‘Transformational partnership’ — LDS Church donating nearly $10M to help Black Americans

“Together, we want to make a difference,” President Russell M. Nelson says of “bold” new educational and humanitarian initiatives with the NAACP and United Negro College Fund.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amos C. Brown and LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

In the most expansive move of its three-year partnership with the NAACP, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is donating nearly $10 million for three new educational and humanitarian initiatives.

President Russell M. Nelson said during a Monday news conference in the faith’s Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City that the church will fund for three years a $1 million annual scholarship donation overseen by the United Negro College Fund that will help young Black students in the United States.

Beginning this fall, it will provide $5,000 scholarships to 58 full-time students each year, hoping to see them through to graduation.

Among the requirements, applicants will need to write an essay on the topic: “How do you plan to build mutual respect and understanding within your circle of influence?”

The United Negro College Fund “is an important institution in the African American community,” said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who himself is a graduate of a UNCF-member university.

The Utah-based faith also will provide $250,000 in one-time financial backing for an Amos C. Brown Student Fellowship to Ghana, Nelson said, and hopes the experience “will allow selected students from the USA an opportunity to learn more about their heritage.”

The church has been growing rapidly in the African nation, which is home to nearly 90,000 members, 27 stakes (or clusters and congregations), and will be getting a second Latter-day Saint temple.

“I am excited to be able to take young people back to Ghana,” Johnson said, “and instill in them, the importance of who they are, how they ended up here, and [help them] foster a more inclusive society.”

The NAACP’s goal is “to advocate for public policy and policy change,” he said. “We need to have young people in the policy pipeline. Scholarship is crucial to that.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

In 2019, the NAACP took about 300 of its members to Ghana, Johnson told The Salt Lake Tribune, as part of a United Nations program.

It was a powerful experience, he said, one the organization hopes to replicate for an array of college-aged individuals.

In his remarks, Brown, the namesake for the Ghana fellowship, echoed those sentiments.

“We want to take them to West Africa for them to have a once-in-a lifetime experience of witnessing that horrible inhumane slave system,” the pastor said. “Not to become bitter over it, but to become agents of betterment so that we will be able to make real amends for that tragic, horrible Atlantic slave trade.”

Bringing relief to ‘suffering souls’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund during an announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

On Monday, Nelson further pledged a $2 million church contribution per year, for the next three years, “to bring relief to suffering souls in underprivileged areas of the United States.”

With the faith’s NAACP partners, this donation is meant “to encourage service and help to those in need” as well as assist them in developing “self-reliance” in those areas, Nelson said. “This is consistent with our many humanitarian efforts around the world for which our members have donated so generously.”

The church will select six metro areas and match individual Latter-day Saint congregations with Black sororities and fraternities, chapters of the Urban League and other groups to build “a model of collaboration.”

The church leader acknowledged the contributions of Black leaders, including Johnson and UNCF President Michael L. Lomax.

“On this week of Juneteenth — a time designated to remember the end of slavery in the United States,” Nelson said, “we are honored to join with our dear friends from the NAACP and the UNCF to announce these goals and our shared vision.”

Lomax said the “three bold initiatives” will do much to erase the “sense of marginalization in so many” by helping them get a good education.

This is not just a financial arrangement, he said, “but a transformational partnership.”

Jeanetta Williams, who directs the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, said her group has a long-standing relationship with the church, but this “is another step forward.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake branch of the NAACP, during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

All three members of the faith’s governing First Presidency — Nelson and his two counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — attended the news event, as did apostles Ronald A. Rasband and Gary E. Stevenson.

These joint initiatives, Rasband said, “will take our progress to a new level.”

The collaboration between the 16.5 million-member LDS Church and the nation’s oldest civil rights organization was first made public at a May 17, 2018, news conference.

On that occasion, Nelson announced that the two planned to work together on humanitarian and educational projects.

“This is unprecedented,” Thom Reed, a Black Mormon and an LDS Church employee, said at the time. “It speaks to the openness of the First Presidency and their willingness to engage with people all over the world.

“It’s the start,” he added, “of something big.”

‘Brother from another mother’

A year after that announcement, Nelson spoke at the NAACP’s National Convention in Detroit, and last year he and Johnson issued a national opinion piece decrying racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Now, some 43 years have passed since the church ended its centurylong ban barring Blacks from its all-male priesthood and from its temples. That prohibition, which ceased June 8, 1978, kept the faith at odds with the NAACP well after it was lifted.

Going forward, it seems the two have formed a significant alliance against racism.

“Leaders of the church have found common ground with the NAACP as we have discussed challenges that beset some of God’s children,” Nelson said. “The challenges are huge, and our capacities are limited. But together we want to make a difference, even though our efforts may seem relatively small.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and the Rev. Amos C. Brown embrace during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Brown addressed the 96-year-old Nelson as “a brother from another mother.”

The Black pastor called the Latter-day Saint president “the quintessential embodiment of the best leadership in the faith community of the United States of America south of heaven, north of hell.”

Nelson is the “reincarnation of [church founder] Joseph Smith, who back in 1830 had a vision for a spiritual community. And that vision was not egocentric, self-centered or nationalistic. That vision was about love for all humankind,” Brown said. " ...Joseph Smith ran for the presidency of the United States of America in 1844, and the major plank on his platform was the abolition of slavery.”

America’s democracy is “under siege,” he added, and this partnership can “redeem the soul of the United States.”

Cathy Stokes, a retired public health nurse and Black Latter-day Saint, celebrated Monday’s developments.

The church and the NAACP followed up their earlier commitments, Stokes said. “It shows nobody is asleep at the wheel.”

The partnership should be held up, she said, “as positive examples for all Americans.”

Wilbur Colom, special counsel to NAACP, said these agreements are just the beginning — the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

“What’s going on below,” he said, “is much, much bigger.”