A couple of weeks ago, a member of my Mormon ward acknowledged to me that it wasn’t until his mission that he realized blacks had once been denied the priesthood and temple entrance.
Elder B served in Central America from 1999 to 2001. His introduction to the divisive racial issue came while going through some old church magazines in an apartment that Mormon elders had long occupied.
“It bothered me so much that I had to go see the mission president so he could talk me off the ledge,” Elder B more or less told me.
I found B’s admission almost as stunning as the revelation 40 years ago that basically said we’d been wrong long enough, and it was time to make things right.
Note: That’s not exactly how the church would put it, but it more than works for me. What’s outrageous to me was that someone raised Mormon and in Utah would not be aware of the blacks and the priesthood/temple issue.
Growing up in the church, I always knew that black Mormon males were not allowed to hold the priesthood. It was a given. I don’t remember thinking about it much when I was younger.
You can’t really blame me. I was a kid. When some grim adults earnestly explain something like Heavenly Father made crows black because they wouldn’t help sea gulls eat the crickets, you basically take them at their word.
Besides, it made about as much sense as some of the other stuff I heard growing up Mormon — polygamy, United Order, Outer Darkness, Satan being a communist, and better dead than a nonvirgin.
The only part of church kids really pay attention to is the closing prayer, and since I was merely holding out for “Amen,” it never occurred to me to listen closely enough to hear if anyone said, “And thank you, Father, for keeping thy priesthood white, or at least brown.”
Later, when I developed some power of self-examination, I still went along with it. After all, not allowing people to hold the priesthood was something only a god or a pack of idiots could think up. Naturally, I opted for God.
It wasn’t until my own mission that I really started putting some thought into the race issue. The only person I physically baptized on my mission was a black woman.
I still remember the shocked look on her face and the shame I felt when we explained that her children would not be able to hold the priesthood or enter the temple.
When I told a district leader that I thought the discriminatory practice was contrary to the spirit of God, he urged me not to worry about it and instead focus on finding converts worthy of holding the priesthood to help shore up local church leadership.
Worthy? Really? Half the elders I knew weren’t worthy to be on missions, and yet here we were. A lot of the black people we were passing by were barely black.
Right then, I started wishing I had black blood in me. Even a teaspoon might be enough for disqualification. I could get sent home for having unworthy blood instead of telling the district leader to go pound sand.
After that, I made it a point to mention skin tone problems to the mission leaders. I still have a weekly letter to the mission president, wherein I mentioned that a guy we were teaching had “two freckles and some extra body to his hair.” Should we proceed anyway?
It came back to me with “The Lord’s work is a serious work, Elder Kirby” written in red. Since it wasn’t the mission president’s handwriting, I smelled an assistant.
Five years later, while unloading a truck at a tire store in Holladay, I heard the news about President Spencer W. Kimball’s revelation that all worthy males could henceforth hold the priesthood and black women could enter Mormon temples.
It was a serious revelation, but I was still Mormon — and maybe a bit of a moron. The first thing I thought was, “Wait. What about Martians?”