Right from the very beginning, God has used all races and ethnicities in his plan of redemption. It’s important to learn the history behind the spreading of the gospel message and the men and women who often risked their lives to tell others about Jesus, but few resources tell these powerful stories, especially for children. However, a new book from pastor and The Urban Perspective founder Jerome Gay Jr. does exactly that. African Heroes: Discovering Our Christian Heritage, highlights and celebrates the contributions of African theologians and martyrs.
Gay starts African Heroes by sharing the story of a family spending time together after church on a Sunday. Jordan and Jasmine’s dad loves history and is always telling them stories about the past. One day when their family is out on a picnic, they start asking if there were any Christians who looked like them whom God had used to help the church grow. They are excited when their dad shares inspiring true stories of early Christian leaders—both men and women—from Africa who helped to grow the early church in remarkable and significant ways.
Q: What inspired you to write a book about the African roots of our Christian heritage?
I noticed that there was a discrepancy when it came to church history resources. The discrepancy is that it was presented in a monolithic way. Many of the African church leaders, influencers, philosophers, fathers, martyrs, and theologians have been presented as white, which doesn’t reflect actual church history. I wanted to create a resource where children of color can see themselves in redemptive history, learn about church history, and highlight and accentuate the contributions of African theologians. To be clear, the point is not black-washing Scripture or history, but rather color-correcting and presenting a more accurate, unified view and appreciation of church history.
Q: Who are some of the heroes you introduce in the book? What are some of their accomplishments?
We learn about Tertullian and how he is credited with giving us the concept of the Trinity. We also learn about Athanasius and how he stood firm at the council of Nicaea on the issue of the deity of Christ. Then there are Perpetua and Felicity, two African female martyrs who gave their lives for Jesus and refused to deny his kingship. There are many more, but these are just a few of the people highlighted in the book.
Q: Which is your favorite hero? Would you share their story with us?
My favorite is Augustine of Hippo. His influence has far exceeded his lifetime, and many of our concepts about theology and interpretation of Scripture have been greatly influenced by this African man. His commitment to Scripture, discipleship, apologetics, and learning was unprecedented.
Augustine’s writings were huge in shaping people theologically during his time and even now. Augustine was a master in rhetoric and—to use modern vernacular—he had what fans of hip hop call “bars.” He’s given us quotes such as “Unity in things necessary, liberty in things doubtful, charity in all things; with love for mankind and hatred of sin.” This is where we get the phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” He also said, “Jesus Christ will be the Lord of all, or he will not be Lord at all,” and many other pithy statements. There is a story about Saint Augustine after his conversion (he had had had a checkered past). One day he walked by one of his former mistresses on the street. Seeing him, she yelled, “Augustine, it is I!” Without turning back or stopping his stride, Augustine replied, “Yes, but it is no longer I!” He knew his life had been completely changed.
Augustine serves as an example of the myriad number of Blacks used by God to form crucial points of theology and philosophy. As Jonathan Hill observes, “His [Augustine’s] influence over Western thought—religious and otherwise—is total; he remains inescapable even over fifteen centuries after his death.”
Q: Did you already know all of these stories about the heroes in the book before you started writing, or did you learn about some of them as you worked on the project?
As I continued writing the book, I learned a lot more about Perpetua and Felicity, as well as Shenoute of Atripe. He was someone I had not previously been familiar with, but I was introduced to him by Dr. Vince Bantu and I was able to read and learn more about his contributions as I worked on the manuscript. Shenoute was committed to orthodoxy and confronted the heresy of his day. He was fluent in Coptic and Greek, was a prolific writer, and led the White Monastery (white because of the color of the walls—the monks were primarily people with melanin as Shenoute was himself). He’s an example of the rich Christian history in Africa and how Africa and Africans influenced orthodoxy and shaped the Christian faith.
Q: All Christians should know more about church history. Why don’t we know more of these stories about early church leaders?
There is a myriad of reasons as to why we don’t know, but I think the primary ones are that their stories are typically taught in seminaries but not in churches. We should never take away from our focus on the Bible in our teaching, but we should also look at the early church’s history beyond the first century. We need to talk about these heroes of the faith more in churches and be sure to not negate their African heritage. I think doing this will spread the news about them and their contributions to theology, culture, and Scripture interpretation.
Q: How important is it for children of color to see people like themselves acknowledged and celebrated, especially in the church?
Some people think that Christianity is a white man’s religion. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s understandable why some people feel this way because when it comes to most of the imagery of the biblical characters, as well as the church fathers in Christian history, there has been a whitewashing. Literally all of them have been presented as white and this has caused many to view Christianity as a monolithic faith. While many within the church and those who read Scripture know that Christianity is a mosaic made of people from a variety of races, cultures, and ethnicities, many others are unaware of this fact. By showing children of color black and brown theologians who have impacted Christian history, they no longer have to feel or be presented with the false notion that God has only used one race of people in his redemptive plan.
James makes it clear that God does not show favoritism, and because that’s the case, he chooses and uses people of all different hues. When children see this, they will be encouraged and inspired by the people they read about.
Q: Each hero has an attribute given at the top of their page, as well as one Bible verse that speaks to that character quality. What’s the importance of including this information for every hero?
The attributes and the Scripture passages make it clear that these people were committed to God and his Word during the time of their ministry. It’s important to note that none of them were perfect and some of them potentially strayed when it comes to their understanding, but their contributions were rooted in their faith in Christ and the application of Scripture. I wanted to make sure we had Scripture because these are imperfect men and women, and Scripture declares that there’s a perfect guide that has redeemed all of humanity, Jesus.
Q: What are some other ways families can learn more about Christianity’s roots in Africa?
There are other resources that families can read in addition to African Heroes. I have written a book called The Whitewashing of Christianity that deals with why people think Christianity is a white man’s religion. It highlights Christianity in Africa before colonization. It also talks about the African presence in scripture and how many of the people in Jesus’s lineage are of Hamitic descent. I think people need to know that Africa, Asia, and Europe are the places covered in scripture, and we see the gospel spreading to these places on out to the world.
There are other people to follow to learn more about African Christianity. Dr. Vince Bantu is a leading theologian in the space, and I highly recommend reading some of his books on the subject such as A Multitude of People. other suggested reading includes Urban Apologetics by Dr. Eric Mason and How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind and The African Memory of Mark, both by Dr. Thomas Oden.
African Heroes: Discovering Our Christian Heritage shows children how God has used all races and ethnicities in his plan of redemption by celebrating and highlighting the contributions of African theologians and martyrs.