Last Thursday, Sept. 25, Dr. Melani McAlister from George Washington University lectured on decolonization in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1960-64. McAlister led the seventh annual Billy Graham Center Archival lecture and touched on evangelicalism and race, missionaries and power, conflict and violence in the DRC and the death of a missionary named Dr. Paul Carlson.
McAlister has made numerous trips to the BGC Archives to research the DRC for her upcoming book titled “Our God in the World: The Global Visions of American Evangelicals,” which focuses different chapters on various African countries. By the time the book is published in 2016, McAlister will have worked on it for nearly a decade. Because of McAlister’s presence in the Archives, she was asked to speak at the annual Archival lecture this year. Her talk focused on conflict theory, power and race within evangelical missionaries in the Congo.
McAlister also found out about Carlson during her research on the DRC. Carlson was an unusual missionary, being one of the few who did not flee the DRC, then known as “Belgian Congo,” when the violence escalated in the 1960s. Photographs, letters from missionaries in the ’60s and other items from the Archives lay on tables in the back of the Wilson Suite and across from the complementary snacks. Photographs and magazine articles on some of the evangelical missionaries discussed, including part of a Time magazine spread on Carlson, could be viewed on the slideshow during McAlister’s lecture.
When the DRC restructured itself into a nation-state after the Belgians abruptly decolonized it, most missionaries fled to neighboring countries such as Uganda. The United Nations assisted the four evacuations that occurred from 1960-64. These evacuated white missionaries were richer than the native Congolese and had the means to leave to a safer place. However, McAlister informed her lecture audience that not every missionary was welcomed back.
Race affected power dynamics between the missionaries and the Congolese, McAlister claimed. She used an example taken from a letter written by a missionary in the 1960s where the author used the term “my Africans.” Although white, comparatively rich missionaries helped to stop Belgian atrocities to the Congolese, racism and imperialism were still concerns. In fact, the Congolese saw the missionaries as colonialists, to the missionaries’ surprise.
Although an adult missionary kid in the audience claimed during the question and answer session that the phrase “my Africans” could go both ways, citing that Africans use the term “our missionaries,” McAlister maintained that the relationships were different. A person with more power saying “my Africans” seems to lay claim of the Africans, whereas someone who has less power saying “our missionaries” takes no claim on them. The Congolese were less privileged than the missionaries.
While racism was a problem in both the United States and the DRC, Carlson refused to use his white power to leave the country in a time of conflict. The doctor had close relationships with the Congolese and stayed at the hospital even when his family crossed into the Central African Republic for safety. McAlister said that 75 percent of U.S. missionaries evacuated the DRC, but Carlson remained and was killed in 1964, accused of being an American spy. He became a martyr like other missionaries whose photographs were printed in American missionary magazines.