Professors discuss African missionary work

At the end of a silent, monotonously colored hallway, University of Miami faculty and a diverse cast of students gathered in a room abounding with African flags.

The African Student Union, founded on campus nearly 20 years ago, has begun its second annual Africa Week. Professors Patti Rose, David Kling and Margaret Marshall served as panelists at an event termed “Mission (Im)possible” Tuesday evening in the Mahoney-Pearson classrooms. The event aspired to give students a holistic view of the ups and downs of missionary work in Africa.

Rose, a professor of public health at UM, launched the event by speaking about her grandfather, Max Yergan. Yergan left his dreams of being a lawyer behind to do missionary work, becoming the first black American to conduct YMCA work in India in 1916.

Rose reminisced upon countless days spent studying her grandfather’s speeches in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. Rose talked about the viewpoints and perceptions of black missionaries in African communities.

“It is important to keep in mind the race issue here,” Rose said. “The whole notion of imposing Western values on them weren’t the same.”

In addition to India, Yergan went on to travel to East Africa, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, meeting and gaining the respect of such luminaries as Mohandas Gandhi and W.E.B Dubois. He was one of the “Talented Ten,” and one of the first allowed in South Africa as a missionary.

Kling, a professor of religious studies, took a step back and admired the movement of religion in Africa.

Kling considers the spread of Christianity in Africa “one of the most fascinating episodes in recent history.”

Just a century ago, Africa only contained two percent of the world’s Christian population. Today 400 million of the world’s two billion Christians reside in Africa.

“Africa is the place where Christianity is growing at the fastest rate,” Kling said.

Kling emphasized the ability of Pentecostal churches to provide basic social structures and radical communities that the government cannot.

“Even the poor have found a place in these kinds of churches,” Kling said. “Women find a voice in these communities.”

Marshall, an associate professor of English, recalled her days as a peace corps volunteer in Kenya years ago.  She recalled how her Kenyan neighbors clearly identified themselves as Kenyan Christians, singing the same Bible hymns she did as a child to African beats.

“There’s a way in which the religion gets transposed, I guess you could say,” Marshall said, emphasizing the natives’ way of personalizing religions brought by missionaries.

Sophomore Feeta Caphart, a vice president of the African Student Union, believes missionary work in Africa is a large part of history and added a helpful tip for those looking to test out the waters.

“I think the first step would be to contact your local church, see if they can help you,” Caphart said.

Senior Krys Foster, the president of the organization, shared some of the vast dreams of the little club.

“We’re trying to get the word out in every way possible. We felt there were a lot of students who might be interested in missionary work,” said Foster, citing the example of UM students going to Ghana last semester.

The African Student Union will host an African dance lesson tonight in the UC Ballroom at 7 p.m.

They are also collecting donations and selling Ugandan beads in the UC breezeway, which will go toward their philanthropy to aid Africans affected by obstetric fistula.