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African Americans in missions: increasing interest reported

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“Why do we only have white missionaries coming to do missions?” Elliott Nichols heard Vincent, a young man from Rwanda, ask during a church service in Baltimore a few years ago.

“Are there no black Christians?”

The emotional impact of Vincent’s testimony has changed the course of Nichols’ life.

Now preparing to serve as a foreign missionary somewhere in Africa with the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Nichols is a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While he is working on a master of divinity degree, his wife, Patricia, is enrolled in the associate of Christian education degree program.

According to David Cornelius, director of African American relations for the FMB, the Nicholses are part of an increasing number of African American Southern Baptists responding to God’s call to foreign missions. Cornelius was on the NOBTS campus in April to let African American students know of the variety of mission service opportunities available. Before working in his current administrative position with the FMB, Cornelius served in Nigeria 10 years as a missionary. In 1992 when he changed ministry roles, he was one of a total of three African American foreign missionaries serving with the FMB. Since that time, the number now stands at eight, and Cornelius added he senses a growing interest in foreign missions among African Americans. Cornelius now regularly visits churches, associations, colleges and seminaries across the United States to develop an awareness among African Americans of foreign mission opportunities, as well as to facilitate the foreign mission appointment process for individuals and families such as the Nicholses. “Shortly after I felt God calling me to ministry, (God) began to transform my heart about serving as a missionary,” said Nichols, who had pursued the “American dream” of prosperity all his life. As a subcontractor for maintenance and custodial work for 14 years in Alaska, he and his family lived comfortably and prosperously. However, while attending New Hope Baptist Church, a mission-minded congregation in Anchorage, Nichols said God began to deal with him about getting personally involved in missions. His wife had already responded to God’s call to serve in full-time Christian ministry overseas, he said. “(Patricia) was a big part of my being open to accept the call to missions myself,” Nichols said. “I thought I was crazy, but I felt God saying, ‘Go to seminary,'” Nichols said of his decision in 1988 to move his family, which at the time included two young children, so he could begin preparing himself for ministry. He first went to Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1993. While living in Maryland he met Cornelius at an FMB-sponsored Missions Fest.

“God brought David Cornelius into my path,” said Nichols, who had been frustrated by numerous unfulfilled promises of other ministers who said they would help Nichols and his family in various ways. “David Cornelius has never let me down,” said Nichols, who is now in his third year of study at New Orleans Seminary and hopes to graduate by the end of 1997. “He has been a great source of encouragement to me and my family and has been very instrumental in helping us all along the way.” With his educational requirements nearly complete, Nichols also is concentrating on the FMB’s ministry requirements. For nearly two years, he has been pastor of an inner-city church in New Orleans’ Westbank area, “gaining a much better perspective of ministry as a whole,” he said. He and his wife hope to be serving in Africa within the next two years. Because of his children’s ages when he first felt called to foreign mission service, he decided to take his time “and prepare the right way, not rush it,” Nichols said.

The Nicholses’ son and daughter, now 20 and 17, couldn’t be prouder of their parents. While Tasha and Kenneth won’t be moving to Africa with their mom and dad, Nichols hopes his children’s Christian development has been strengthen as they have witnessed the process of yielding and then preparing for ministry.

They will never forget Vincent, though, who was killed two years ago in the Rwandan civil war. As he sat in their home in 1990, Vincent was amazed by the amenities of their house, from the table and chairs to pictures on the wall, and especially by the automatic dishwasher, not to mention the ice cream and ice cubes.

“‘You guys are so rich,’ Vincent told my family,” Nichols said of a time when they had been feeling low from the pinch of college expenses and remembering the days of wealth in Alaska. “His comments put our life into perspective quickly and have kept them there,” Nichols said. “Since that day and ever since then, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’ve been a 10 on trying to do what the Lord wanted me to do to prepare for ministry and not grumble about it. “I want to be wherever the Lord wants me to be,” Nichols said. “And I know that if the Lord has called us, he is going to take good care of us.”

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