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Joel Edwards was a Jamaican-born, British Christian icon. A transplanted immigrant growing up in London in an immigrant Jamaican Pentecostalist church, he rose to the forefront of leadership of the evangelical community in the United Kingdom and distinguished himself as an evangelical. He later transferred that leadership prominence to his role on the global stage as leader of the Micah Challenge.[1] For his global advocacy on behalf of the poor and underprivileged, he was awarded CBE[2] by Her Majesty, the Queen, in 2019. When he passed on 30 June 2021, there was an outpouring of love and affection for the great loss the global Christian community had suffered.[3]

‘We are “out of many, one people” worldview shaped his life and public leadership as a ‘unifier’ and cross-cultural bridge-builder.

Early life

Joel grew up in the combustible environment of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city. The son of Jamaican parents, his roots were firmly planted in the Jamaican soil. David Henry, a personal friend and close colleague in Jamaica, believes we should never underestimate the impact of Jamaica’s culture on Joel’s life. ‘We are “out of many, one people”.’[4] That worldview shaped his life and public leadership as a ‘unifier’ and cross-cultural bridge-builder.

Although emigrating at the age of eight in 1960, crying all the way to the Kingston airport, Joel maintained a close relationship with Jamaica throughout his life and returned frequently as part of Jamaica’s diaspora. Baptist pastor and newspaper columnist, Devon Dick, recalled in 2003 that when the Evangelical Alliance (UK) hosted a forum at the Jamaica High Commission in London with several invited Jamaican church leaders, Joel arranged a high-level meeting with government officials to resolve controversial immigration requirements.[5] He received the Prime Minister’s Medal of Appreciation for Services to Jamaica in 2003 and later inspired a ‘forgiveness campaign’ in response to revenge killings in Kingston’s inner city. This culminated in a national Church Service where both major political parties signed an agreement.

Joel’s leadership influence straddled the African and Caribbean diaspora. As leader of the Micah Network, he traveled to New York for the annual meetings of the United Nations and invariably preached at the Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene, in the Afro-Caribbean community.[6]

Leadership

For three decades Joel served the UK Evangelical Alliance and its sister organization, the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, in various leadership capacities. In 1988, he was appointed General Secretary of the West Indian Evangelical Alliance (later the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, ACEA), succeeding the legendary Guyanese Philip Mohabir.[7] In that position he helped bridge relationships between black and white Christians, building strong, trusted bonds between both. From 1992 he led the charge in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales as Director for the Evangelical Alliance until 1997 when he was elected to the position of General Director, the first black Pentecostal leader ever to lead the long-standing British organization. As General Director (1997–2007) he provided bold, courageous, and energetic leadership for over 7,000 UK churches and organizations, involving some two million Christians in the cause of the gospel, and engaged the society in love and unity.[8]

He helped bridge relationships between black and white Christians, building strong, trusted bonds between both


Courtesy of the Evangelical Alliance

In his public leadership he distinguished himself on several fronts. The voice of evangelical Christians in the UK was greatly strengthened in the public media, church, and corridors of power in Westminster. As Chair of the Churches’ Media Council, along with then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and other church leaders, he expressed concern to the BBC over its increasing marginalization of Christianity in relation to other faiths in its employment practices, as well as in its public programming. He was never afraid to speak up and speak out on issues affecting the Christian community.

A number of government agencies heard him, including the probation service, Commission on Equality & Human Rights, Advisory Board on Human Rights and Religious Freedom with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the Metropolitan Police’s Independent Advisory Group (IAG).

His appointment as a commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in 2007 was vigorously criticized and opposed by the National Secular Society and others, on the grounds of his religious beliefs and convictions.[9] The appointment was, however, defended by the Secretary of State and by the Commission. His statesman-like, diplomatic, and bridge-building role in a society that had become increasingly diverse, highly multi-cultural, fragmented, and sometimes polarized, was respected. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed him to the board of his new Foundation, The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, to promote respect and understanding for the world’s major religions, and highlight faith as a powerful force for good in modern society. Joel Edwards embodied that principle.

As an evangelical leader engaged in the issues of society he maintained that the church had a right to be heard.

He was much sought after by the British press. Frequently appearing on BBC Radio 4, Thought for The Day, the public had access to his views on a range of issues from a faith perspective. As an evangelical leader engaged in the issues of society he maintained that the church had a right to be heard, not because the people in it are perfect, but simply because in the quest for a better world it has been more enduring and self-sacrificing than any political philosophy, or corporate personality. ‘Its signposts may be dusty but broadly speaking, they still point in the right direction.’[10]

In 2001 a rare honor was bestowed on him with his appointment as a Prebendary (Honorary Canon) of St Paul’s Cathedral, quite an accomplishment for a non-Church of England, pentecostalist clergy.

At the 2008 General Assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance in Pattaya, Thailand, Joel Edwards was commissioned to the new post of International Director of the Micah Challenge. As Director (2008–2015), he vigorously sought to assist governments, churches, and other NGOs, towards achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to which all member states of the UN had signed.[11]


An Agenda for Change: A Global Call for Spiritual and Social Transformation by Joel Edwards

Legacy and global impact

Joel left a lasting leadership legacy for the global church. His publications, including An Agenda for Change: A Global Call for Spiritual and Social Transformation,[12] are stimulants to evangelical action for years to come. He argued for presenting Christ credibly to the 21st century and strongly advocated rehabilitation of the term ‘evangelical’.[13] Long-time close friend and colleague, David Muir, notes that ‘at the centre of his ministry were three big ideas: making Christ credible in the public square, mediating the gospel as good news, and uniting evangelicals to transform society.’[14] He also co-authored (with David Killingray), Black Voices: The Shaping of our Christian Experience,[15] stories of black Britons whose faith, sacrifice, and service contributed to the makings of modern Britain but whose contribution is little known and largely forgotten. Their stories, which form part of a rich and fascinating fabric of modern British history, have generally been ignored. Joel highlighted this at a service at Westminster Abbey in 2018, marking the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMS Windrush bringing hundreds of West Indians to Britain to help with post-war reconstruction.

Joel Edwards was truly one of the outstanding mission leaders of the 21st century.

The leadership legacy of Joel Edwards illustrates the possibilities and value of immigrant churches in revitalizing Christianity in older Christian environments.[16] The milieu in which his Christian leadership was formed and exercised, including his formal theological training at the London School of Theology, enabled him to fully embrace a Theology of Mission as Integral Mission.[17] As Mike Talbot, Chair of the Evangelical Alliance of the UK, expressed, ‘Joel is an evangelical statesman who has made a significant contribution to the witness of the church in this land. He is respected across the Christian community, and beyond, and loved for his graciousness and his passion for the good news of Christ.’[18]

Joel Edwards was truly one of the outstanding mission leaders of the 21st century. The Caribbean Graduate School of Theology invested him with the Doctor of Divinity Degree (honoris causa) in 2006, and as President (2008-2016) I was proud to recognize his outstanding contribution to global mission, appointing him Distinguished Fellow of the Graduate School. Devon Dick wrote, ‘Joel used his 15 years as a freelance broadcaster with the BBC and 10 years leadership in Micah Challenge International . . . . to advance the welfare of the whole human race’—a phrase drawn from Jamaica’s National Pledge.[19]

Endnotes

  1. The Micah Challenge, established in 2008, was an offshoot of the Micah Global Network, which was established in 1999 as a global mission movement focused on Christian Mission as Integral Mission. https://www.micahnetwork.org/.
  2. Editor’s Note: Commander of the Order of the British Empire
  3. Marcia Dixon, ‘Community mourns Rev Joel Edwards,’ The Gleaner, 10 July 2021,
    https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/news/20210710/community-mourns-rev-joel-edwards; Ed Thornton, ‘Archbishops’ sad farewell to Joel Edwards,’ Church Times, 1 July 2021, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2021/2-july/news/uk/archbishops-sad-farewell-to-joel-edwards.
  4. Interview by the author, 5 August 2021, citing Jamaica’s national motto.
  5. Devon Dick, ‘Letter of the Day | Joel Edwards – A friend of Jamaica,’ The Gleaner, 6 July 2021, https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/letters/20210706/letter-day-joel-edwards-friend-jamaica.
  6. Jamaican Bishop Sam Vassel recalled in an interview by the author, 1 July 2021.
  7. Phillip Mohabir, ‘An Apostle to Britain,’ Israelolofinjana, 3 September 2012, https://israelolofinjana.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/philip-mohabir-an-apostle-to-britain/.
  8. ‘Rev Dr Joel Edwards CBE: his lasting legacy,’ Evangelical Alliance, 30 June 2021, https://www.eauk.org/news-and-views/rev-dr-joel-edwards-cbe-his-lasting-legacy.
  9. Ruth Gledhill, ‘Gays reject equality promoter, Dr Joel Edwards,’, The Times, 21 January 2008 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/gays-reject-equality-promoter-dr-joel-edwards-wswnqc86t56; Hilary White, ‘Outrage Over Appointment of Evangelical to British Human Rights Body,’ LIFESITE, 19 November 2007, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/outrage-over-appointment-of-evangelical-to-british-human-rights-body/.
  10. Joel Edwards, ‘The Letter of Joel Edwards to the UK Church,’ Premier Christianity, 14 September 2015, https://www.premierchristianity.com/home/the-letter-of-joel-edwards-to-the-uk-church/3372.article.
  11. The Micah Challenge was a global faith-based campaign which began at the start of this new millennium to mobilize public support for lifting millions of human beings out of hunger and extreme poverty. The poor, like all other human beings, it proposed, are made in the image of God and deserve to live in the dignity of what it means to be truly human. That project culminated in 2015. https://research.un.org/en/docs/dev/2000-2015
  12. Joel Edwards, An Agenda for Change: A Global Call for Spiritual and Social Transformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
  13. Joel Edwards, ‘Rehabilitating ‘Evangelical’ and Pursuing Spiritual and Social Transformation,’
    https://vimeo.com/215482080.
  14. R David Muir, ‘A tribute to my friend, Joel Edwards,’ Christianity Today, 8 July 2021, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/a.tribute.to.my.friend.joel.edwards/137072.htm.
  15. Joel Edwards and David Killingray, Black Voices: The Shaping of our Christian Experience (UK: IVP, 2007).
  16. Editor’s Note: See article by Sam George, entitled ‘Is God Reviving Europe Through Refugees?’ in May issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-05/god-reviving-europe-refugees.
  17. Advocates of Integral Mission were Latin American theologians and missiologists, particularly C. Rene Padilla, founding President of Micah Network. Joel affirmed Christian mission involving an integral relationship of word and deed. His ministry clearly demonstrated a passionate conviction about the visible and dynamic role of the church in society, especially, in the public square.
  18. ‘Evangelical Alliance leader to step down after 11 years,’ Christianity Today, 8 March 2008 https://www.christiantoday.com/article/evangelical.alliance.leader.to.step.down.after.11.years/17235.htm.
  19. Devon Dick, ‘Letter of the Day | Joel Edwards – A friend of Jamaica,’ The Gleaner, 6 July 2021, https://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/letters/20210706/letter-day-joel-edwards-friend-jamaica.

Las Newman is the Global Associate Director for Regions for the Lausanne Movement He previously served as Regional Director for the Caribbean. Las also organized and hosted the first Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel in Jamaica in 2012.
Previously he was associate General Secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) in Oxford, England, as well as President of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. He lives in Kingston, Jamaica.

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