Viewed with suspicion: A new book of essays examines the perception of racist attitudes in church settings and offers solutions to problems
Ebony Washington thought he had finally found his home. A black teen raised in foster care around the country, Washington joined the LDS Church in 1996 in the Bronx, N.Y., and shortly after moved to Provo to find his place in a community of Saints.
But when he arrived in Utah, he was crestfallen. “I had been led to believe that this was – quote, unquote – ‘Zion.’ ” Instead of finding a warm embrace, Washington felt like his white counterparts viewed him with hostility and suspicion.
Despite being a faithful member of the church, “they didn’t see me as that; they saw me as the next gang banger,” Washington says.
His experience reflects the frustrations that many black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feel, particularly in Utah’s predominantly white congregations. A book released nationwide last month, Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press, $34.95), takes a new look at the issue. In eight essays, Mormon historians and sociologists discuss the dilemmas of black Latter-day Saints, what they see as the persistence of racist teachings in church settings and remedies that might increase black membership in the church.
While membership in the church was open to people of any racial or ethnic origin, black men historically could not be ordained into the all-male lay priesthood. In 1978, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced he had had a revelation ending that policy.
“For over a century male members of African descent were not given the priesthood for reasons we believe are known to God,” church spokesman Dale Bills said Friday. “Various opinions about the reason for this restriction were superceded by the 1978 revelation.”
So the church moved forward with the new policy, doubling its missionary efforts among blacks in the United States and in Africa.
But 26 years later, results are mixed. More than 180,000 Africans have converted, but it is impossible to measure how many black American members there are because the church does not track membership by race. Estimates range in the thousands, and some studies have suggested that more than half of black American converts leave the church and that often this is, in part, due to concerns about racism.
“To change its image as a racist organization, the church needs to forthrightly confront its past history of racial exclusion and discrimination,” wrote Black and Mormon co-editors Darron Smith and Newell Bringhurst.
Old folklore: Racism in the LDS Church, Smith says, is primarily manifested as old folklore that was used to justify excluding blacks from the priesthood, but has not been stomped out by leadership. Ideas that black people are cursed descendents of Cain, one of the Bible’s greatest villains, and that blacks were less valiant in the premortal life, essentially “fence-sitters” in the battle between God and Satan in heaven, continue to be taught and believed by many Mormons, although not sanctioned as doctrine.
“We can’t expect [racist myths] to die a natural death if we don’t interrogate them, deconstruct them, disavow them . . . [and] unless there is a proactive initiative,” says Smith, who teaches sociology classes at Brigham Young University and has a Web forum at http://www.darronsmith.com. “It is so critical that this be brought before the church leaders. They might assume that all is well, or they may not understand how widespread and serious this is.”
Don Harwell, president of Genesis, a support group for black Mormons that was established by church President Harold B. Lee in 1971, says discrimination is common but subtle. “It’s the feeling of not being wanted. It’s the feeling that people are looking for an excuse to tell you why you’re not worthy.”
Harwell frequently hears from black members who struggle to maintain their faith in the LDS Church when they are treated poorly by its members. Recently, a black woman in an Ohio ward told him she had gone to a white woman’s home as visiting teacher, but was not allowed to enter until her companion, another white woman, joined her.
“I know the church is true,” Harwell says. “But there are other people who don’t have as strong a testimony as I do, and I would like them to be able to feel welcome and be active in the church.”
Don’t mix: Natasha Ball, president of Black Scholars United at the University of Utah, has served an LDS mission and says her strong testimony keeps her going to church despite her occasional discomfort. Black members often have to give up elements of their culture to feel accepted, she says.
“My race and religion just don’t mix,” she says. “I have to keep them very separate but equal.”
As a single 27-year-old, Ball says dating in the LDS Church, which encourages members to marry within the faith, is challenging for black Mormons because many white members still frown on interracial marriage. She asked a white male friend recently why he wouldn’t date her.
“Because you’re black,” she says he told her. “I just don’t find black women attractive.”
Not finding any Mormons to date, Ball has sought relationships outside the church.
Though critical of the LDS Church’s handling of race, these Mormons still are quick to defend the institution. Racism, they say, can be found in most white-dominated churches.
Cardell Jacobsen, a white sociology professor at BYU who wrote an essay in Black and Mormon, says white Mormons are not any more likely than the rest of the white population to hold racist views when compared in national surveys. He attributes racial prejudice in Utah primarily to a lack of contact with black people, who make up just 0.8 percent of the state’s population.
But black members experiencing any degree of racial discrimination at church is a problem, says Jacobsen, who is a bishop. “We are all brothers and sisters. We are all members of the church and that should not happen here.”
In a priesthood meeting, Val Ewell, an active black church member in Logan, heard another man say the only problem in their ward was “the n—– girl” who had recently joined the congregation. Ewell, a member of his stake high council at the time, reprimanded the man and reported the incident to his stake president. The stake president, however, said the matter should be handled “quietly,” and Ewell was released from the council shortly afterward.
“The church needs, at a very senior level, to step forward and say these kinds of terms, these kinds of statements, these kinds of actions will not be countenanced in the church,” Ewell says. “I don’t think the stake presidents and the bishops, the foot soldiers of the church, are going to do anything until the brethren tell them to . . . directly in language that they understand.”
After his disappointment in Zion, Washington struggled to remain active in the LDS Church. Because he believed Mormons were God’s people, he wondered if a church could be true if its believers treated him differently for the way he looked, talked and dressed.
Washington now lives in Salt Lake City and is pursuing degrees in mathematics and physics at the University of Utah. He returned to full church participation a few years ago, concluding that some people in the church, not the religion itself, were to blame.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is my sustaining force,” he says. “That’s how I subsist and survive.”