‘God had a marvelous plan’ — Genesis Group helped Black Latter-day Saints find a church home. Will it continue to thrive?

After 50 years, the congregation still offers the “entire Black church experience” for members.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir rehearses in the Tabernacle for a celebration of the 50th aniversary of the Genesis Group, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

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Fifty years ago, three Black Latter-day Saint men knelt in a university library classroom to ask God how to help fellow believers who looked like them but were wounded — and driven away — by their church’s racial policies.

Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr had all taken separate paths into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but now were united in concern for Black members who did not feel welcome in the faith that barred their men from holding the priesthood and their women from entering any temple.

Their divine answer that day led these converts into a partnership with three then “junior” apostles — Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer (Hinckley and Monson later would become church presidents) — which began, coincidentally, on June 8, 1971.

That prompted the creation in October of that year of the Genesis Group, a quasi-branch of the church that would support Black members.

“God had a marvelous plan and none of us knew it,” Gray recalled recently on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. It “sort of unfolded over time.”

Seven years to the day after that first prayer-filled meeting, the Utah-based faith ended its Black priesthood/temple prohibition.

On Saturday, Genesis celebrated its golden anniversary with a worship service, including lively sermons and music by the famed Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir at the Tabernacle on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kimberly Teitter directs the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir during rehearsal in the Tabernacle for a celebration of the 50th aniversary of the Genesis Group, in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021.

What began as a small band of Black members, reaching out to others, has grown into a game-changing community for lots of Latter-day Saints of color.

The three men chose the name “Genesis” to signal a new beginning.

“We had a certain joy that wasn’t always present elsewhere,” Gray said. “We had our music...and all of the accouterments of a branch — Primary [for the children], Relief Society [for the women]” and the Young Men and Young Women organizations.

The monthly services were like meetings among friends, he said, “who had long been thirsty and were being given a drink of very cool water.”

In the beginning

(Courtesy of Darius Gray) Darius Gray, a counselor in the original presidency of the Genesis Group, speaks in the 1970s

The whole enterprise started in the 1960s, when Orr didn’t see many members who looked like him in his Utah congregation, so he and his wife began to host what they called “a Black Mormon Reunion” in their backyard. In 1969, about 30 people attended. The next year, there were 75, and in 1971, it attracted some 150 people, including then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla.

When Genesis was formally organized as part of the Salt Lake Liberty Stake, Bridgeforth, the oldest of the three men, became the president, with Gray as first counselor and Orr as second counselor.

Among other activities, Genesis fielded a church basketball team among the young Black members, many of whom had drifted away from the church.

“It was the young men who really felt the sting of that priesthood restriction,” Gray said, “and who had taken the brunt of name-calling and derision.”

So he and Orr put on suits and ties, looking like “Mormon missionaries without a nametag,” he said, and went to high school games to recruit Black players for Genesis.

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“It was glorious, but it caused some friction in the stake [a group of congregations],” Gray said. “There were those perennial strong teams, and the teams that were expected to do well — and to go on to regionals — were being defeated.”

After the Genesis squad won the stake contest, however, the group got a call from the church basketball officials, saying the team couldn’t compete at the next level because it had been disqualified for not having enough “active” churchgoing players.

Hinckley, Monson and Packer were fully aware, however, that “those young men had zero church attendance prior to the establishment of Genesis and were working their way back in [the church],” Gray said. They had waived that requirement for Genesis.

That Friday night, the Genesis leaders tried desperately to reach the apostles, but they were out of town on assignment. So the favored team took Genesis’ place instead.

The church, he said, “lost each and every one” of those players.

The ‘revelation’

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer W. Kimball, right, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, presides over a session of General Conference in October 1978, with his counselor Marion G. Romney. Months earlier, in June, Kimball had ended the priesthood/temple ban for Black members.

Mormonism’s universe shifted dramatically June 8, 1978, when the priesthood/temple ban was lifted.

Gray heard the news from a co-worker at the paper company where he was employed. He didn’t believe it and accused the woman of making a bad joke.

But when he finally understood it was real, Gray picked up the phone and called a longtime friend — the Latter-day Saint prophet.

Kimball didn’t answer, but Gray had joined a friend in the church’s public affairs department and stood, gazing at the Salt Lake Temple, knowing their world had been forever altered.

“Nothing would be the same. It not only changed the current, but it changed the future,” Gray said, “and the past because now [vicarious rituals] could be done for those who have not had that privilege before.”

After the change, deemed a “revelation,” some thought the need for Genesis diminished, and it became dormant for a time. But in October 1996, many Black members wanted to reconnect, so Genesis reemerged stronger than ever.

It began attracting more and more attendees, and soon swelled to about 350 regular participants. Within a decade, there were “chapters” of Genesis in Dallas and Jacksonville, Fla. — all modeled after the Utah group.

The extended family

(Courtesy Mama Rine Clark) Zandra Vranes, left, and Tamu Smith of "Sistas in Zion" fame.

For many Black Latter-day Saints, Genesis became a real “family of God,” based in a shared cultural identity rather than geography.

“It’s given my children a chance to have family in the church,” said Tamu Smith of Provo. Through Genesis, they have “grandparents in this gospel, like Cathy [Stokes] and Darius.”

Without the monthly support meeting, Smith would not have found her longtime “sista in Zion,” Zandra Vranes, co-author of a book about being Black Latter-day Saints.

Going only to her assigned Utah County ward, Smith would not have formed close ties with the six women — “the Black LDS Legacy Sisters” — who first envisioned the 2018 “Be One” gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the ban.

Genesis “has allowed me to maintain my testimony in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to worship like I did in my foundational faith [Pentecostal],” Smith said. “I have a stronger connection with Christ because I can worship comfortably in a manner that is conducive to righteousness.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jerri Harwell, wife of former Genesis Group President Don Harwell, who died earlier this year, speaks at the 50th anniversary of Genesis in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2021.

Jerri Harwell met her husband, Don Harwell, at a Genesis meeting in the 1980s.

“When I first saw him there,” she said, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow. That’s a good-looking guy.’”

The couple wed in July 1987, and Don Harwell became Genesis president when Gray was released in 2003. Don was released in 2018 and died earlier this year.

The Genesis experience was “different for every person,” said Jerri, who is chair of Salt Lake Community College’s English department. “Some use it as a springboard for getting active in the church, while to others, it’s just for the fellowship of other Blacks.”

Her three living children loved attending the monthly gatherings but are not involved in the faith today.

The Genesis camaraderie “could not overcome some of the other experiences in church,” Jerri said, including one of them being called “the N-word” in Primary.

(Photo courtesy of Jerri Harwell) An early Genesis Group presidency: Darius Gray, left, Ruffin Bridgeforth and Don Harwell.

As recently as 2019, when the Harwells moved into a new neighborhood, an older white woman asked her about Genesis and then said, “What do you call yourselves? Darkie, Negro, colored, African American, Black or what?”

She says with a sigh, “We have a ways to go.”

But she is reminded that her husband always said, “I am not here for the people. I am here to worship God the Father and Jesus.”

The ‘Black Out’

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2021.

Vranes moved to Utah from Georgia with her family when she was in high school. It was a cultural shock to be dumped into a sea of white people.

“The first time we went to Genesis and saw so many Black members gathered together,” she wondered, “Where did they all come from?”

There they were — children, teens, adults — “and they all looked like me,” she said. “The most surprising thing was that everyone was also LDS.”

In Georgia, Sundays had included Latter-day Saint services in the morning and her grandmother’s church services in the afternoon.

At Genesis, she had the “entire Black church experience,” including gospel music, Vranes said, “but with my own theology.”

The congregation was calling out “amen” to points of doctrine, but she had never before heard a “preacher reference Nephi,” a figure in the Book of Mormon.

Beyond that, it was the feeling of being at home in the Genesis community, which included all the church’s auxiliaries.

“I went to girls camp with girls who looked like me and to youth conference,” Vranes said. “I saw people on the stand and in the presidency who looked like me. I heard African American vernacular English from the pulpit. At the Genesis potlucks, there was soul food.”

There were also “Black outs,” where nearly the entire Genesis crew would show up if one of them was getting the priesthood, or a Black baby was being blessed, or a teen girl was named the Laurel president.

“People would come from as far as Logan,” she said. “This mass of Black people would be there for each other.”

There was a Black Out when Vranes did vicarious baptisms in a temple, with moms who understood Black hair issues after getting wet.

It happened again when Vranes went through the temple for adult rituals known as the “endowment.”

At the end of the ceremony, the whole Genesis clan was gathered in the Celestial Room to welcome her with hugs.

Vranes, who now lives in Atlanta, said a bystander commented that she had never seen that space “so alive.”

The changes

In recent years, attendance at Genesis has begun to evolve. More white members began to attend, many of whom have adopted Black children. They want their kids to see African Americans as leaders and role models.

Occasionally, though, they have dominated the bearing of testimonies.

“You want people to embrace your culture,” Vranes said. “But you don’t want it to be some sort of petting zoo, where they get to gawk at Black people saying ‘Amen.’”

Then came the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida, the shooter’s trial and ensuing protests.

“Your assumption is that if folks are going to come and worship with us, they would care about social issues that impact you,” Vranes said. “But people were getting up to the pulpit and speaking negatively about the issues that impact us.”

Genesis had been a safe space for Black Latter-day Saints, but it became “another forum for people who didn’t understand our lived experience,” she said. “That was a hard turning point.”

The future

(Photo courtesy of Davis Stovall) The Genesis Group presidency: Jamal Willis, left, first counselor; Davis Stovall, president; and Joseph Kaluba, second counselor.

Davis Stovall, who works in computer security for the church, became Genesis president in 2018, with former Brigham Young University football star Jamal Willis and Joseph Kaluba as his counselors.

Stovall joined the Utah-based faith in 1998, while in the Air Force in Las Vegas. Reared as a nondenominational Christian, he was drawn to the Latter-day Saint emphasis on family.

He, with his wife and eventually five children, moved to Utah three years later.

The state’s and the church’s “whiteness” didn’t shock him, he told The Tribune. “Everywhere I have lived there wasn’t a lot of color.”

Before becoming president, Stovall had attended Genesis only a few times, and then was Don Harwell’s executive secretary for a few months. He values the group’s diversity.

“There’s something to be said, especially for increasing your faith, about having that cultural acceptance,” Stovall said, “and being able to get together with others that look like you, that share similar backgrounds and share similar faith.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Genesis Group President Davis Stovall speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City, on Oct. 23, 2021.

He doesn’t mind the white members who attend Genesis. Some are “curious or they hear about the choir and they just want to come see what it’s about.”

And he sees no difference between African-born members and African Americans, he said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, when you’re in the U.S., your experience is going to be very similar.”

When Stovall took charge, Genesis relocated and all the organizations, save for Primary, were eliminated. The new leader chose to work instead on having more service opportunities.

In the past few months, the Black support group has begun meeting in person with masks, he said, and attendance is “almost at pre-pandemic levels.”

The future looks bright, Stovall said. “Genesis will be around for a long time.”

Some longtime members, though, worry about Genesis going forward.

“For me, it feels like a pushing out of the older members,” Smith said. “The people who have been going the longest have distanced themselves from it.”

Without Genesis, she said, “I don’t know if a lot of Black folks are still going to go to church.”

The only real future for this treasured Black community, said Alice Faulkner Burch, who once served as a Genesis Relief Society president, is for it to become an actual church branch.

After all, it was originally established to be a “dependent branch,” she said. “It’s time now for Genesis to take its place and be a real, every Sunday branch rather than a once-a-month fireside.”

For his part, Gray remains an optimist, who has seen much Latter-day Saint progress on racial understanding in the past five decades.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Darius Gray, Genesis Group president from 1997 to 2003, speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City, on Oct. 23, 2021.

“What I hope for Genesis’ future is what I hope for the church’s future. The country’s future,” he said in the podcast. “...I hope to see the day when we truly are a family of God. Black kids, white kids, Asian, Hispanic all over the world, really together, if not as members of the church, at least having more respect and hopefully love for one another.”

God is “in the midst,” the beloved Genesis trailblazer said. And to God “goes the glory.”