The Challenges and Benefits of Being a Black Overseas Worker

My call as an international worker came in 2005, while in Sunday school praying for Christians in China. At the time, I wasn’t really interested in anything overseas, but I found my heart melting at the thought of Chinese brothers and sisters not having access to the Father’s Word or not being able to fellowship openly. As I prayed, the still, quiet voice of the Good Shepherd simply asked, “Who will go?” to which I answered a thunderous, “I will!” even though I didn’t know much of anything about China. Nor did I know that less than 1% of full time overseas co-labors are Black.

The Challenges

In order to answer our Father’s call to use me in this work in China, I had to first face some socioeconomic obstacles. I am one of six children raised in a middleclass suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The African American church I grew up in was heavily focused on education, social justice, and rectifying oppression. Like most Black churches, ours didn’t really talk about compassion work in other countries, unless perhaps the people in those countries shared our same pigmentation. But, to be obedient to the Father’s direction, I set up a time to inform my past pastor of my calling. As we met, I was confronted with a harsh reality. My vision for China and my African American church’s calling were incompatible. I had to seek partnership elsewhere.

I set up meetings to share my vision with other Black people, but they didn’t understand my calling. Over time, as I built my partnership team, I found that the majority of those who supported my vision were not of my ethnic group. My heart was deflated. I was endeavoring to break out of the very cultural stereotype my process was reinforcing. Being culturally misunderstood by my own culture didn’t do much to build my confidence.

The organization I joined (ELIC) provides developing countries with native-speaking English teachers. Before I joined the organization in 2009, other people of color had blazed a path, and I’m grateful for their work. But of the 550 long-term teachers serving overseas when I joined, only twelve (including me) were Black. Even as I was breaking out of my culture’s understanding of serving the Father, I was entering into a group where I was once again a minority. Many of my new colleagues misunderstood or even ignored my cultural background. Some of them would ask me how I received my calling to serve overseas, as if my calling was vastly different from theirs.

My experience serving the Chinese was different from my White colleagues, as well. Many Chinese assume being from the United States means you have white skin and blond hair. Often, my teammates just didn’t realize our experiences serving were different. Serving with ELIC was providing me with a way to live out my calling, which is great. But, sometimes, that service left me feeling isolated.

The Benefits

One-fifth of the world’s population lives in China. Of the men, many love basketball and follow the NBA. When I arrived in China, I had no idea that my 6’ 5”, 212 pound body and molasses skin tone would make me an instant novelty. I constantly had my picture taken and was asked by all my male students to play on their basketball teams, even though I’m only an average basketball player. But these games gave me time to build rapport with my Chinese students and granted me access into their lives.

Black culture and history also provided opportunities for transformational conversation. I was beside myself when arguments over whether Tupac or Notorious BIG were the greatest rappers opened doors to questions about eternity and life after death. Conversations about how I felt about race relations in the United States lead to a conversation with a student from a minority group who expressed her frustration with the majority Han Chinese and their feelings of superiority. I was allowed access into the everyday struggles of my students because they were aware of the struggles people of color in the United States face. My students understood that I wasn’t their typical North American teacher and would ask me what it felt like being the only African American on the team.

My call has brought both blessings and challenges, but it is the Father’s overwhelming love and purpose that gives me the strength to continue my journey. I realize now that he has placed me within ELIC to bring diversity to our organization. The Father called me to step out my comfort zone in order to work in me and through me, and he can do this with your story, as well. People of color have an important role to play in full-time international work, often because of and through our ethnicity. Will you answer the Father’s call?

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Comments

Blessing brother, thanks for sharing. A challenge to my heart and something to pray deeply over. God Bless.

As a white overseas worker, how can I help and encourage my black coworkers? I want to be a blessing yet I know their experience is different than mine...

A Chin, this is a good question and many individuals fail to acknowledge that there is a difference in experiences. Being vulnerable and bold enough as the majority ethnic group to ask questions about your coworkers experience. It will probably start off slow as you two begin to build trust, but continuing to inquire and listening could be a huge encouragement to your coworker. Acknowledgement of differences in your experiences could be a foundation for future conversations, which are mutually beneficial for you and your coworker. Thanks for reading my post! Hope to see you at Urbana!!

This is a fascinating article. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and more importantly, thanks for following God's call on your life!

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