Fifth African Heritage Conference brings Salvationists together
180 Salvationists from six territories met in Atlanta to embrace the theme, “God’s Plan For You, A Hope and A Future.”
by Gwendolyn Jones, Major –
Western delegates to the African Heritage Conference (l-r) front: Thandiwe Gregory, Major Gwendolyn Jones, Captain Tori Ross, Major Rose-Marie Leslie. Back: Captain Hendrik Sumter, Major Victor Leslie and Mortimer Jones.
On the day that our country mourned the death of civil rights leader Rosa Parks, seven officer and soldier delegates from the Western Territory joined with Salvationists from the South, Central, East, Caribbean and the Zimbabwe territories in Atlanta for the Fifth Annual African Heritage and Youth Leadership Conference. We came to remember, honor and encourage those of African descent who have embraced the message and the mission of The Salvation Army. What better way to begin a conference of this nature than with thoughts of what one woman of African heritage did for a whole nation.
We were challenged that first night by the words of Dr. Noel Erskine, a professor at Emory University who specializes in civil rights issues. He reminded us that the legacy that Rosa Parks leaves behind is far greater than just being the mother of the civil rights movement. She showed us that one person, one voice, one action can make a difference. We came to recognize that while we may be few in number and the ministry in the African American communities may look overwhelming, wars are won one battle at a time.
The West’s Majors Victor and Rose-Marie Leslie, territorial finance secretary and assistant secretary women’s ministries respectively, were the guest speakers for the event at both the plenary session (Leadership for the 21st Century: We are the Leaders We’re Looking For) and the Sunday meetings, as well as for several workshops. They stressed the strong power of persuasion, be it good or bad, that leaders have in the lives of their followers and the communities that they live in. They discussed the significance of having productive role models and the positive influences that Black officers had played in their lives.
Conference objectives were:
-to promote and strengthen solidarity among Salvationists of African heritage and unity among all Salvationists;
-to encourage and enhance development of leadership skills;
-to reaffirm The Salvation Army’s commitment to qualitative and quantitative growth;
-to educate and expose youth of African heritage to the mission and ministry opportunities available in The Salvation Army.
Territorial and divisional leaders expressed their desire for God’s Holy Spirit to equip our hearts and minds for the challenges before us, trusting that God would use this weekend to help us develop a strategic and fresh approach to ministry in the African American community.
Workshops were led by Southern and Central officers. Major Victor Leslie led two: “A Deeper Look at Black Leadership: The Content of Our Character and Where are the Men? Why African Males are Missing in
Church. Major Rose-Marie Leslie led The Role of the Church in Our Community. Other topics included: The Effects of Hip Hop, Dating, Teen Issues, and Public Speaking Skills.
As we watched clips from the first All Africa Congress held just this year, our hearts were filled with pride as we heard General Larsson say that four out of every 10 Salvationists are African. We were reminded of the open forum held earlier that day, when difficult issues were tackled like, “Why hasn’t The Salvation Army attracted more African Americans?” and “Is the door to The Salvation Army really open to African Americans?”
The insights of former USA West Territorial Commander Commissioner David Edwards were well received by the delegates. He reminded us that no one can close the doors that God has opened for us. The memorial tribute that was paid to the retired Southern Territory officers of African descent also let us see the contributions that have been made by Black officers, paving a road for us today.
The enthusiasm of the youth touched all our hearts and gave us hope. Their eagerness to learn and to participate in the conference was inspiring. We saw them sing, dance, lead worship, ask challenging questions and share their mission team experiences. A highlight was the sight of 29 young African American teens stepping forward to become Salvation Army officers. They answered the prayer of our hearts that was also put into words by Commissioner Phil Needham, that the “conference would … encourage African Americans to step forward and show us the way to impact both the African American community and the community at large with the transforming power of Christ.”
The African Heritage and Youth Leadership Conference represented financial resources, time and energy well spent; there will be a lasting effect on all who attended. If there are any regrets, it would be that people of all races and nationality were not encouraged to attend this celebration of service and enhancement of leadership development.