LDS Church, NAACP alliance brings young scholars to Ghana for ‘a kind of homecoming’

Delegation with the Amos C. Brown Fellowship will take part in an immersive African experience, including a trip to an infamous slave prison.

The ongoing partnership between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took its collaboration across the Atlantic this week to Ghana.

On Sunday, NAACP President Derrick Johnson and the Rev. Amos Brown, head of the group’s San Francisco branch, led a delegation of about 43 young scholars between ages 18 and 25 — more than half chosen by the African American civil rights organization and the rest by the Utah-based faith.

The college students and recent graduates — hailing from Utah, New York, Georgia, California, Michigan and Texas — arrived in Accra for a 10-day immersive experience to learn about the historical connections between that West African nation and the U.S. civil rights movement.

It is the inaugural program of the Amos C. Brown Fellowship, announced last year at a joint news conference in Salt Lake City by NAACP executives and Latter-day Saint leaders, including President Russell M. Nelson.

“But this enterprise is not about Amos Brown,” the pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church told the young participants during Monday’s opening session of the trip. “This tremendous occasion is not about one man. This is about what a dream team has brought to pass. … We do care about the grand goals that we have.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amos C. Brown speaks during the announcement of new joint initiatives from the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Further, Latter-day Saints, NAACP members and “all the people of conscience and goodwill” will recognize that the first humans came from Ethiopia and Egypt, Brown said, and “consequently, we are related to each other.”

In his own opening remarks, Johnson told his audience in Ghana’s capital that this “journey back to our home” is crucial to understand “the legacy and the history of exploitation, of this population, of the pain of this.”

He urged the attendees to “keep that in the center of this conversation.”

“Why?” Johnson asked. “Because if we can break that legacy here, we can break this exploitation for people across the globe, and that’s really important.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, speaks during an event on May 17, 2018, when Latter-day Saint 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 LDS Church provided $250,000 in one-time financial backing to the fellowship trip to Ghana, Nelson said at the time of the initial announcement, emphasizing his hope that the experience would “allow selected students from the USA an opportunity to learn more about their heritage.”

This cohort of participants will be the first to test that with an intense itinerary that includes eating authentic Ghanaian food, visits to the Latter-day Saint temple in Accra, a market, and national gallery, participating in a village service project, taking classes in drumming, traditional dress, and dance, and a trip to an infamous slave prison on the Gold Coast.

Latter-day Saint general authority Seventies Matthew S. Holland and Jack N. Gerard, along with their wives, are part of the entourage.

Lauren George, a 22-year-old who just graduated from San Francisco State University, applied to the NAACP for this trip, so she could “get a better worldview, step out of the American lens into something more unfamiliar.”

Africa is “still part of my history,” George said in an interview. “It is where my people have come from. … It is absolutely vital to have relationships across different barriers to help create the future that we want.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Participants with the Amos C. Brown Fellowship dance during cultural engagement at Sikan Ocean Rock Restaurant in Accra, Ghana, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Utahn Carter Martindale, meanwhile, who is a senior studying political science at Harvard, has both family and academic reasons for seeking this trip.

“On mom’s side, we are Jamaican and also we have some roots in Africa, but we don’t know where,” says the student from Cache County’s Hyde Park. “So it’s personally important to me — a kind of homecoming.”

The 23-year-old Martindale was drawn to the fellowship as a way of addressing racial tensions. “It’s something I deal with a lot at home,” he said, and it also “affects the legal sphere.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Participants with the Amos C. Brown Fellowship take pictures at Black Star Square, home to independence plaza in Accra, Ghana, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

Three years ago, the NAACP led another delegation of more than 300 people to Ghana for the country’s “Year of Return” experience, according to a news release. “In 2019, the Jamestown to Jamestown journey took participants of all ages to Ghana to retrace the path of Africans who were sold into slavery from the year 1619 and the centuries that followed.”

Meanwhile, the LDS Church has been growing rapidly in the African nation, which is home to more than 96,000 members, dozens of stakes (or clusters of congregations), and will be getting a second Latter-day Saint temple.

Monday was general authority Seventy Gifford Nielsen’s first day as West African Area president for the church, and he got his first “taste” of the culture and cuisine.

During dinner, he had one “extremely spicy” sip of soup that he was told came from Nigeria, he said. “One more sip, and I would have had a lot of trouble in the night.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Gifford Nielsen speaks at General Conference on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Undaunted, the former Brigham Young University quarterback and TV sports anchor went from table to table, greeting the U.S. delegation. He was moved by the students’ desires to feel “the power and the spirit” of Africa.

“What an honor and privilege it is to be with these remarkable people of this country,” he said in an interview. “They are deeply, spiritually committed, humble, dedicated, kind and loving.”

The new leader was impressed at the effort of Nelson and Brown to do “something positive to break down barriers that are so prevalent around the world,” he said, “and to provide young people with a chance to do something great.”

It takes “vision to bring light and hope to the world,” Nielsen said, which he is already seeing as these young idealists begin their journey.

Correction Aug. 2, 8:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the names of Latter-day Saint general authorities who are part of the entourage in Ghana. An earlier version misidentified two of the visiting authorities.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Participants with the Amos C. Brown Fellowship learn from a facilitator at W.E.B. DuBois Museum in Accra, Ghana, on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.