Black Mormon support group laments loss of their prophet ‘champion,’ looks to the Genesis of even greater influence

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune LDS Genesis Group Choir rehearses in 2016.

Cottonwood Heights • Few Latter-day Saints have felt a more profound or personal loss from the death of LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson than black Mormons — and their extraordinary organization, the Genesis Group.

After all, Monson was one of three apostles (along with Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer) who huddled with three faithful black men (Ruffin Bridgeforth, Eugene Orr and Darius Gray) to establish Genesis on June 8, 1971.

Top officials in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints viewed the fledgling organization as a way to support black males who were barred from the Mormon priesthood and black females who were kept out of LDS temples.

Genesis was born as a kind of quasi-branch, or congregation, with a three-man presidency, where black members could meet monthly with others who looked like them, shared their frustrations, their faith and their, well, animated worship style (complete with shouted “amens,” applause and exuberant praise hymns).

Exactly seven years later, in 1978, Monson was present when the Utah-based faith ended the priesthood and temple restriction.

When Monson died last week at age 90, he was the only remaining connection in the church’s hierarchy to that momentous time.

“The last of the general authorities involved in the formation of the Genesis Group is now gone,” Alice Faulkner Burch said Sunday at Genesis’ first meeting of 2018, “and gone with them all is the intimate history and understanding of the need of such a creation.”

For his part, Gray, a Genesis co-founder, sat in reverence at Sunday’s gathering, pondering the past.

Gazing at a packed Mormon chapel and overflow area in Cottonwood Heights, he noted “how far the church has come since then.”

After the 1978 policy change, Mormon membership “skyrocketed,” he said, “and not just in black Africa.”

There was “something in the spiritual air,” Gray said, “the eternal ether.”

And Genesis, he said, was a precursor.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Darius Gray is a co-founder of Genesis Group, a support group for black Mormons, Wednesday June 5, 2013 in Midvale.

Now, new changes in the black group may signal an even vaster expansion of the experiment. After 22 years — 14 as branch president — Don Harwell was “released” from his Genesis calling, as were his two counselors, Eddie Gist and Wain Myers.

Area LDS Seventy David Warner asked the crowd for a Mormon “vote of thanks” and all hands silently shot up. He then requested a Genesis vote — and the congregants leaped to their feet with cheers in a sustained standing ovation.

After that, Warner named a new branch presidency, with Davis Stovall as president and Jamal Willis and Joseph Kaluba as counselors.

Several speakers mentioned continuing racism (including societal injustice and offensive comments from fellow Mormons) while affirming the historic 1978 priesthood “restoration.”

“This is the 40th year of the ban being lifted,” Gist said. “We can have the priesthood if we are worthy. My challenge to you is to always be worthy.”

Stovall, the incoming president, emphasized the importance of the priesthood to him.

His last service to his mother, who was not Mormon, was to give her a healing blessing, Stovall said. She recovered enough so that she could call friends and family members before dying.

“Being able to exercise the priesthood meant so much to me,” he said. “We need to not just celebrate it but exercise it.”

What about the future of Genesis itself?

Harwell, wiping away tears, said it is no longer “a best-kept secret.” Indeed, LDS leaders may replicate the model for African-Americans in other states.

“At first, they told us it was a no-no,” he said in an interview. “But now we’re having such a great success, they want to see it move forward.”

For Burch, that’s heartening news.

“It has been the expressions of our culture during the monthly meetings that have made Genesis unique,” said Burch, who has served as president of the branch’s all-female Relief Society, “not just in the church but in the world.”

The group’s swelling ranks have witnessed black Mormons “called to preside, lead and teach within an African-American culture, coupled with the authority of the priesthood and in the framework of the restored organization of the church.”

They’ve seen “clapping in the chapel and shouting hallelujah and laughing aloud and singing songs of praise with songs of worship, and women wearing hats and head wraps,” Burch wrote in an email, “and [all of] it being acceptable, not disrespectful, as some white members think.”

The recently deceased Mormon prophet understood that, she said. “He was our cultural champion.”