We are all in deep shock and sadness over the death of our friend, senior colleague, mentor, father, husband, uncle, confidant Rev Dr Joel Edwards CBE. Just a casual glimpse of his Facebook profile has tributes from various leaders from different church traditions. Pentecostals, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, charismatics, orthodox, evangelicals and so on. This attests to his uniqueness and breadth of leadership within the UK and global church.
One of the important traits about Dr Edwards is that he is a man of humility. I did remember on one occasion when I was doing a research into the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA) and wanted his perspectives on things. I thought I would go and meet him and then discuss. But then he did something that has stayed with me till today. He opted for coming to our house! I was so honoured to have as a guest Rev Joel Edwards in my house chatting and laughing. Many significant leaders that I know do not often do that, but this are the sort of character traits that distinguishes him. A man of prolific insight but also of humility and character.
Dr Edwards was a man of prolific insight and profound thought below is a quote from one of our conversations as we reflect together on some of the challenges of global African identity and the need for a new kind of Pan-Africanism:
What is incredible is that despite Black Power, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement and Marcus Garvey and Pan-Africanism, the issue of African identity remained a live issue. Caribbeans have been seeking cultural belonging in Africa now for decades through Rastafarianism, Nation of Islam, and the idealism of Africa as the mother country. Across the Caribbean ancestral interest and identity has increased significantly. Caribbean people are now comfortable with being called Africans. Indeed, many will insist upon it. And yet there remains a psychological chasm. African Americans and Caribbeans will appeal to Kwanzaa as a form of identity. Africans do not. We insist that we are Africans misplaced in America and the Caribbean whilst Africans identify principally with their tribe, language group, religion or nation rather than African. Africans are content to allow Caribbeans to claim African while they pledge loyalty to their tribe, religion or nation. Displaced African diaspora are reaching out to Africa as an idea while Africans have not put out the welcome mat.
These were one of the last words that Dr Joel Edwards spoke to me. Such was the richness of our conversations each time we talk about Black Majority Churches, African Christianity, racial justice, diaspora mission, African identity and so on. I first met Dr Joel Edwards in 2010 at a conference in central London organised by another good friend and colleague, Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts (Racial Justice enabler Baptist Together). One of the first things that strikes me about him was that he was approachable. He is not like one of those celebrity Christians whom you cannot relate with. Dr Edwards was friendly, relational and approachable. I mean, before meeting him I have heard so much about him as one of the pioneers of the West Indian Evangelical Alliance (WIEA) which later became African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance (ACEA). Dr Edwards became the second General Secretary of ACEA in 1988 after Philip Mohabir left the role (1937-2004). Philip Mohabir helped found the organisation with others such as Clive Calver (then General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). In 1992 Dr Edwards was invited by the Evangelical Alliance to become the UK Director overseeing the work of the Alliance in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and in 1997 Dr Edwards made history when he became the first black person to lead the Evangelical Alliance.
You can imagine how I felt having known all of this information about Dr Edwards. Here was I meeting my hero. The strange thing that happened over time was that our relationship developed so that my hero became my friend and mentor. He is one of the few people that I know of who can understand and combine Black Liberation Theology with Evangelical Theology. He is also one of the few people who embodies integral mission and Black Liberation Theology. Such is the skill, maturity and wisdom of the man that he is able to speak in European evangelical circles and at Black Theology Forums. He can speak as an advocate at the UN and at the same time speak in a local church. He can speak at Spring Harvest and at any Black Pentecostal church conventions. He was a versatile, rich, nuanced, thought-provoking speaker. When Joel Edwards speaks people listen. He has the ability to bring people who will not normally converse with each other together. He was a preacher, teacher, theologian, writer, broadcaster, humanitarian, philosopher, father, husband, uncle, mentor, role model, influencer, activist, academic and a prophet.
He was one of the people I sought advice from when I was informed that I have got the job as the Director of the One People Commission of the Evangelical Alliance. I knew he would have a fatherly counsel for me as someone who has navigated that space before me. His advice was timely, encouraging, refreshing and prophetic. Some of the insights he shared with me are proving really useful as I develop my strategy for the role.
He was one of the people that really encouraged me to develop my idea and thesis of an African British Theology as a useful theological framework for African Christians in Britain.
We will miss Dr Edwards for his immense contributions to church, society, theological discourse, advocacy work, humanitarian work and as a global ambassador of Christ. Let me end this piece with another of Joel Edward’s quotes:
“When I came, I arrived as a British West Indian, and a coloured boy. Subsequently, I became an Afro-Caribbean, an African Caribbean, and finally black British”. (Turning the Tables on Mission, p. 216)
Some of Joel Edwards books worth reading
Joel Edwards (ed), Lets Praise Him Again: An African-Caribbean Perspective on Worship, Eastbourne, Kingsway Publication, 1992.
Joel Edwards, Lord Make us One-but not the Same! London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1999.
Joel Edwards, An Agenda for Change: A Global Call for Spiritual and Social Transformation, Grand Rapids, MI, 2009.
Joel Edwards, Reverse Mission: Towards Structural Change in Society in Israel Olofinjana (ed), Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in the UK, Watford, Instant Apostle, 2013.
 I have Rev Dr Joel Edwards permission to use this quote openly.