The Rev. Al Sharpton spent Monday touring LDS sites, discussing his recently unearthed ancestry and exchanging notes on Christian service with Mormon leaders.
By afternoon, the Pentecostal preacher who drew ire for comments he made about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith said his subsequent visit to Salt Lake City had been a valuable experience.
“This visit was not about politics. It was not about controversy,” Sharpton told a group of reporters at the LDS Family History Library. “It was about our trying to learn about each other as believers in God and Christ, to find common ground . . .[and] work together for the good of humanity.”
Hosted by Elder Robert G. Oaks of the church’s First Quorum of Seventy, Sharpton visited the LDS Church’s Welfare Square, particularly the humanitarian center, which collects clothes, food and medical supplies to distribute around the world. He toured the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, the Conference Center and the Family History Library, where volunteers described the church’s vast genealogical holdings and programs. Utah-based Ancestry.com has discovered Sharpton descended from slaves owned by the forefathers of the late senator and one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond.
“It was a great honor for us to host Rev. Sharpton,” Oaks said. “We welcome him anytime.”
Sharpton also spent part of the day broadcasting his live radio show from a studio in LDS Church-owned Bonneville International.
On the air, he said he respects members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Christians and believers, and called any perceived friction between himself and the church a ”fabricated controversy.”
”Whatever differences I have with their denomination or religion had nothing to do with my respect of their faith,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton’s visit comes about two weeks after he made comments about Romney during a debate with an atheist author.
“As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways,” he said on the air, “so don’t worry about that; that’s a temporary situation.”
Romney later criticized Sharpton, saying the comment could be construed as bigoted, implying that Mormons don’t believe in God.
Sharpton, who urged the firing of radio host Don Imus after Imus’s racially insensitive remarks, said his words were misconstrued. He publicly apologized to “regular Mormons” and to two LDS apostles in a phone conversation.
But he also raised questions about the church’s practice of banning black men from its all-male, volunteer priesthood, which didn’t end until 1978.
Sharpton arrived in Salt Lake City on Sunday evening and was greeted at the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City by LDS Apostle M. Russell Ballard. The two men chatted for two hours over dinner, discussing areas of shared concerns and places where their respective faiths can work together. After dinner, Ballard took Sharpton to see the giant “Christus” statue in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
“It was a very moving thing for me,” Sharpton told reporters.
During his stay in Utah, Sharpton did not meet with the church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, its governing First Presidency, including President Gordon B. Hinckley, or members of the Genesis Group, the premier organization for black Mormons. However, Cathy Stokes, a black LDS convert and former Relief Society president in Chicago, accompanied him throughout the day.
Outside the Family History library, a black heckler yelled as the New York City minister entered: “They’ve snowed you. They’re all racists.”
Monday’s visit was Sharpton’s second to Utah.
He came in December 2002 to address the annual luncheon of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this story.