Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Black Mormon students respond to LDS Church’s “Be One” celebration

On Friday, June 1, the LDS Conference Center hosted an evening of song and celebration, commemorating the 4oth anniversary of the Church’s reversal of a priesthood/temple ban that was in place for black Mormons for more than a century. The brainchild of seven committed black LDS women, the “Be One” event can be viewed online here.

Today’s three guest bloggers, all current or recent students at Brigham Young University, are too young to remember the ban, but they’re not too young to have felt its aftermath. I asked them to reflect on what they saw and heard at the celebration. (And I’m sorry this column is only appearing now, five days after the event; I learned too late that the RNS site would be down for several days for an update, so I thank Zyon, Kirstie, and Andrew for their patience.) — JKR

 

Zyon J. Smiley

Zyon J. Smiley

Zyon Smiley is from Savannah, Georgia. This past April, he completed a bachelor’s of science in psychology at Brigham Young University, and intends to pursue higher education in the field of law. He was and raised a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an unconventional distinction as a person of African American and West Indian ancestry. At age 19, he was called to serve a mission in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area. He says those two years of service not only helped to bolster his religious identity, but also provided him with a greater outlook on his racial identity. In the near future, he intends to work as a lawyer, but his ultimate goal is to end up in government as a regional or state representative.

With this being the fortieth anniversary of the revelation on Latter-day Saint priesthood, I find myself reflecting on the state of black membership as we celebrate being united as a church community. As an African American, I take pride in a heritage steeped in civil activism and reverence for Jesus Christ’s gospel.

The Be One celebration is a step in the right direction for the LDS Church. What I loved about the event was its acknowledgement of historic black saints who were faithful in the gospel despite opposition from some members. Their stories will be an important part of the narrative as the church continues to spread the gospel message worldwide.

What stood out most to me from the event was President Russell M. Nelson’s address. He pushed back against the philosophies of prejudice, stating that we should not build walls of separation between our brothers and sisters, but bridges of cooperation. The Be One celebration was a spectacle, not only in production, but in its messaging, challenging over a century of racial baggage that has inhibited the church’s ability to reach every nation, kindred, and tongue.

While the event should be considered a resounding success, I believe it is only one key measure in healing racial wounds. In order to truly rectify the issue of past racism, the Church must take the message of the Be One celebration to every LDS branch, ward, and stake. Only through changing the hearts of everyday members can a healing process take place.

 

Kirstie Stanger Weyland

Kirstie Stanger Weyland

Kirstie was born in Ethiopia and was adopted at the age of 4 and then moved to the Provo-Orem area in Utah where she has lived for the past 20 years. She graduated from BYU in April 2018 with a major in Sociology and a minor in Africana Studies. She interned for a children’s charity health organization in Peru for a summer, and spent 18 months as an LDS missionary in Panama. She has been published in the LDS church’s June 2018 Ensign magazine about her experience with race in church.

What was most exciting about the “Be One” Celebration was hearing about black pioneer history. There was a big screen behind the narrators who were telling the stories of early pioneers in the 1800s and their images appeared large, looming over them as if they were present in the room for the celebration.

In the Church, the story of white Mormon pioneers who traveled across the United States and settled in Utah is a popular narrative that is constantly told by our leaders. I also love these stories of resilience and faith, but because I myself wasn’t born in the U.S. and I don’t have any black Mormon ancestors, this narrative doesn’t resonate with me personally. Since we are a worldwide church with diverse members in language, ethnic, and national origin, the white Mormon pioneer story isn’t universally relatable. What was relatable to me was hearing about modern-day black pioneers who were the first members in predominantly black nations in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.

At the end of the celebration, I conversed for a while with my white husband about what this meant to black members. On Facebook I saw streams of positive comments about how spiritual and uplifting this was. Did this celebration help to heal the wounds of racism in the church? I don’t believe it did so directly, but it taught me many good lessons and brought a lot of joy. I loved hearing President Oaks acknowledge the pain of exclusion and prejudice that black members felt before and after the 1978 revelation. Progress can take time, including repenting of our prejudice, but it is happening and moving us forward.

No matter how much I detail the pains of racism and prejudice I’ve felt in my own life to my white husband, he will never understand what it truly feels like to be in my shoes. I know, however, that Jesus Christ does know. Centuries ago He took upon Himself the sins, pains, and afflictions of His people in the past, present, and future. True healing of the pains of racism can only come through Jesus Christ because He knows my pain perfectly and how it has affected me. Looking to the Savior for that healing can also help me forgive others for their words and actions so I can have that inner peace.

 

Andrew Evans

Andrew Evans

Andrew is from Columbus, OH. He served in the Colorado Denver North Mission from 2009 to 2011. He is a graduate of Southern Virginia University (2014) and is in his last year of graduate studies at Brigham Young University earning both a Juris Doctorate and Masters in Public Administration. He teaches Primary with his wife in Orem, UT. 

I held back tears as my dad sang along to Gladys Knight’s choir performance. Now a bishop in my home ward, my dad was raised in a Baptist church in Georgia where his mother served as a deaconess for nearly 70 years. My parents joined the LDS Church in Washington, D.C. just four years after the revelation. My mother had been searching for truth her whole life and was baptized immediately. My father received his witness a few months later after a ponderous night gazing up at the stars on a naval ship.

The Be One celebration was a wonderful step forward for Church culture and identity. The conviction of so many other black and African Latter-day Saints performing their faith on stage was inspiring and hopeful. I saw several friends on stage, which reminded me of the intimate nature of the global church. I hope we will see more of this in the future.

President Nelson’s message is profoundly important—to keep moving forward; to focus on the opportunities of the future instead of the disappointments of the past. I am a big fan of President Nelson. He made a tender spot in my heart after a visit to my stake years ago where he asked the Stake Primary President—my mother—to join him on the stand and direct the congregation in a rendition of “I am a Child of God.” President Nelson truly has a heart for the people and this celebration was another reminder of that.

I hope as we move forward embracing “the opportunities of the future” we will be perceptive to the deep wounds some still experience because of the “disappointments of the past.” Those disappointments still cause strife in the present. The Church is taking active steps to heal the racism perpetuated by some of its members, and we have a commission to extend our healing efforts. Part of our baptismal covenant is to “mourn with those that mourn” and to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” There is still a lot of mourning that occurs due to present racial strife, particularly in communities where violence, injustice, and police brutality occur. There are hearts that need to be comforted—the newly widowed and the newly fatherless—who still need a touch of pure religion. These are some of the “opportunities of the future” I hope we as a church will embrace. I believe we can offer valuable assistance to Christ in healing these racial wounds even outside our church, in our nation and in the world.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

16 Comments

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  • These 3 seem like lovely people. We need good black members who can influence others within their communities, wherever those communities may be.
    I love this from Pres Benson back in 1989:

    “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in.
    The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums.

    The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment.

    The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature.”

    The socialists, have these ideas about physically building utopias for the downtrodden, which always end up being ghetto/slums.
    Years ago on a mission in London, I had the pleasure of having Broadwater Farm in my area, just 2 years after the 85 riots- it was a place where missionaries were physically attacked and beaten for trying to share the message of peace. There were far more whites in those slums than blacks and that particular slum was eventually pulled down, causing a rethink on socialist housing projects across the UK.

    Change requires good people to influence others to do good.

  • There is only one way to ‘be one” and that is through adhering to the Savior’s teachings. There are no shortcuts, no other way… And I’m uncomfortable with the reference to black members of the church as Black Mormons. There are only members of the church, no colors, no races, no divisions.

    “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.”

  • Yea Right !!………There are 0, yes 0, yes 0 Black men in the top 3 Tiers of this so called religion in the United States of America. Please Revoke this Racist Cults Tax Exempt Status !!!!

  • Yeah, you want churches to lose their tax exempt status but you want union fees to remain tax deductible. Just a little bit of hypocrisy there huh.

  • They can join your Cult if they give the dues of 10 % but under no circumstances be in the top 3 tiers in this Cult in America based solely on the fact that they are Black. How Lovely !!!

  • That’s just not true. This is an uninformed lie that you have repeated in these forums more than once.

    The 3rd tier, as you call it, in the LDS Church is the 1st Quorum of the Seventy. There are men of all racial backgrounds serving in this quorum as General Authorities.

  • Jana, if you see this, please have the RNS folks remove Dave Ruth. He has now resorted to swearing at folks in these forums!

  • 1st tier Head Tabby Nackle White, 2nd tier 12 …….NO BLACKS !!!…….3rd tier 70 NO Blacks in the USA !!!! R A C I S T !!!

  • Why dont you just be a Man & admit that this Cult has Hatred toward Blacks when it comes to leadership in this Fake Religion.

  • Racism is still very much alive and well within the Mormon church. All they have to do is scream from the highest mountain that Brigham Young and every other Prophet until 1978 had it COMPLETELY WRONG,.. that they APOLOGIZE sincerely to members affected by this “policy”,,, and then to start teaching tolerance and the TRUE history of the ban in Sunday schools. Until I see a black person represented in the Q15 I’m not holding my breath.

  • Loved the celebration, even had some gospel style music in there whoa 🙂 . I’ve had plenty of “friends of color” in the church over the years (singles ward, mission companions). Always love em. Nice messages here. Also “He was and raised” ?

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