It is good to celebrate our accomplishments as a church, especially in the areas where God has blessed our work. This is one of the vital duties of the church: to recognize where God has used the saints to spread the gospel and further his kingdom message on the earth.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Johanna Veenstra’s mission to Nigeria. Veenstra was the first international missionary from the Christian Reformed Church, and our denominational agencies are rightfully making a big deal about this. Veenstra’s courage and tenacity in the face of adversity marked the beginning of a revival.
Today, the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria boasts more than 200,000 members. Reformed Christians of various denominations across Nigeria total over a million members. Veenstra’s legacy of mission speaks for itself. The Lord undoubtedly established the work of her hands, and it is right for us to celebrate and laud her as a daughter of our denomination and a model from whom we have much to learn.
However, there is a crucial element missing from the retelling of her story in most of the literature I have seen thus far. Although articles and pamphlets refer to her “wrestling with her call” and “facing adversity,” nothing I have read explicitly names the greatest obstacle she faced in her preparation for mission: the institutional opposition of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Departing in Trust
In the early 1900s, a missional fervor was sweeping the evangelical world. The World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1910, is considered by many historians to be the advent of the modern Protestant missionary movement, inaugurating a century-long global explosion of the gospel.
The Christian Reformed Church was part of that missionary effort. From 1910 to 1920, the synod of the CRCNA received numerous overtures from classes to expand denominational missionary endeavors overseas. Synod 1918 finally established a committee to explore two possible mission fields: Central and Southern Africa (including a large region known as Sudan) and China.
In those days, Synod met only every other year, so when Johanna Veenstra followed God’s call to Nigeria in 1919, she left her home with support from her denomination still under review. When the denomination reconvened for Synod 1920, the committee recommended official support for missionary efforts in China rather than in Africa, leaving Veenstra without official denominational support.
A Racist Decision
Synod’s decision to support mission efforts in China rather than Nigeria included the following grounds:
The inhabitants of the Sudan belong to the type of people from whom little can be expected for the kingdom of God.
The conservative, intellectual spirit of the Chinese harmonizes more with the nature of our people than the emotional nature of the Africans (Acts of Synod 1920, p. 50).
Following the adoption of this recommendation with its stated grounds, one delegate attempted to get synod to clarify its decision by making the motion that “Synod declare that the above named decision be interpreted to mean that we first of all … attempt to begin our new foreign mission program … in China.” This motion was defeated, making clear the CRC’s stance at the time: the people of Africa are not a people who we can expect to contribute to the kingdom of God in any meaningful way. Better to focus our mission efforts elsewhere, among more “conservative” and “intellectual” people—people more like us.
The CRC not only left Johanna Veenstra without support, but in its grounds and actions, it dismissed an entire continent of people based on their cultures and race. Veenstra proved the church’s assumptions wrong, of course, but it was not until 1937, four years after Veenstra had died, that the CRCNA began the process of taking ownership of the (by then very successful) mission field in Nigeria, a process not formalized until 1940.
Owning Our Mistakes
In his 2019 book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Jemar Tisby, an African American historian and pastor in the Reformed tradition, points out an unsettling truth. In our retelling of the history of race and racism in America, we tend to tell a story of heroes and villains. Heroes are people like Martin Luther King Jr., people who stood up for what was right in the face of enormous pressure and opposition. Villains tend to be unnamed and faceless, like “the Ku Klux Klan,” “lynch mobs,” and “slave owners.” The story that goes untold is the story of the majority of white Christians who remained silent in their complicit acceptance of the status quo.
I fear we have done exactly that in our retelling of Johanna Veenstra’s story. Although the CRCNA repented of those decisions in Synod 2007, we are using her legacy like a mascot when the reality is that we abandoned her because of entrenched cultural racism that our church had neither the courage to fight nor the prophetic insight to see. Part of recognizing our history also means reckoning with our historic and entrenched sinful attitudes, including the stain of racism and prejudice that continues to mar our witness as followers of Jesus Christ.
It is good and right to celebrate saints like Veenstra who follow God’s call despite opposition and adversity. But claiming her as a mascot for CRC missions does a grave injustice to her legacy. Veenstra followed God’s call when her denomination would not, and God established the work of her hands. Veenstra brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Nigeria when the Synod of the CRCNA said they belonged “to the type of people from whom little can be expected for the kingdom of God.” Veenstra continued to follow God’s call on her heart in spite of her denomination’s complicit acceptance of an ideology of white supremacy.
Veenstra’s legacy is that she did what was right even when her church told her it was wrong.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Josh. 1:9).