Faithful Witness
New Film and Revived Group Help Many
Feel at Home in Their Church
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune


Darius Gray
Darius Gray: co-author of a new film about African-Americans in the LDS Church.

Darius Gray has been answering the same question for 40 years: Why would an African-American join the LDS Church, which didn't allow Blacks to be priests in its all-male lay clergy until 1978?

The calls keep coming from Blacks and Whites in every state, in and out of the Church. And, with the ease of Googling, it's virtually guaranteed that any person of color will be well aware of Mormonism's former racial policy.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and others already have raised the issue in Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, with questions about the candidate's participation in a church that was once restrictive against Blacks.

Gray, the gentle author and businessman who led the Genesis Group for African-American Mormons from 1997 to 2003, has become a kind of helpline. He and others in the group have counseled privately with hundreds of Black members and responded to media queries. He and Margaret Blair Young co-wrote a trilogy, tracing the history of Blacks in the LDS Church.

While the issue may never be conclusively put to rest, Gray and Young hope the documentary film they've been working on for four years will add important context and move the conversation forward.

"Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons," due to be completed in August, explores the African-American presence in the LDS Church from its earliest days and confronts the hard issues that surfaced in the most turbulent years of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

It discusses the 1978 revelation ending the ban and describes the lives and challenges of modern Black Mormon pioneers. It includes never-released footage of interviews shot in 1968 and many rare archival photographs as well as interviews with members, social scientists, clergy, and historians.

"This is not a sanitized nor a bitter piece. We are neither proselytizing nor bashing," Gray said this week. "We present it in a balanced fashion. Some Blacks and Whites remain in the Church; others have left over this issue."

The film is a chance for contemporary Black Mormons to "share their joys, excitement, sadness, and struggles," he says. "We live with the perception of a racist institution. Our stories dispel that notion and add to the fabric of Mormon culture."

(For more information on the film, go to http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com/.

Understanding the Past

Black LDS leaders
Helvecio Martins, third from left, with Genesis Group leaders Darius Gray, Ruffin Bridgeforth (since deceased), and Don Harwell. Martins was the first Black man to serve as an LDS General Authority.Photo courtesy of Darius Gray.

Jerri Harwell joined the LDS Church in Detroit in 1977 and was denied in her attempt to serve a mission until after 1978. For 30 years, she has reached out to other Black members, helping sustain their faith and understand their importance to the Church.

In the past few years, Harwell has delighted audiences at parades, schools, and This Is the Place Heritage Park on Salt Lake City's east bench with her portrayal of Jane Manning James, an early Black Mormon convert.

Unlike several Black men who accompanied Brigham Young to the valley, James was not a slave. She was a strong, determined, independent woman, convinced that God directed her toward The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the early days of the Church, there was no official policy forbidding Blacks from holding the priesthood. Mormon founder Joseph Smith publicly opposed slavery and ordained at least one Black man, Elijah Abel.

But after Young took over the fledgling faith, he attached to it prejudices, common in America at the time, that Blacks were inherently inferior. No longer were men with even a drop of African blood allowed to be ordained to the priesthood, which otherwise was available to virtually all males starting at age 12. (Women of any race are not ordained in the LDS priesthood.) Black men and women could be members, but not hold any significant positions. They couldn't be leaders, serve missions, or be married in one of the faith's temples.

The policy mirrored American views until the mid-20th century, with the rising of America's civil-rights movement. In the 1960s and '70s, LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo faced protests from other schools, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was the target of boycotts around the nation.

In response, Mormon leaders and writers sought justification in long-held teachings, some used by Christians to defend slavery.

Some taught that Africans were "cursed with black skin" as descendants of the biblical Noah's son Ham. The Bible says that because Ham saw his father's naked body, he and his descendants were cursed to be the "servant of servants."

To this, Mormons added a unique twist: that Blacks were somehow "less valiant" than other races in the spirit world before this life.

In 1968, Gray was a young reporter at Mormon-owned KSL. An independent filmmaker interviewed him and three other Black Mormons on "the question." The current documentary reinterviews three of the four, all of whom remain faithful.

"This is where God wanted me to be," Gray says. "Then and now."

A Joyous Ending

Children
Children from the Genesis Group play before one of the group's monthly meetings at an LDS wardhouse in Murray. Photo by Steven Holt, The Salt Lake Tribune.

On June 9, 1978, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the Church was opening its priesthood ranks to "all worthy men," including those of African descent.

The change brought a string of firsts: First Black priest ordained in Utah. First Black missionary. First Black bishop. First Black couple married in the temple. First Black men ordained in Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Jamaica, Nigeria. First Black general authority. Africans began joining the LDS Church in droves.

It brought relief to many white Mormons who were mortified by charges of racism leveled at them and their church. For Black Mormons, however, the past is still very present. Eliminating racism is as tough as stamping out mercury. It keeps morphing into different shapes.

Danor Gerald, an actor and film student at Utah Valley State College who is helping to edit the documentary, joined the LDS Church in 1994. Growing up in Texas, Gerald knew overt racism, but he knew nothing about the Church's past statements until he moved to Utah.

"I was surprised by the racist folklore that I had never heard before," he says.

Today, many Black Mormons report subtle differences in the way they are treated, as if they are not full members but a separate group. A few even have been called "the n-word" at church and in the hallowed halls of the temple. They look in vain at photos of Mormon general authorities, hoping to see their own faces reflected there.

They are faithful Latter-day Saints who support the Church and "Genesis gives them a sense of belonging," says Don Harwell, Genesis president since 2003.

The community of Black Mormons was created in 1971 as a kind of support group, with the late Ruffin Bridgeforth as president and Gray as one of his two counselors. The group met monthly to share spiritual testimonies, sermons, and socializing. After 1978, the need to gather slowly diminished and it became dormant for a decade. But in October 1996, many Black members wanted to reconnect, so Genesis re-emerged stronger than ever.

Today the meetings attract some 350 people, many of whom are White families who have adopted Black children. They want their children to see African-Americans as leaders and role models.

"Many mistake the gospel culture for white culture," says Harwell, a counselor in his LDS stake Young Men's presidency. "We are examples that the gospel is more inclusive."

Similar groups are springing up in Hattiesburg, Miss.; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles; Oakland; and Houston.

"Genesis exists to help missionaries with potential converts and new members to feel at home in the Church," Harwell says. "We are always trying to help."