Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

Race, Ethnicity, And Class
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Are the black members assimilated into the Church? The reports are mixed. Delphrine Garcia Young, a hospital worker and counselor in a bishopric, says they are. "I have been truly well-accepted by white Latterday Saints. When you are around a white Latter-day Saint, it is just like going around with your brothers and sisters." Elijah Royster joined the Church while serving a military tour in Hawaii. A Mormon friend invited him to church. "We sat through the sacrament service. The chapel was full, so we had to sit in the [back]. . . . I noticed with the children back there there was a lot of noise. We were really trying very hard to listen to the speakers. There was a negative mood there. Then I noticed how all of the Saints were so friendly and kind and shaking our hands. Having been in life the way that I had, immediately I recognized that it was genuine; it wasn't a put-on; it wasn't something phony. That had a great bearing on my feelings and my thoughts about the Church."

Barbara Ann Pixton was in the military, lonely and thousands of miles away from her family. The first time she went to church she was "overwhelmed by the love, especially being black. We walked in, we sat down in the back, . . . After the meeting, the majority of the sisters got up, came in the back, introduced themselves to me, and shook my hand. They were very warm. I thought to myself, 'I want to learn more.'"

Some have more nuanced comments. Bobby Darby of North Carolina noted that "We were accepted pretty good, better than we would have expected. We see in some people that they really do not like being around us; but out of a love of Christ, they do it anyway. We can respect that, too. A lot of things that I do, I do not like doing; but if the Lord says it is the right way to do it, then we just do it and just expect the best."

There are signs of greater openness and inclusion. In 2002, Rob Foster, a twenty-five-year-old black man from North Carolina who joined the Church when he was fourteen, was elected student body president at Brigham Young University, where just 0.7 percent of the student body is black. While young, Foster chose sports, religion, and education, whereas other relatives opted for drugs and crime. After a year playing basketball at Ricks College (BYU- Idaho), Foster served a mission in California. Foster sees little racial tension at the school but encourages campus groups to work together toward a "Zion community"-Mormon talk for a cooperative, utopian community.

Darius Gray led an organization of black members and others called Genesis, founded in 1971. They began meeting under the direction of the general authorities to "meet the needs" of black members. All-black branches have given African American members the chance to fill responsible positions they might not hold in large wards. Although assimilation is not complete, no one denies a black man or a twelve-year-old-boy the priesthood when standards are met. One black leader has retired as a General Authority, and several black area leaders have since been added to the Quorums of the Seventy.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the "priesthood revelation," Darius Gray said that the Church had been changed from a "small, parochial institution into an international church." He spoke for broader cultural inclusion. "We need to not only bring people in, but share in what they have to offer." As an example, Gladys Knight, the Grammy Award-winning singer who had previously regretted that LDS hymns were not very exciting (they could "use a little zip."), brought her gospel choir, Saints Unified Voices, from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City to perform gospel versions of LDS hymns. The "toe-tapping, hand-clapping, bench-thumping music praising Jesus Christ" presented a new version of the hymns. Knight thanked the leaders for their encouragement and "urged the audience to widen their embrace of the cultures, music and customs of all people."

More than a quarter of a century after the change, tensions remain. Some members regret that the Church has not apologized for the past. An apology would imply that past prophets were mistaken, a possibility the official Church is reluctant to acknowledge. Lacking this renunciation, the old explanations for priesthood exclusion persist in LDS folklore and sometimes turn up in publications. Darron Smith, in Black and Mormon, a book he co-edited with Newell Bringhurst, regrets that the Church "refuses to acknowledge and undo its racist past, and until it does that, members continue to suffer psychological damage from it." The racist past still haunts the Mormon present.

The Church's relationship with Native Americans suffers from a different set of tensions. Mormons believe the Book of Mormon contains a history of the Indians, linking them to ancient Israel and foretelling their destiny. They are chosen people and will be instrumental in building a New Jerusalem. But the Book of Mormon position is ambiguous: Indians are descendants of the book's rebellious Lamanites. In some periods, over the book's long history, the Lamanites are heroes; more often they are hos tile to the book's narrators. Nevertheless, the book promises that they "shall blossom as the rose." As early as 1830, missionaries taught Indians about this heritage in New York, Ohio, and Missouri.

The affinity with Indians led to immediate problems. In Missouri, just as the Mormons were considered too soft on free blacks, so they were feared to be in league with Native Americans. The Church was charged with "Indian tampering," or stirring sedition. When the Mormons were driven from Missouri in 1838, the committee took care that they not go toward Indian Territory for fear they would join the Indians and come back to attack the white frontier settlements. Both accusations-that Mormons held illicit communication with Indians and were opposed to slavery-frightened the Missourians. Arriving in large numbers in the Great Salt Lake Valley, Mormons attempted to live peacefully with the Indians. Brigham Young advocated kindness and generosity, hoping to assimilate them into mainstream Church culture despite disparate lifestyles. Some joined the Church, others were adopted into LDS families, but most lived distant from LDS communities. Attempts at peaceful coexistence proved elusive.

In the 1940s, the Church created missions to the Native Americans to teach farming and religion. Some Indian children, at their parents' request, were placed in LDS families in white communities to go to school. Mormons served as foster families for the children, paying for transportation, room and board, and clothing. The children, beginning at about age eight, lived at home in the summer, returning to the foster family through high school.