African American history is our history.””
The Navigators is sponsoring The AFAM Congress on Discipleship March 11-13, 2016, in Atlanta. It is open to anyone who would like to learn more about making disciples in an African American context.
American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week in 1926. For many years, the second week of February was set aside for this celebration to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist/editor Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, who championed the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended slavery. In 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial, the week was expanded into a month-long commemoration. Every year since, the U.S. president has proclaimed February as National African American History Month. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_History_Month)