PHILADELPHIA – Donte Holland, a 30-year-old carpenter’s apprentice, joined the Mormon church in Philadelphia two years ago because it gave him “the fruits of the spirit. Peace. A good feeling inside.”
Holland and his wife, Rosalyn, are both black. The Mormon church is as white as its most famous members, Donny and Marie Osmond, and in Philadelphia, Eagles Coach Andy Reid. But for the last decade or so, the Mormons, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, have been expanding in city neighborhoods with large black and Spanish-speaking populations.
The Hollands joined after some missionaries knocked on their door and explained the faith. Last month, the Mormons opened a five-story meeting house for 900 members on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. Recently, a new Mormon church building at Broad and Wyoming streets in Philadelphia held an open house with food and information about the church and about other topics, including medical care and financial planning. The Harlem and Philadelphia churches follow an earlier expansion in Detroit.
The church does not record members’ racial or ethnic backgrounds, but experts estimate that black Mormons number 5,000 to 10,000 in the United States, up from almost none in 30 years ago. The church says 130,000 people belong to its Spanish-speaking congregations, up from 92,600 in 1995. The Broad and Wyoming location includes a Spanish-speaking service, and attendance at that has grown from 60 to about 110 since the new building opened earlier this year.
Mormons count 12 million members around the world, 5.5 million of them in the United States, so the minority figures are small but growing.
“There is a kind of changing face of the LDS church because of its continuing commitment to work in the inner cities,” said Melvyn Hammarberg, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the Mormons.
The growth has occurred recently in part because, like many American churches, the Mormon church has had racist chapters in its past.
Its founder, Joseph Smith is believed to have ordained a black man, Elijah Abel in 1836. But his successor, Brigham Young, decreed that black men were not worthy of being priests. While in most churches the priesthood involves a small, select group, in the Mormon church, it is a prerequisite for full membership for men in the church.
In 1978, church leaders in Salt Lake City had what Mormons call a “revelation,” which church members believe comes directly from god. The revelation proclaimed that “all worthy men … without regard for race or color” could be ordained for the priesthood.
Some members, however, say the church needs to go further, repudiating old beliefs, such as the one that said blacks were cursed and so could not be priests.
“If the church would apologize, it would do wonders for proselytizing among blacks,” said Darron Smith, a black Mormon and author of “Black and Mormon.” Other churches, he noted, including Southern Baptists, have apologized for racist histories.
Smith joined the church as a teenager in 1980 because he liked the answers it offered about family and the afterlife. Church members also were very friendly, he said. But when he has criticized the church’s previous attitudes towards blacks, white Mormons often brought up old teachings to justify the one-time ban on black priests.
“This is systemic,” Smith said. “This is a part of how people have learned to understand these issues,” he said. Church officials said they emphasize the importance of diversity and the dangers of discrimination in current teachings.
Despite the church’s history, several black members said only the Mormon church ever felt like home.
Ahmad S. Corbitt, who grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from John Bartram High School, got his Arab name from his parents, who were involved with the Nation of Islam and knew Malcolm X. The family later converted to the Methodist Church. But when Mormons knocked on his family’s door in South Jersey in 1980, “my mother felt a peaceful, spiritual feeling immediately.”
Missionary work – going door to door in cities and neighborhoods across the world – is a key component of the Mormon faith. Many young Mormons spend two years in a mission away from home.
Corbitt, who was 17 when the Mormons came calling, shared his mother’s feelings and converted, too.
He knew about the pre-1978 ban but said it didn’t bother him.
“It was something that the church had clearly moved beyond,” he said. “It was clear to me that the church was moving forward and I was willing to judge it by its fruits.”
After several years as a lawyer and public relations executive, he became director of the New York Office of Public and International Affairs of the church. Last month, he became Stake President for the Church in South Jersey, a promotion roughly equivalent to becoming a bishop in the Catholic Church. Corbitt, 43, is one of a handful of black stake presidents in the United States.
At one of the new Philadelphia church’s first services, the crowd of about 100 people appeared to be about 30 percent black. The surrounding neighborhood is about 80 percent black.
Services last three hours, with one hour devoted to singing, preaching and confirmations of people recently baptized as members. Men and women separate for the remaining portion. Each group discusses ways to improve their lives and the church.
Celeste Smith and Carolyn Frye, two North Philadelphia residents, were checking out the church. Neither is Mormon, but Smith said her teenage son had started coming to the church after some missionaries knocked on their door, so she wanted to check it out.
She had still not decided whether to join.
“It’s working for me right now,” she said. Frye liked the diversity of the crowd but said the relatively staid service “just didn’t move me. I’m used to more foot-stomping and that kind of thing.”
Those who do join say the church’s emphasis on family attracted them. Church services overflow with children and conversations and classes often aim at improving family life.
“I have seen so many lives blessed by the power of the gospel,” said Ingrid Shepard, president of the Mormon Relief Society, a women’s auxiliary group, at the Broad and Wyoming church. She is black but said the church’s history is less important to her than her experience in it.
“I guess having been a member of the church my entire life I have never felt that it is racist,” she said.