Two years ago, soul diva and Mormon convert Gladys Knight brought a multiracial audience of Latter-day Saints to tears with her haunting rendition of “Somewhere.”
“There’s a place for us,” the African American singer crooned to her listeners who had gathered in the cavernous Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the June 8, 1978, end of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ centurylong ban on blacks holding the priesthood and entering its temples. “Somewhere a place for us.”
The animated “Be One” gala offered an unprecedented recognition of how black Latter-day Saints contributed to the faith’s collective life. Still, that anniversary evening was not the catalyst for change that many black members had desired. It would take another two years and nationwide outrage to get white Latter-day Saints’ attention.
The 2018 celebration showcased the sometimes-painful aspects of Mormonism’s past, when those of African descent were excluded from the faith’s highest rituals, honored its black pioneering members who held onto their faith despite those obstacles, and promised a brighter tomorrow.
Alice Faulkner Burch had hoped the evening would provide a highly spiritual experience, and it didn’t disappoint.
The black community’s history of membership in the church “was well told and the Holy Spirit was strongly present,” Burch recalls. “A historic event did take place — for the first time an event just [focusing] on the African American members was done on a grand scale, was supported by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and was held in the Conference Center.”
It gave them a sense that more institutional changes might be forthcoming.
Some movement did happen in the ensuing 24 months, most notably the church’s continuing partnership with the NAACP. It also saw the first African American, Peter Johnson, called as a general authority, and the first black general officer, Ahmad Corbitt, chosen as a counselor in the Young Men presidency.
But, as a launching pad, the magical anniversary fell short.
“Forty years our people wandered in a leadership-imposed desert,” Burch says. “I am one who hoped an apology [for the former ban] or an acknowledgment of error would be issued. But none was. I was one who hoped that major change for our community would take place going forward, but, two years later, it still hasn't been.”
Ironically, the daily protests in Utah and around the country against racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd may have a far more lasting impact on white Latter-day Saints and their leaders than anything done inside the faith in recent years.
On Monday, church President Russell M. Nelson decried racism on his Facebook page, calling on racists to repent. Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen says the church-owned school “stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”
Hundreds of white Latter-day Saints have been showing up to the protests, some carrying signs emblazoned with a scripture from their unique scripture, the Book of Mormon — which says, “Black and white, bond and free, male and female … all are alike unto God.” The faith’s stake (regional) president in Atlanta encouraged members to join in Friday’s interfaith march against racism.
Many of these white members have been posting Black Lives Matter on their social media accounts, calling their black friends to apologize for microaggressions, statements and assumptions they made in the past, talking about how to educate themselves, and sharing ways to discuss racism with their children.
To Cathy Stokes, a retired public health worker in Salt Lake City, it is a puzzle why Floyd’s death seems to have struck such a nerve, when blacks face hostile acts, threats and violence nearly every day and their deaths at the hands of police have shown up before in numerous news accounts.
Maybe the coronavirus pandemic and isolation have “so stunned us that we can finally see it,” Stokes suggests. “I am 83 years old and never, in all my conscious years, would I have thought we would have all this stuff going on.”
But she welcomes the moment.
“More often than not, things don't get better on their own,” she says. “There has to be something to accelerate the good.”
‘Our voices haven’t been heard’
After the “Be One” show, more and more whites began to attend the monthly meetings of Genesis, a long-standing Utah support group for black Latter-day Saints.
But many seemed to see it as "almost a free concert of the Unity Gospel Choir,” says Sandy resident Anna Madry, who has attended Genesis for 17 years, eight of which she served in the group’s Young Women presidency.
Before 2018, Genesis meetings included a speaker and then open mic for sharing testimonies, which gave many black members who feel uncomfortable in their home wards, or congregations, a chance to explore their experiences in a safe place, Madry says.
These days, there is less time for testimonies, she says, and white attendees have overtaken the black members. “Our voices haven’t been heard.”
She worries especially about black teens who go to Latter-day Saint seminary and still hear racist statements — such as that black skin is a curse from God (a view the church has disavowed) — and “don’t have someone they trust to ask if that is true.”
Indeed, last year the church itself made a blunder with a Sunday school manual, allowing old language about skin as a curse to make it into the printed Sunday school text. It was quickly corrected online, but copies of the wrong version had already been sent to members throughout the world.
During the past two years, overt racist episodes have continued to erupt at BYU, including examples of hate speech in posters and panels, detailed this week in the Provo school’s newspaper, The Daily Universe.
Earlier this year, some white BYU students asked racist questions of panelists discussing immigration, including, “What is the percentage of African Americans on food stamps?” and "Why do African Americans hate the police?”
In his statement this week, Worthen acknowledged: “We know there is work to do, on campus and throughout the nation, for us to better come together, to address injustice and to truly love one another.”
‘We’ll find a new way of living’
The “Be One” effort was a good “awareness-raising presentation,” Stokes says, but there was no follow-up plan.
When the church cut its Sunday meetings schedule from three hours to two, she says, leaders outlined clearly how that extra hour should be used. Why not cut another half-hour, she quips, and tell members to spend that 30 minutes learning “about people you think you have nothing in common with and who don’t look like you?”
LaShawn Williams, a therapist and an assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University, would love to see Latter-day Saints search their hearts and motives like prophets of old, asking God if they “are clear yet” of sins such as prejudice or need to dig deeper.
Williams wonders why it took so long for the church president to address Floyd’s death, she says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, but she praises Nelson’s inclusion of Latter-day Saints — “any of us" — in his condemnation of prejudice and the need to repent.
That was “fantastic,” she says. It would have been even more wonderful if Nelson had spelled out explicitly that “as a church with our own history, we, too, are called to repent, and we're willing to engage that process.”
Latter-day Saints need to “critically engage with his statement,” Williams says, “and extract from it the work that we aren't really willing to do.”
Kimberly Applewhite, a psychologist with the Utah Center for Evidence Based Treatment, would like to see a conversation about racism in church curriculum, in talks at General Conference at least twice a year and even in temple recommend interviews.
Applewhite knows that eliminating racism is a slow, daunting process. On some level, she believes Latter-day Saints “will not really get close to resolving this in my lifetime,” she says, “unless Jesus comes in my lifetime.”
That is a “sad reality,” she says, which could mean that the dream of somewhere, sometime is a long way off.