This Mormon Sunday school teacher was dismissed for using church's own race essay in lesson

First Published      Last Updated May 10 2015 04:28 pm

Religion » Sunday school instructor dismissed after he tapped faith’s writings to talk about race and priesthood.

It all started with a question.

The Mormon youth simply asked his white Sunday school teacher why the man's Nigerian wife and her family would join a church that had barred blacks from being ordained to its all-male priesthood until 1978. Why, the student wanted to know, was the ban instituted in the first place?

To answer the teen's inquiry, Brian Dawson turned to the Utah-based faith's own materials, including its groundbreaking 2013 essay, "Race and the Priesthood." His research prompted an engaging discussion with his class of 12- to 14-year-olds.

But it didn't please his local lay leaders, who removed him from his teaching assignment — even though the essay has been approved by top Mormon leaders and appears on the church's official website lds.org.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the handling of the Sunday school incident, but reiterated its efforts to spread the word about the race article and its other essays on Mormon history and theology.

The LDS Church "has communicated the value of these essays in many ways, including direct correspondence to priesthood leaders," spokesman Doug Andersen says. "In addition, church-owned media, social-media sharing and Facebook have been effective in making these essays more widely available. The essays are also translated into numerous languages."

Nonetheless, the essay on race, says Tamu Smith, co-author of "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons," is not all that familiar to the LDS faithful and, often, their congregational leaders.

"The majority of the church doesn't know about it," says Smith, who has traveled the country for book signings and speaking events. "My former stake president in Provo would not have known about it, either, if I hadn't called it to his attention."

Despite the essay being included in the latest curriculum for LDS high school and college students, she says, "many seminary teachers [for high school], institute [college] teachers, and even some people teaching at Brigham Young University are blind to it — even when you point things out to them."

It's "great" that the essay is on the church website, Smith says, "but people don't believe it."

It was neither signed nor penned by the governing First Presidency, nor has it been mentioned, alluded to, or footnoted in speeches by LDS authorities at the faith's semiannual General Conferences.

Smith is all in favor of speaking openly about black Mormon history, especially at church meetings, and acknowledging mistakes — even by LDS leaders.

"You would think bishops and stake presidents would have a vested interest in telling the truth about history," she says. "Sometimes, they act like they don't — because they're afraid."

Dawson, however, has no such fear.

A tough question • Last fall in Honolulu, Dawson, a BYU-Hawaii graduate and a returned Mormon missionary, faced a gaggle of teens in his Sunday school class.

He heard the question and took a breath.

You know, he began, we could rely on the personal witness of believing black members, but there is also a church-approved document the class could read together. It's called "Race and the Priesthood" and was published in December 2013 on the faith's own website.

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