In a 2020 address, President Russell M. Nelson asked the faithful in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to “lead out” in combating racism, and, though clearly a daunting task, lifelong member James C. Jones was eager to join the effort.
To the Black Latter-day Saint, who is studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, it was exactly what Jesus asks of all believers. As the Bible and several prominent preachers — including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — repeatedly attest, racism is a sin.
In February, Jones gave an impassioned speech at the Black LDS Legacy Conference about battling discrimination in Mormonism. Several top leaders at Deseret Book, the church’s official publishing company, heard it and were so moved they asked Jones to put together a video course on “Abandoning Attitudes and Actions of Prejudice.”
He was open to the possibility — but wary. Would the editors sanitize his rhetoric or would he be able to say what he wanted, in the way that he wanted?
Jones was pleasantly surprised by their willingness to give him full control. So he dove in.
After two months of strenuous preparation, Jones had put together five 10-minute lectures and a five-minute introduction. They included multiple stories, scriptures, quotes from Latter-day Saint general authorities, and practical suggestions. The how-to videos were deep and well-sourced, with a religious tone and a powerful message.
Deseret Book’s team videotaped Jones in April, postproduction was completed during the summer, and the course, which was about an hour altogether, was slated to air online in October as part of the publisher’s MasterClass “Seek” series.
On Dec. 1, however, Jones got an email, saying his course had been canceled because of a Facebook post from August, when the Black podcaster had criticized a controversial speech by apostle Jeffrey R. Holland at Brigham Young University.
Holland criticized a former valedictorian for coming out as gay in his commencement speech and urged faculty and staff to defend the church’s stance against same-sex marriage.
Jones co-hosts the podcast “Beyond the Block” with Derek Knox, who describes himself as a “queer convert to the church.” The Black graduate student felt he needed to speak up for the marginalized everywhere, including LGBTQ members.
“To condemn the expression of someone’s immutable identity in the name of Christ is satanic,” Jones wrote about Holland’s speech. “I question the loyalty of every so-called disciple of Christ who doesn’t hold their institutions accountable to the principles of the Christ we follow…the same Christ that literally said ‘nothing’ of same-sex relationships and much about compassion, justice, and equity.”
After some back-and-forth between Jones and Deseret Book editors about the Facebook post and his course, it came to the attention of the publishing house’s president, Laurel Day.
This content is crucial to the Latter-day Saint collective community, she concluded. “That class has to be heard.”
Because of the Facebook post about Holland, the church publishing house did, indeed, drop the course from its MasterClass series, but Day released the content to Jones, which allows him to be intentional about when and how he shares it.
It will be a “blessing,” she said, to those who hear it and to the whole church.
Deseret Book was “grateful to have the chance to work with you and I was happy to hear that your experience working with the team in developing the filmed course was positive,” Day wrote in an email to Jones. “I am saddened that the post-filming interactions were not handled better. I am sincerely sorry for that. You deserved a better experience with us.”
For him, the move was a “win/win” for both parties.
“I give credit to Deseret Book for surrendering the content. They were under no obligation to do that,” he said recently. “They modeled a wonderful example of repentance and restitution. I have no ill feelings.”
And now Jones has published the videos on his own platform — https://btbacademy.thinkific.com/courses/lds-anti-racism-101-abandoning-attitudes-and-actions-of-prejudice.
Part of a plan
For Deseret Book, Jones’ course was just one of the many ways the publisher is striving to heed Nelson’s mandate.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, Day said she took steps to root out racism in the company and in the church culture it serves. She created a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) committee to advise her.
“We enlisted the services of a couple of consultants to lead anti-bias training for all employees,” she said in an interview. “We are taking steps to be informed, to be sensitive to our blind spots, and to make sure that Deseret Book is a more inclusive brand.
“I am personally committed,” Day said, “to making sure this organization is a more welcoming place to all members of the worldwide church.”
Such an approach is deeply meaningful to Jones as well.
Fighting racism “touches my professional and academic life,” said the Latter-day Saint, who is studying Black liberation theology at Union. “And it is deeply personal, too.”
He is humbled to offer this “groundbreaking,” course, he said, the first real anti-racism course aimed specifically at church members.
A Latter-day Saint approach
Many white faith groups in the U.S. are steeped in historic racism, but the LDS Church has an extra challenge: For more than a century, it barred Black members from its priesthood and temples.
That prohibition ended in 1978, but prejudice has persisted in some members to the present — which may be among the reasons Nelson has spoken out about it. And why the Utah-based faith has partnered with the NAACP on several projects.
Aware of the church’s past, Jones tackles the topic by drawing on members’ own beliefs and language.
He aims the course at those in their 20s and 30s who want to talk more confidently about race — and a better way “to identify racism and minister to those dealing with it, and a knowledge of how to engage in honest, intentional, and protracted learning about race.”
Again and again, Jones returns to examples from Jesus’ sayings and parables and urges listeners to take action.
It says in James 4:17, “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him, it is sin.”
He urges listeners to read and study history, to develop close friendships with Blacks in their congregations, neighborhoods or cities, and to listen to what they say about their experiences.
“Trying to understand Christianity from a white point of view is like trying to understand Jesus from a Roman point of view,” he says in the course. “This idea of needing to understand those on the margins in order to understand Christ is validated by Jesus’ words when he himself identifies with the marginalized.”
According to one scholar, there are four roles in the struggle against racism: advocate, helper, rebel and organizer. “Martin Luther King Jr. might be the most famous example of a rebel in recent history,” Jones says in his outline. “He spoke loudly and unapologetically against people and institutions that dehumanized Black people and the poor.”
Jesus was also a rebel.
“Multiple times during his ministry he disregarded both cultural norms and religious law,” Jones says, “in favor of radical compassion through his speech and his actions.”
But the Christian Savior was also a healer, who “snatched victory from defeat, hope from despair, liberty from captivity, light from darkness.”
The best place for Latter-day Saints to start, he says, is in their own backyard.
“Ask God to show you the injustice that is nearest to you and start there,” Jones says. “No effort is too small.”