Black History Month isn’t meant for someone else—it’s for me (a white guy). I believe it’s equally for you, too, no matter your color, political leaning, or age. This year, I’ve made it a point to engage with black stories of faith. Below are five profound (and little known) lives of monumental faith whose example is pushing me to shake off the dust of a year lived inside and get moving again.
If I’m honest, my faith tends to look a lot like me: middle-class, white, and slightly bored. That’s dangerous because Jesus wasn’t any of those things. In fact, the Bible makes it incredibly clear that the Kingdom of God will be a multicolored kaleidoscope of nationalities, backgrounds, and languages (Revelation 7:9).
As I’ve leaned into it, I’ve found black history to be incredibly inspiring, demonstrably strong, and appropriately challenging to my misguided perceptions about faith, life, and comfort. It reminds me that my white, middle-class narrative isn’t the only one, especially when it comes to faith.
Paul, an early leader in the church, offered a simple solution for achieving a life of profound and impactful faith: imitate someone else who already has one (1 Corinthians 11:1). The men and women below are that for me. Their lives are amazing, not because their skin is black, but because of their long-term vision, their willingness to be first, their persistence to push through walls of prejudice, racism, and injustice, and most of all, their commitment to a faith whose adherents haven’t always been as committed to them.
In each of them, I trust you’ll also find something worth imitating.
THE GOOD DOCTOR - LOUISE CECILIA FLEMING
Born into slavery in the early years of the Civil War, Louise’s first pursuits included education. After a stint as a public educator, she became the first female black missionary appointed by the American Baptist Convention. In 1887, she sailed to the Congo, where she used education to improve the lives of the children she met there. As her own health deteriorated, she was forced back to the states in 1891. Realizing the importance of proper medical care for the people she loved in Congo, she enrolled that same year in the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Four years later, she returned to Congo, the only known female medical doctor in the entire country. She worked for the health (physical and spiritual) of the Congolese people over the next four years before dying at the age of 37 from African sleeping sickness. Over a hundred years later, she continues to shine as an example of bending your life around scripture’s instruction to “consider others more important than yourself” (Phillippians 2:3).
RADICAL OBEDIENCE - JULIA A.J. FOOTE
Born to formerly enslaved parents, Julia grew up in New York in the early 1800s. But freedom from slavery didn’t mean equal rights. Her entire life, Julia faced discrimination due to her race, her gender, and her religious upbringing. In her early teenage years, she joined the African Methodist Episcopal church, and before her 20s, she felt called by God to preach and share her faith. The only problem? Julia lived in a time when public leadership, especially in religious circles, was not friendly to females. Many churches didn’t even permit women to speak, let alone preach. But Julia was unwavering in her determination. After seeking permission to preach in her church, she was excommunicated. But she powered on. She was part of revival movements that swept the midwest in the 1870s. On one occasion, in 1878, it’s estimated she spoke to 5,000 people at a meeting in Ohio. Before her death, Julia became the A.M.E. Zion church’s first female deacon and the second ordained female elder of the A.M.E. church. In her boundary-shattering life, one clearly hears the declaration of earlier followers of Jesus as they faced mounting pressure from the authorities to stop preaching: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
MAN ON FIRE - LEMUEL HAYNES
Less than a decade after the Revolutionary War, Lemuel Haynes became the first person of color ordained as a minister in America. It had been a long road for the newly appointed Reverend Haynes, and what lay ahead wouldn’t be any easier. Born in 1750, Lemuel was the child of an African American man and a white woman—although pinpointing which ones were a mystery. At five months of age, Lemuel was given to a white family as an indentured servant, bound to work for them until his 21st birthday. In 1774, as his servitude expired, he joined the Union army, a post he held until near the end of the war. Lemuel was given a license to preach in 1780 and was officially ordained—recognized as a minister—in 1785. But Lemuel didn’t last long at his first church. The all-white congregation made Lemuel’s job difficult, and due to the active prejudice of its members, he left after only two years. Lemuel’s next post would last thirty years, and yet he continued to face many of the same prejudices. Even so, he did not shy away from his role as a prophetic voice against slavery. I imagine Lemuel would have identified with the sentiments of Jeremiah the prophet, “[God’s] word is in my heart like fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). We are all beneficiaries of Lemuel’s fire and the foundation he laid for churches to not only preach but act for justice.
THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE - EFRAIM ALPHONSE
Efraim was born in Panama in 1896, his father a fisherman from the French-speaking tropical island of Martinque. Even as a child, Efraim showed a gift for languages and words, a sign of things to come. As a young man, he served as an escort for Methodist missionaries on their way to reach a native tribe known as the Valientes. The missionaries eventually offered Efraim a role as a teacher in the Valiente village. Despite the tribe’s reputation for being warlike and knowing not a single word of their language, Efraim agreed. He spent 12 years living among the Valientes, learning not just their language but their customs, legends, and history. He slowly began to develop a written form of Valiente tongue, with the express goal of translating the New Testament for them. The work of translation is difficult and slow, but Efraim’s love for the Valientes compelled him. He left the village for a number of years to attend seminary in Jamaica to improve his Greek but eventually returned to pick up his work. His persistence finally paid off, as Efraim succeeded in translating several books of the Bible into the Valiente language. The Smithsonian Institute would also publish his grammar of the language, and along with his wife of 50 years (who also lived in the village with him, along with their children), they published a hymnbook for the Valiente tongue. Efraim is widely recognized as the first Biblical translator of color. Even more inspiring, though, is his lifelong commitment to the Valiente people, which sings a beautiful response to the Biblical question: “How can they believe… if they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14).
BLACK LEONARDO - GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER
Okay, you probably recognize this name, but there’s so much more to his story than just peanuts. George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri around 1864. Despite setbacks in his early education, Carver worked hard, eventually graduating from high school and becoming the first black student at Iowa State, earning two agricultural degrees. After graduation, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to be the director of agricultural research at the Tuskegee Institute—a post he held for 47 years. Under his leadership, the department developed into a strong research center. Seeking to help poor farmers improve soil depleted by years of cotton growth, Carver proposed peanuts and sweet potatoes as crops that improved soil and offered a food source. When farmers were reluctant to plant these crops due to poor marketability, Carver set out to discover economically viable products to be made from them. Carver was also an early leader in promoting environmentalism, understanding the connection between a healthy creation and the people living in and among it. Despite living in a time of high racial polarization, Carver was well respected worldwide, Time Magazine once dubbing him “the black Leonardo.” Powering such an impactful life was his faith in God, which he recognized as the mechanism for his scientific breakthroughs and the hope for overcoming prejudice and racism. Carver’s contributions to the world could fill volumes. Even to this day, he remains a shining example of the words of Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the LORD and not for men.”
Amazing lives and that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. I didn’t have time to cover pastors like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, missionaries like John Marrant and Amanda Smith, medical experts like Susan Steward and Daniel Hale Williams, or theologians and historians like Charles Tindley and George W. Williams.
Sojourner Truth, the amazing abolitionist and women’s rights activist, was once approached by a white man who told her that her speeches and life’s work were no more important than a flea bite. It’s said she replied, “Maybe not, but Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.”
I hope these summaries give you an itch that keeps you scratching. I hope they inspire you to learn more, to seek out a faith-filled perspective beyond your cultural context, and to follow Paul’s advice to find someone to imitate.
This February, and well beyond that, we’d be well served to follow the examples listed above. Indeed, it just might be the best way to honor their legacies—and, in turn, find ourselves living lives of equal power, transcendence, and spiritual influence.
Keep Learning: If the names mentioned above are new to you, take up the challenge of learning more about them. Some books currently introducing me to these (and many more) heroes of faith outside my cultural context include:
100 Most Influential Black Christians in History - Edited by Black Christian News Network
Heroes in Black History: True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes - Dave and Neta Jackson
Free Indeed: Heroes of Christian Black History - Mark Sidewell