Black Latter-day Saints express their faith and their wrestles with racism in the church

This new Deseret Book publication doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges these members face, sometimes from those with whom they share a pew.

Alice Faulkner Burch thought it would be easy to find Black Latter-day Saints to write essays about their faith for a volume she was editing for Deseret Book, the publishing house owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After all, the convert has a large network of Black members from her time as the first African American missionary in the church’s Chile Santiago South Mission, her stint as women’s Relief Society president at Genesis, a support group for Black Latter-day Saints, as well as her current position working on Black history on the Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board.

She feared her biggest challenge was choosing ones to include, and having to reject all the others.

It turned out Burch faced the opposite problem.

Many of those she approached declined to be included in a volume they presumed would whitewash Mormonism’s racial history and downplay the bigotry they experienced in the church.

No matter how much they trusted Burch or how ardently she reassured them that their words would not be censored, she says, many told her, “I like you, but I don’t believe Deseret Book would publish such a book.”

They were wrong. It would and it has. It’s titled “My Lord, He Calls Me: Stories of Faith by Black American Latter-day Saints,” with Burch as general editor.

(Alice Faulkner Burch) Alice Faulkner Burch is the editor of “My Lord, He Calls Me: Stories of Faith by Black American Latter-day Saints."

The effort required a lot of research, legwork and, she believes, divine assistance, but Burch is proud of the newly released anthology, which includes a powerful group of essays from Black Latter-day Saints across a spectrum of ages, life experiences, geography and approaches — and even some from history.

The issues they face within the 16.8 million-member global faith are all there — racial slurs at church, insensitive comments by fellow Latter-day Saints, feelings of isolation, the faith’s former priesthood/temple exclusion for Black members, and the shadow of slaveholders in the church’s past.

Historian W. Paul Reeve, who heads up Mormon studies at the University of Utah, was “pleasantly surprised that Deseret Book was willing to publish this volume,” he writes in a Facebook post. “I liked the candor and the vulnerability that permeates the stories and hope for more of this in the future.”

Reeve, author of the critically acclaimed “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” also notes a strength of the pieces by Black converts.

They “tend to speak of growing up with God, of being spiritually aware, of having a love for Jesus and then bringing that love with them into the [church],” Reeve writes. “It was refreshing to hear about the songs they sang (and still do), and the spiritual promptings they received, and the faith-based lives they led before they joined the [church]. They were faithful members of other denominations who went about doing good. They still speak of their prior churches with respect.”

Instead of creating a “false dichotomy between a hopelessly false and fallen world outside of the church and an impossibly perfect scenario within,” he says, these stories reveal “faith-filled lives striving to follow Christ both before and after hearing the message of the restoration.”

Here are samples from some of the articles:

‘I don’t see color’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Black Menaces have been filming TikTok videos addressing racism at BYU in Provo. Shown in April 2022, from left, are Nate Byrd, Kennethia Dorsey, Rachel Weaver, Kylee Shepherd and Sebastian Stewart-Johnson.

Many white Latter-day Saints and other Americans seem to think “I don’t see color” is a progressive way of thinking, but it seems to contradict basic Christian theology.

“Since becoming a member of the church, I feel a tremendous amount of spiritual groundedness and gratitude for being covered in this body of color. It possesses a divine plan and purpose,” writes Lita Little Giddens, coordinator of diversity, collaboration and inclusion at church-owned Brigham Young University. “How I stand in my body now is empowering and faith promoting. Acknowledging my Blackness and standing confidently in [it] keeps me intimately connected to my God and is vital to my existence as I continue to learn its positionality in God’s plan.”

Does Jesus see color? she wonders. “Every time I approach the scriptures, I feel Jesus looking at this body of color in fullness and through all things.”

A road trip to Jesus

(Charles Kelly | AP)This April 3, 1968, file photo shows the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., second from right, standing with other civil rights leaders on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated at approximately the same place. From left are Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, King, and Ralph Abernathy.

Two Utah sisters, 14-year-old Hayley and 13-year-old Millie Fletcher, were adopted by a Latter-day Saint couple living in an area dominated by white culture. Their birth moms are white, and their birth dads are Black. Tired of being harassed for their race, being called racist slurs, having strangers touch their hair, their mother took them on a civil rights tour of the South to learn more about their roots, history and Jesus. Their final stop was in Memphis: the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down.

“We sat in front of the hotel where he died,” the sisters write, “and our thoughts turned to our Savior; we asked the same questions. Jesus was also young, powerful and full of hope. ...He suffered equally for everyone no matter their race, religion or location.”

The girls connected even more to the Christian Redeemer after the trip.

“In our eyes, Jesus is more like us than most people realize. His skin was probably brown because he was a Jew from the Middle East,” they note. “He was adopted because Joseph was not his biological father. He stood out and was different in who he was and the things he taught. Jesus loved to be different.”

The question of belonging

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Descendants of Latter-day Saint pioneer Green Flake, left, Euridell Bankhead, Eldon Udell (hidden), Tamu Smith, Betty Juanita Jackson and Darryl Udell unveil the bronze statues of their ancestor and fellow Black pioneers at This Is the Place Heritage Park, Friday, July 22, 2022.

Earl Joseph Hunter Jr. joined the Utah-based faith in 1980, and now, in his 70s, that means he has spent decades as a member, serving in a variety of church assignments in his Virginia congregation. Fulfilling those commitments, he writes, “is very important to me.”

Reared as a Baptist, he was used to being a Black participant in mostly white organizations. Still, in the past four years, Hunter has found a real kinship with other Black Latter-day Saints by attending the Legacy of Black Latter-day Saint Pioneers conference at the Washington D.C. Temple’s visitors’ center. The gathering attracts speakers and attendees from church headquarters and across the country.

This connection with other African American members has “enlarged my soul and increased my understanding and enlightenment,” Hunter writes. “All these experiences have buoyed me up, contributing to my feeling that I belong.”

A missionary tool

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Bonner family performs in the Conference Center at an event June 1, 2018, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the priesthood/temple ban.

The book’s title comes from a Black American spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus,” written sometime before 1862 by enslaved composer Wallace Willis, Burch explains in the introduction. In 2018, it was recorded by two Latter-day Saint performers, Camlyn Giddins and Yahosh Bonner, of the Bonner family singers.

The purpose of this anthology is “to strengthen and aid the Black American Latter-day Saint community, as well as educate other members of the church who want to better understand the experiences of Black American Latter-day Saints,” she writes. It also aims to help members understand “the sin of racism and removing racist attitudes and behaviors from our congregations.”

So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Burch says in an interview, with buyers returning again and again to pick up more copies — even planning to send them to local Latter-day Saint leaders.

Who knew it could have such an impact or be used as a missionary tool? asks Burch, who also wrote one of the essays and all of the poetry.

“God did,” she says.