Black Mormons Struggle for Acceptance in the Church
Transcript of Interview:
Darius Gray, President, The Genesis Group,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The following appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune on November 4, 2004, and was written by Rosemary Winters.

Ebony Washington thought he had finally found his home. A black teen raised in foster care around the country, Washington joined the LDS Church in 1996 in the Bronx, N.Y., and shortly after moved to Provo to find his place in a community of Saints.

But when he arrived in Utah, he was crestfallen. "I had been led to believe that this was—quote, unquote—'Zion.'" Instead of finding a warm embrace, Washington felt like his white counterparts viewed him with hostility and suspicion.

Despite being a faithful member of the church, "they didn't see me as that; they saw me as the next gang banger," Washington says.

His experience reflects the frustrations that many black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel, particularly in Utah's predominantly white congregations. A book released nationwide last month, Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press, $34.95), takes a new look at the issue. In eight essays, Mormon historians and sociologists discuss the dilemmas of black Latter-day Saints, what they see as the persistence of racist teachings in church settings and remedies that might increase black membership in the church.

While membership in the Church was open to people of any racial or ethnic origin, black men historically could not be ordained into the all-male lay priesthood. In 1978, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced he had had a revelation ending that policy.

"For over a century male members of African descent were not given the priesthood for reasons we believe are known to God," church spokesman Dale Bills said Friday. "Various opinions about the reason for this restriction were superceded by the 1978 revelation."

So the church moved forward with the new policy, doubling its missionary efforts among blacks in the United States and in Africa.

But 26 years later, results are mixed. More than 180,000 Africans have converted, but it is impossible to measure how many black American members there are because the church does not track membership by race. Estimates range in the thousands, and some studies have suggested that more than half of black American converts leave the church and that often this is, in part, due to concerns about racism.

"To change its image as a racist organization, the church needs to forthrightly confront its past history of racial exclusion and discrimination," wrote Black and Mormon co-editors Darron Smith and Newell Bringhurst.

Old folklore: Racism in the LDS Church, Smith says, is primarily manifested as old folklore that was used to justify excluding blacks from the priesthood, but has not been stomped out by leadership. Ideas that black people are cursed descendents of Cain, one of the Bible's greatest villains, and that blacks were less valiant in the premortal life, essentially "fence-sitters" in the battle between God and Satan in heaven, continue to be taught and believed by many Mormons, although not sanctioned as doctrine.

"We can't expect [racist myths] to die a natural death if we don't interrogate them, deconstruct them, disavow them . . . [and] unless there is a proactive initiative," says Smith, who teaches sociology classes at Brigham Young University. "It is so critical that this be brought before the church leaders. They might assume that all is well, or they may not understand how widespread and serious this is."

Don Harwell, president of Genesis, a support group for black Mormons that was established by church President Harold B. Lee in 1971, says discrimination is common but subtle. "It's the feeling of not being wanted. It's the feeling that people are looking for an excuse to tell you why you're not worthy."

Harwell frequently hears from black members who struggle to maintain their faith in the LDS Church when they are treated poorly by its members. Recently, a black woman in an Ohio ward told him she had gone to a white woman's home as visiting teacher, but was not allowed to enter until her companion, another white woman, joined her. "I know the church is true," Harwell says. "But there are other people who don't have as strong a testimony as I do, and I would like them to be able to feel welcome and be active in the church."

Don't mix: Natasha Ball, president of Black Scholars United at the University of Utah, has served an LDS mission and says her strong testimony keeps her going to church despite her occasional discomfort. Black members often have to give up elements of their culture to feel accepted, she says.

"My race and religion just don't mix," she says. "I have to keep them very separate but equal."

As a single 27-year-old, Ball says dating in the LDS Church, which encourages members to marry within the faith, is challenging for black Mormons because many white members still frown on interracial marriage. She asked a white male friend recently why he wouldn't date her.

"Because you're black," she says he told her. "I just don't find black women attractive."

Not finding any Mormons to date, Ball has sought relationships outside the church.

Though critical of the LDS Church's handling of race, these Mormons still are quick to defend the institution. Racism, they say, can be found in most white-dominated churches.

Cardell Jacobsen, a white sociology professor at BYU who wrote an essay in Black and Mormon, says white Mormons are not any more likely than the rest of the white population to hold racist views when compared in national surveys. He attributes racial prejudice in Utah primarily to a lack of contact with black people, who make up just 0.8 percent of the state's population.

But black members experiencing any degree of racial discrimination at church is a problem, says Jacobsen, who is a bishop. "We are all brothers and sisters. We are all members of the church and that should not happen here."

In a priesthood meeting, Val Ewell, an active black church member in Logan, heard another man say the only problem in their ward was "the n----- girl" who had recently joined the congregation. Ewell, a member of his stake high council at the time, reprimanded the man and reported the incident to his stake president. The stake president, however, said the matter should be handled "quietly," and Ewell was released from the council shortly afterward.

"The church needs, at a very senior level, to step forward and say these kinds of terms, these kinds of statements, these kinds of actions will not be countenanced in the church," Ewell says. "I don't think the stake presidents and the bishops, the foot soldiers of the church, are going to do anything until the brethren tell them to . . . directly in language that they understand."

After his disappointment in Zion, Washington struggled to remain active in the LDS Church. Because he believed Mormons were God's people, he wondered if a church could be true if its believers treated him differently for the way he looked, talked and dressed.

Washington now lives in Salt Lake City and is pursuing degrees in mathematics and physics at the University of Utah. He returned to full church participation a few years ago, concluding that some people in the church, not the religion itself, were to blame.

"The gospel of Jesus Christ is my sustaining force," he says. "That's how I subsist and survive."

Interview with Darius Gray

Q: Describe for us the impact of LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball's 1978 revelation.

It impacted every aspect of the Latter-Day Saints' lives. It impacted not only black Latter-day Saints, but white Latter-day Saints as well. For the first time, we as black Latter-day Saints could go to the temple, be sealed to our family, and perform those ordinances that we consider sealing ordinances. That never had been available to us and now it was.

Q: What is the background of Genesis?

Genesis was begun in 1971. Three black Latter-day Saint men approached the LDS Church, and said, "We see that there are some common issues within the LDS black community, and we need some help. We need to find a way of being able to meet the needs of our people." We had a lot of our members dropping away, becoming inactive in the church. As a result of that, we started meeting with three of the General Authorities, three of the Apostles. We met for over a quite a lengthy period of time and from that came an organization. We were called to be the presidents of an organization, and it was given to us to come up with a name. The name we selected was "Genesis," a beginning. I think it is interesting that Genesis began in October of 1971, and just seven years later, the Priesthood was available. I think we needed to have that happen, we needed to have Genesis in place to transition to the Priesthood.

Q: Let's talk about the group's numbers and how it's grown, because now more people are coming into the religion.

When Genesis started, we had maybe six people, I think, in the organization. But today we don't even know what the numbers are; they're that high. Even like today, we will have three, four hundred people here—and that's pretty standard. Of our monthly meetings, we have between eighty and hundred and forty people in attendance at the meeting. That includes the children.

We have members not only here in Salt Lake City, but across the county. Today we have people here from Portland, Oregon, and Atlanta, Georgia. We have an outreach to support black Latter-day Saints wherever they are. It's not a black-only organization, and that's important to know. Genesis has never been segregated. Our membership is probably 60 percent black, and 40 percent white. We have parents who have developed bi-racial kids, multi-racial kids—they are a part of Genesis. So we have a nice mix. We like to think of ourselves as equal opportunity Christians.

Q: What's going on with Genesis today? What's the purpose of the organization?

Each year we have an annual Genesis picnic. This time we are also celebrating the priesthood as well. It is a special time when we get together and we can share each other's company, and be relaxed not in a church setting, although our church settings are more relaxed than most LDS settings. It is just a fun time for all.

Q: You were LDS before the revelation. Can you talk about pre- and post-feelings? What it meant to you?

There weren't too many. I think when I joined the church in 1964 it was estimated that worldwide there were maybe three hundred or four hundred Latter-day Saints of African decent. Today, there are over one hundred thousand in Africa alone, and tens of thousands in the Caribbean. How many in the United States? I have no idea. More tens of thousands in South and Central America.

The difference was just not one of number, though. I remember being in a Sacrament meeting, pre-1978, and the sacrament was being passed and there was special care taken by this person that not only did I not officiate, but I didn't touch the sacrament tray. They made sure that I could take the sacrament, but that I did not touch the tray and it was passed around me. That was awfully hard, considering that often times those who were officiating were young men in their early teens, and they had that priesthood. I valued that priesthood, but it wasn't available.

Q: Is there still racism in the church?

There is racism in the world. There is racism in the United States. Sadly, I think there is a resurgence in racism. I think I am seeing more now than I've seen in forty years. Is there racism in the church? Yes, because we are a cross-section of the United States, of the people here. Now, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints racist? No, never has been. But some of those people within the church have those tendencies. You have to separate the two.

Q: People might think that the Genesis group just meets in one group all by itself. But in fact, my understanding is you meet in the wards of where ever you are, but once a month you come together. Let's clear up the misconception about how you meet, when you meet, etc.

We meet once a month. We are all active in our own wards, and we hold positions, many of us, in our own home wards in our stakes. Then we come together and share and celebrate who we are. We don't have to lose our culture. We don't have to lose our racial identity to be within the gospel.

We come together. It's kind of like an LDS meeting that you might find in a sacrament meeting, but you don't hear an "Amen" in an LDS sacrament meeting. But you can hear that at Genesis. There isn't applause after a musical number in an LDS sacrament meeting, and there generally is in Genesis. You generally don't hear gospel or spirituals in an LDS meeting, and we do at Genesis. So, we're a blend—we have LDS, we have our racial backgrounds, our cultural backgrounds, and they go together very well. You don't have to have one exclusion of the other.

Q: Can you tell us about the first president of Genesis?

Ruffin Bridgeforth was the first president of Genesis. He was ordained to that position by Gordon B. Hinckley in 1971. He held that call in the church 'till his death. He was never released 'till he died, twenty-five years and some months later. A dear man, a grand man, probably the most Christian man I've ever known: humble, soft-spoken, knowledgeable, that quiet wisdom that leads so well. He is greatly missed, loved, and remembered.

Q: How does the future look to you and the Genesis organization?

I hope that the future—long-range, thirty, forty years—will be that there is no Genesis group. When Genesis was formed, we shared the building with the Norwegian and Danish branches. Most of the converts to the LDS church at that period in time were from Europe. As the flow now has started to come from other parts of the world, there isn't the need for support organizations for Norwegians or Danes. Instead, you will find listings in a phone book for a Cambodian, a Thai, a Chinese, an Hispanic-speaking ward. Those sorts of wards are there now. In the long run, as everyone becomes more woven into the fabric of the church, I don't think that those wards will exist, and I don't think there will be any need for Genesis. Right now, we are a safety net. Once things are secure, those things are no longer needed.

Q: Anything else you would like to say that I have not brought up to ask you for the purposes of the viewing audience?

I think in the past that there has been a misconception among the blacks the community that we as black Mormons give up our culture, our heritage, to be part of this "white church." I don't see it as a white church. I don't see Christianity as a white religion. We are as black and proud of our heritage as anyone else in any other church, and I would hope that those attitudes might change as well.