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HBCU leaders take vision trip to São Paulo

Jon and Heather Nelson visit a home in the community. IMB Photo

A group of International Mission Board missionaries and leaders from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) walked into a community in São Paulo, Brazil, that IMB missionary Aaron Stormer described as the worst neighborhood he’s ever seen. Open sewage ran under the thin flooring in each house, Aaron said, using the term “house” loosely.

The vision team went into communities, but they also surveyed the city from a skyscraper, getting the vision for just how big the need is in São Paulo. IMB Photo

The team was there to share hope and the Gospel. IMB leaders also wanted them to experience the sheer need in the city’s poor neighborhoods, known locally as “favelas,” and see tangible ways they could fit into the work God is doing there through the IMB.

Aaron and his wife Melissa led the team alongside IMB missionaries Eric and Ramona Reese, who have served in Brazil since November 1999. They were joined by Jon and Heather Nelson, the pastor and pastor’s wife at SOMA Community Church and campus ministers at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. Other participants included leaders from the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff and Julia Baird, an IMB NextGen mobilization strategist.

Another goal of the trip was to strengthen the partnership between the two HBCUs and the IMB in the hopes of developing a pipeline for mobilizing students from these schools to the nations. Trip organizers have a vision that students will be funneled from these schools to the team in São Paulo – through one of the IMB’s student pathways for years to come.

“We want campus ministers and students to know that they have a part to play in getting the good news of the gospel to the nations,” Baird said. “In the same way that we intentionally engage our Baptist campuses and universities and our collegiate engaged churches, we want to be sure to engage all of our Baptist Campus Ministries as well. …

“Often the only barrier to students going on a mission trip is not having the knowledge that they can go. We want to remove that barrier for all students who feel called to serve internationally.”

Eric and Ramona Reese. IMB Photo

Getting a close-up view of the city, the leaders stood at the top of the Farol Santander skyscraper. They observed the scope of the city, seeing more than one can see from the Empire State Building in New York City. As they interacted with the missionary team and their colleagues, the HBCU team was introduced to specific ways they and their students could fit in God’s mission in São Paulo.

One thing that made this group unique was that, mostly, they weren’t unique, at least in initial appearance. As they toured and ministered, the group, comprised mostly of African Americans, blended in with the dark-skinned Brazilians.

This was a relatively new experience for the career missionaries. Eric and Ramona, who graduated from Albany State University in Georgia, an HBCU, remember the first Black student missions volunteer they received on their team. His name is Ben, and he came as a Hands-On missionary in 2008. That was nearly 10 years after the Reeses had begun their ministry in São Paulo.

Since investing in Ben and keeping up with him as he started a family and serves the Lord here in the United States, the Reeses have seen the lasting impact that missions in São Paulo can have on an African American student, and the lasting impact that students can have on their ministry.

Partnerships like this that build a pipeline of HBCU students and IMB efforts like it, have been a “long time coming,” Eric said. One of the trip participants told him: “These people look like some of the folks I know back home.”

Both the Reeses, who are Black, and the Stormers, who are an interracial Black and White couple, have found this to be an aid to their ministry, breaking down barriers that sometimes exist in cross-cultural, cross-racial missions.

Coming in with a group that looked like the people they serve, especially when street ministry is happening, “they are less guarded. Walls are broken down,” Melissa said, adding: “When the team was here, there was none of that,” referring to the caution that many people feel toward strangers.

“I felt like this team had access to people on a whole other level,” she said. “It went both ways, with the people who came on the trip and with the Brazilians who were here.”

Aaron said, “It was someone who looked like them, sharing life with them, saying, ‘Let me tell you about my friend Jesus.’”

Aaron and Melissa Stormer. IMB Photo

With a mission force that is less than 1 percent African American, IMB leadership recognizes how imperative it is that Southern Baptist Black churches connect with the mission to reach the nations. One way the IMB has made this goal a priority is by adding Jason Thomas, an African American church mobilizer, to the staff.

Melissa is quick to point out, though, that the work God is doing in São Paulo isn’t open only for African Americans to join. The larger IMB team in São Paulo is multicultural, showcasing the heart of the IMB to involve every Southern Baptist of every race or ethnicity in the Revelation 7:9 vision.

IMB President Paul Chitwood said, “We highly value our Baptist campus ministries across the U.S. and their partnership with the IMB to prepare students for the mission field, both short-term and as part of the next generation of career missionaries.

“We are especially thrilled to host a growing number of African American student missionaries and student missionaries from other ethnicities because we have seen how they can make a unique contribution to the Revelation 7:9 vision, where a great multitude from every nation, all tribes, peoples, and languages will stand before the throne and the Lamb.”

Participants from these HBCUs experienced, even for a short time, what life is like as a missionary. They saw the city, and they learned how to contextualize ministry. The Reeses and the Stormers were encouraged at the hope of more students from HBCU schools getting involved in their ministry in São Paulo. And for the people they serve, they were given the hope of the Gospel by a team that broke down cultural and racial barriers.

Are you a young adult wanting to learn more about how you can go? Visit www.imb.org/nextgen to explore the next steps. Want more info about mobilizing your campus ministry or church to the nations? Contact [email protected]. Learn more about pathways the IMB offers to get to the field.