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Charge of racism in missions poster is ‘ludicrous,’ African Americans say

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–As Southern Baptists prepared to promote a $115 million offering critical to the support of almost 5,000 overseas missionaries, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-supported official injected an element of controversy by charging the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering poster is racist.

Robert Parham, director of the CBF-related Baptist Center for Ethics, criticized the Lottie Moon Offering poster in the Nov. 6 edition of his e-mail newsletter, bcE*byte.

The poster in question shows a Christian man from the Samburu people group of Kenya translating a Bible passage into his people’s language. He works in a darkened room, but a shaft of sunlight illuminates his desk through a hole in the wall. Above the image are the words, “Dispel the Darkness,” a variation of the theme for this year’s missions offering, “The Unfinished Task: Dispelling the Darkness.”

“The poster reflects, at best, an unfortunate racial insensitivity at the beginning of the 21st century,” Parham complained. “In American culture, light and white are associated with goodness, darkness and blackness are associated with evil and badness. Picturing a black man with the theme ‘dispelling the darkness’ completely ignores this cultural reality.”

Parham’s criticism, according to some African Americans, is ludicrous. “I heard everybody was upset about [the picture of] the African man translating,” said Vernadine Latham, an African American who lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., who called the International Mission Board to voice her support. “I don’t see how anybody could think it was racist. It’s totally ludicrous.

“I can’t understand why people criticize. We don’t need this confusion and accusation,” she added. “People better be careful about criticizing God’s work.”

Willie Simmons, a former director of black church relations for the then-Foreign Mission Board, said he had no problem with the poster. “It has nothing to do with race at all,” said Simmons, pastor of a predominantly black church in Los Angeles. “It’s unfortunate that when you mention the word ‘darkness’ it is associated with race and with blacks in particular, but that’s not the intent of the poster.”

Simmons said the poster’s reference to darkness relates to spiritual, not racial matters. “It’s only talking about the darkness of sin,” Simmons said.

“Darkness is in every country of the world. … There is darkness among Africans. There’s darkness among Jews. I’m talking about spiritual darkness.”

The IMB has used the photograph in its publicity materials for more than two years – without complaints. The $115 million goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Offering will provide about half the support needed for almost 5,000 missionaries working among 1,015 people groups around the world.

“Given the Southern Baptist Convention’s history on race, the image just seems loaded, grossly insensitive,” Parham said. “Why couldn’t they use a blond Scandinavian, to avoid sending this cultural message?” Parham’s criticism was echoed by Emmanuel McCall Sr., pastor of a predominantly black congregation in the Atlanta area and a member of BCE’s board of directors.

“After so many years, you would expect some sensitivity to have developed,” McCall said. “We’ve talked about this over and over for years and years. We think they’re out there in a hut and don’t have access to radio and television,” he said. “But they’re quite aware of their image. And they think the way they’re always being photographed demeans their personhood.”

Tipped about Parham’s criticism, the Washington Post published an article Nov. 8. A few other newspapers picked up the article and ran abbreviated versions.

A Southern Baptist missionary who knows George Lenguru, the African man in the picture, was incensed about the stereotypes used to criticize the photo.

“I have been in George’s house, had tea with him and discussed his translating the Scripture into Samburu,” said Dan Hylden, an IMB strategy associate in Kenya. “He is an intelligent man who is fluent in three languages. Before people criticize, they need to know more about him.

“The way George is dressed is the traditional dress the Samburu and Maasai wear every day,” Hylden added. “Criticizing the photo as racist is like the old colonialists who came in and told Africans they needed to wear a shirt and tie. You can’t tell the Samburu how to dress to make them look Western.” The Samburu are a nomadic, pastoral people group who live in the semi-arid region of northern Kenya. Distant cousins of the Maasai, only about 1 percent are born-again Christians. The Scripture translation shown in the poster reportedly would be the first printed material of any kind in the Samburu language.

Matt Jones, the International Mission Board journalist who shot the photograph, also took exception to the criticism. “It was a big surprise to me to read the criticism because I was there and no way is it a stereotype,” said Jones, a former IMB journeyman overseas correspondent. “The charges are exactly the opposite of what the image represents.

“The whole point of the photo is that this gentleman is helping spread the light of Christ,” Jones said. “When I walked into his hut and saw the beam of light on his work, I thought it was very symbolic of what he is doing, translating the Word into Samburu.”

A representative of Woman’s Missionary Union, which produced the poster in cooperation with the IMB, said it showed someone who was helping dispel spiritual darkness, not a person representing darkness that needs to be dispelled.

“The photograph on the 2000 Lottie Moon Christmas Offering poster and related material was selected because of its graphic depiction of the theme,” said Tanya Dawson*. “The bright light shining on the open Bible communicates the impact of the gospel as it is shared among the unreached peoples of the world.

“WMU regrets that anyone would find the photograph offensive. It was never our intent to communicate a racially biased message,” Dickens said. “Our goal was to capture the attention of Southern Baptists and communicate the urgency of sharing the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Giving to international missions is one way Southern Baptists can share the message.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DISPEL THE DARKNESS.
*Name changed for security concerns.

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