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Devotional honors the early Black pioneers of Genesis Group as it celebrates its 50th anniversary

Speakers pay tribute to the women and men who helped make the congregation what it is today.

(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.

Members of the Genesis Group, a quasi-branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that supports Black members, celebrated the organization’s 50th anniversary Saturday night with a worship service at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.

The devotional included lively sermons and music by the famed Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir.

The celebration marked 50 years since Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr formed a partnership with “junior apostles” Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer in 1971. Bridgeforth became the group’s first president, Gray the first counselor and Orr the second counselor.

Gray addressed Saturday’s attendees first, outlining the history of the Genesis Group and its mission to support Black members. Gray read from the diary of Leitha Orr, Eugene’s husband, about the original meetings of the group in 1971. He showed photos of Hinckley, Monson and Packer attending the first Genesis meetings at a chapel that was shared with Norwegian and Danish branches located at 119 E. 700 South in Salt Lake City.

“We were easy to pick out,” Gray said with a laugh.

(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.

Eugene and Leitha organized “Black Mormon reunions” for those who felt alone or uncomfortable in mostly white congregations, Gray said. Some 30-plus members attended the first reunion in 1968, according to Leitha Orr’s diary, and the organization began holding weekly gatherings in the years afterward.

Gray also spoke about the fasting and prayer that he, Bridgeforth and Orr took on before meeting with the apostles in 1971 at a time when the faith barred members of African decent from entering the priesthood or attending temples. They presented a list of questions to the high-level church leaders, asking them, for instance: “When can Black men in America have the priesthood?” and “Why can some Black men in the world hold the priesthood while others can’t?”

That priesthood/temple ban was lifted in 1978.

(Courtesy of Darius Gray) Genesis Group President Ruffin Bridgeforth with apostle, and later church president, Gordon B. Hinckley in the 1970s

Natalie Sheppard, a Genesis member who knew Bridgeforth, spoke more about his background as a railroad worker and eventual conversion to the church in 1953. Sheppard said that Bridgeforth wanted to connect with other Black members after finding that he was the only one in his congregation. After organizing the first Genesis meetings, Sheppard said, Bridgeforth started receiving letters from Black Latter-day Saints across the country asking how they could join the group.

He told them that anyone who wanted to be a member of the group was already a part of it. She also read the audience a testimony written by Bridgeforth and said that he held strong to his testimony until he died in 1997.

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

Eddie Gist, a former first counselor in Genesis, spoke about former longtime President Don Harwell. Gist said that Harwell introduced many of the practices the group continues today, including picnics, a Christmas party and the inclusion of the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir in events.

Harwell, who died earlier this year, was a man who “never wanted to jeopardize his priesthood,” Gist said, “and walked uprightly before God at all times.”

Gist recalled that he and Harwell would often stay after Genesis gatherings to give priesthood blessings to members who weren’t able to receive them in their own wards, or congregations.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Eddie Gist, a counselor in Don Harwell’s presidency, speaks at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2021.

Harwell’s widow, Jerri Harwell, highlighted the women of “faith, strength and persistence” who have contributed to Genesis’ success over the past 50 years.

Jerri was serving a mission in Houston when she first sent a letter to Bridgeforth. A few years later, she attended some of the earliest Genesis meetings. Jerri said that Bridgeforth’s wife, Betty Johnson Bridgeforth, was sometimes the only other person at those initial events, alongside her husband.

After Ruffin died, Jerri added, “Betty became the mother of Genesis.”

Jerri said that Lucille Bankhead, who served as the first women’s Relief Society president of the Genesis Group, “was outspoken, vocal, and let the brethren know who was really in charge.”

(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.

The choir then performed an original composition by former Tabernacle Choir member Alex Boye.

Boye said that he was the first person to ever moonwalk on the Tabernacle stage and joked about how he and the other two Black members of the renowned Tabernacle Choir were like “licorice in a sea of marshmallows.”

Boye’s song told of the struggles of the first Black pioneers and featured a young man, playing the role of church founder Joseph Smith, rapping about the restoration of the Latter-day Saint gospel.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Alex Boye and the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sing a special musical number at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2021. Alex Boye wrote this song as a part of a musical to tell the story of Black pioneers who lived in Utah, who went through trials and tribulations.

General authority Seventy LeGrand Curtis offered closing remarks at the service and talked about how serving as an adviser to the Genesis Group and in the Africa West Area presidency blessed his life.

“I worship differently than I did before,” Curtis said. “My love for God has been enhanced and increased because of my association with the good people that I know through Genesis and through my experience in West Africa.”

He added that he has felt “swallowed up by the love of Genesis’ members” during his interactions with the group.

The Genesis Group is now a “multistake,” or multiregional, activities group in Utah, the church explained in a news release, designed to help Black Latter-day Saints, along with their families, friends and others, “build faith in Jesus Christ, foster unity and strengthen their membership.”


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