Reach out to the ‘invisible,’ NAACP leader urges Latter-day Saints on eve of big announcement with LDS Church

Utah’s predominant faith and civil rights organizations prepare to launch more initiatives in their unlikely alliance.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, speaks during an event on May 17, 2018, when LDS and NAACP leaders emphasized a need for greater civility and call for an end to prejudice. President Russell M. Nelson is at the left. The group plan to make another announcement Monday.

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, took to the podium Sunday in a multicultural Latter-day Saint congregation on Salt Lake City’s west side to deliver a sermon about invisibility.

Johnson, who grew up listening to Baptist preachers, compared the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well with Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man.”

She was an outcast, drawing water from the well at the hottest period of the day “because she was invisible,” the NAACP leader told about 75 mask-wearing attendees in the Rose Park First Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “She was there in pain, hoping no one would recognize her.”

In Ellison’s classic book, he talked about traveling across this country trying to find his identity, while everyone ignored him.

Both the woman and the novel’s narrator were outcasts, unseen by others.

It reminded Johnson about the importance of an African greeting, “I see the Christ in you.”

As we “stand next to our neighbors,” he said, “we need to see the goodness in each other.”

Johnson and a small delegation from the NAACP are in Utah for a big announcement Monday about joint initiatives with the state’s predominant faith.

This was the second Latter-day Saint worship service the delegates attended Sunday.

In the morning, they went to the 14th Ward, which is close to the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City, where they were accompanied by Latter-day Saint apostles Ronald A. Rasband and Gerrit W. Gong.

Johnson spoke there as well, as did the two apostles and Tracy Yeulande Browning, of the church’s Relief Society Advisory Council.

“It was inspiring,” said Trovon Williams, the NAACP’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “I loved the practical application for day-to-day experiences of the two great commandments — to love God and your neighbor.”

The speakers emphasized not preaching, but practicing it, Williams said. They encouraged “celebrating” common bonds.

The Utah-based faith and the nation’s oldest civil rights organization began their unlikely alliance in May 2018.

On the 64th anniversary of the landmark anti-segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, church President Russell M. Nelson held a joint news conference with Johnson and other top NAACP officers to celebrate their mutual respect for all people and to “demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony, and mutual respect” while eliminating “prejudice of all kinds.”

The newfound partners also announced plans for future joint efforts.

“In meetings this morning,” Nelson said at the time, “we have begun to explore ways — such as education and humanitarian service — in which our respective members and others can serve and move forward together.”

It was an unexpected and unfolding collaboration. After all, the church had a centurylong ban barring Black members from its all-male priesthood and from its temples. That policy had kept the faith at odds with the NAACP until well after that prohibition ended in 1978.

Last year, high-level representatives of the two groups again delivered much the same message opposing racism but during a much different moment — coming amid nationwide protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

“Unitedly we declare that the answers to racism, prejudice, discrimination and hate will not come from government or law enforcement alone,” they wrote in an op-ed for Medium. “Solutions will come as we open our hearts to those whose lives are different than our own, as we work to build bonds of genuine friendship, and as we see each other as the brothers and sisters we are — for we are all children of a loving God.”

Still, there were questions about exactly what the church was doing toward the outlined goals.

The NAACP is “looking forward to the church doing more to undo the 150 years of damage they did by how they treated African Americans in the church,” Wilbur Colom, special counsel to the NAACP, said then, and by their “endorsement of how African Americans were treated throughout the country, including segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

On Sunday, Colom, who is moving on to other projects, was among the NAACP delegation meeting with Latter-day Saint apostles and attending two of the church’s sacrament meetings.

“We are here to continue what we started,” Colom told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We’ve made amazing progress together.”