Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
[p.181]General and local LDS leaders have explored various organizational options for new black members, struggling to find a balance between practical and theological concerns. Practical questions deal with comfort zones where black and white members feel they can worship without restriction. But if all are brothers and sisters, as Mormon theology teaches, then are racial concerns artificial barriers?
LDS African-Americans have been raised in the United States and share experiences with all other Americans. But is there something unique about the black American experience, elements of the culture which make it more satisfying for African-Americans to worship together? Since the 1970s when the LDS church authorized formation of the Genesis Group for blacks in the Salt Lake City area, various solutions have been tried but none has been completely successful. The argument for ethnic wards like Samoan, native American, and Laotian units acknowledges cultural diversity in the larger Mormon community. In the case of African-Americans, does this smack of segregation?
New members in inner-city black neighborhoods enhance the dilemma of whether the LDS church should sponsor separate branches and wards for black Americans. The growth of the LDS church in the United States in the last forty years has been mainly among the middle class. This demographic pattern and land availability in growing suburban neighborhoods has resulted in new LDS chapels primarily in those areas. In places like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., inner-city chapels were sold. In Oakland, California, the meetinghouse sat empty. This building pattern created immense logistical problems for new black members from the inner-city [p.182] getting to church. With reduced bus runs or no public transportation on Sunday, some members depend on rides from white members who must drive out of their way to pick them up. Even with public transportation, time and money pose problems for some, especially those with large families.
The first group for black members was organized in Salt Lake City in 1971. LaMar S. Williams, who worked for the LDS church’s Missionary Department and had promoted missionary efforts in Africa, organized socials for Salt Lake City Afro-Americans. When they asked for a formal organization, Williams advised them to contact church headquarters.1 Ruffin Bridgeforth, Jr., Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr, all black Mormons, “call[ed] the church offices [to] see if there was some way that our people could meet together, such as the Danish and Norwegian branches.” They subsequently met with Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer, members of the church’s Council of Twelve Apostles. On 19 October 1971 Hinckley set Bridgeforth apart as president of a group called Genesis with Gray and Orr as counselors. In an interview Bridgeforth explained that the apostles had asked, “What would you name the group if it were organized?” Bridgeforth responded: “We thought about it, and then the name came to us.”2
Although Genesis had no written objectives, some implied goals were to promote missionary work among blacks and to facilitate reactivation and fellowship among the rumored 200 active and inactive black Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake area.3 The Church News[p.183] announced vaguely that the group would be an “auxiliary program of the Liberty Stake” and “would meet and conduct Relief Society, Primary and MIA for the benefit and enjoyment of [black] members, but [they] will attend their respective Sunday… meetings in their home wards, where they will retain their membership.”4
Genesis was an organization and a procedure that mimicked conventional branch structure without priesthood authority. Throughout its existence Bridgeforth served as president. Other officers changed as black leaders moved away from Utah and new people came to Salt Lake City. Although the group met weekly and sponsored a Relief Society and Primary (then weekday activities), members attended local wards on Sunday. This arrangement was similar to a German-speaking branch which met in Logan, Utah, until World War II. Unlike other ethnic branches where Latter-day Saints maintained their records, those who went to the Logan German-speaking branch also attended a Logan ward.5 In the same way Genesis provided a chance for blacks to speak their cultural language, yet still affiliate with an ethnically-mixed congregation.
Genesis had the advantage of providing leadership opportunities for black men who, lacking priesthood, could not hold key ward positions. James Sinquefield, for instance, was grateful that Genesis gave him “an opportunity to gain experience in leadership. Brother Bridgeforth needed someone to fill the position of second counselor. I accepted it in faith that I would do the best I could.”6
Genesis was organized at the height of the publicity given to priesthood restriction. Fearing that the group might be seen either as a Mormon positive public relations attempt or as a forum to force militant changes in the church, Genesis members were encouraged to be “cautiously conservative in their associations and avoid media[p.184] attention.”7 Helen Kennedy, a former Hill Field employee from Ogden, Utah, remembers that Elder Packer, speaking at the first meeting of Genesis, urged a low profile. According to Kennedy, Packer said, “Things that are young and tender need room to grow.” He requested, “Those who do not belong [should] stand back, give them room. This is not a tourist attraction.”8
Inevitably problems developed. Unlike wards and branches at the time, no minutes were kept of the meetings. With no set membership, people came and went at will, some leaving because they felt their needs had been fulfilled, others because they objected to the way the group was run.
Although sources of difficulties are not clear, in a published interview Bridgeforth remembered:
When the group was organized, we didn’t know what was ahead, but we did feel that there would be many problems. We had dissension, and we had people who were dissatisfied. “Why can’t we do this?” and “Why can’t we do that?” Trying to keep them calm was a constant challenge. We had the general authorities come and speak, but the dissenters would come and try to create problems. Some of them would come to the meetings and not make any outright disturbance, but would talk privately to our people. Some, of course, were vulnerable, and they would go off. It was just odd the way these things happened. We’d have some of our people get up and do some strange things.
Bridgeforth suggested that these problems happened because “Satan seemed determined to disturb our meetings.”9
For Alan Cherry, however, Genesis’s vagueness caused the quandaries. He found “having an organization that didn’t have written purposes everyone could read, didn’t have a definite form to follow, didn’t have a means for its members to fully redress their grievances with the way we were managing our affairs … [made it] difficult for people… to effect changes.”10
After the June 1978 announcement, many wondered if there was any longer a need for Genesis. Bridgeforth felt that there was still a role for the group. He explained: “We still need the social contact. I have got a black man out here at a ward. He is the only one…. If he has got nobody to talk to, sometimes he will just stay away.”11 Attendance dropped sharply, and it was often difficult to predict who would be at the meetings. The group continued to meet in monthly testimony meetings until 1987 when the gatherings were discontinued although never officially disbanded.12
Genesis was the model for two other social groups. Marva Collins joined the church in Montana within a month of the priesthood announcement. She then wrote President Spencer W. Kimball asking about other black Latter-day Saints and was referred to Genesis. She moved to Salt Lake City, attended Genesis meetings, and then moved to Oakland, California, where she started Genesis II in January 1985.13 Three years later Genesis II was still meeting on the third Saturday of each month. An annual event was a picnic open to missionaries, black members, and anyone from the Oakland Stake. Black members from throughout the Bay area came.
Marvin Collins also started, edited, and published a newsletter to help black Latter-day Saints stay in touch. After mailing a letter in 1984, Genesis: A New Beginning helped the Oakland Genesis Group focus on issues of interest to Latter-day Saints. It expanded from Oakland and was mailed throughout the United States and some foreign countries. With financial help from the LDS church’s Public Communications Department, Collins attempted to contact black Mormons throughout the world. The newsletter later changed its name to Ebony Rose. Collins explained in a 1986 issue: “I believe … [in] Blackness blossoming (like an Ebony Rose).” The newsletter carried news articles, recipes, personal advertisements for dates, editorials, and reprints about blacks in general but always focused on LDS[p.186] blacks. Collins and her daughters Shelly and Tiombe were essentially the newsletter staff. According to the August 1986 issue, there were 1,000 subscribers.
Ebony Rose sponsored a black history conference in Salt Lake City on 21 February 1987 featuring Yochiko Kikuchi, a Japanese church leader, as keynote speaker. Collins commented in the newsletter: “It was touching that Elder Kikuchi saw the validity in Ebony Rose and Genesis to meet that [fellowshipping] need” of black Mormons.
The newsletter ended with an announcement in the July-August 1988 issue: “After five years we at Ebony Rose can proudly say we succeeded in our original goals to educate and bring Ebony LDS members together. Without regrets, but sadly, we say farewell and head on to new adventures.”14
In January 1986 black members in the Washington, D.C., area asked through church channels for permission to organize a Genesis group and received permission. Drawing on the Salt Lake City group, this new organization was also called Genesis. According to Cleeretta Henderson Smiley, a home economics teacher who joined the church in 1977, its mission “was to unite the black LDS in the eastern region in valiant brotherhood and sisterhood.” Smiley described Genesis as her “most significant experience in the church until her “calling to [a] public communications job.” The D.C. Genesis group met for special firesides; Ruffin Bridgeforth and Alan Cherry were among the invited speakers. The group also held missionary workshops and socials but was discontinued in 1987 when no one assumed leadership.15
In January 1985 students at BYU and Salt Lake City Genesis co-sponsored a program honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday. Emanuel Reid recalled: “The underlying factor of the program was to get people together.” According to Reid, about 150 people, black and white, attended and then lingered for “a great gathering afterwards. Refreshments were served; the spirit was felt. We hope that we are[p.187] able to do things of that nature in the future.”16
BYU black students subsequently formed a black student association. In her oral history interview, Joelle Margot Aull, president in 1987, reported that the association had “social purposes” and “educational reasons.” The association sponsored a “Black Awareness Week” for several years in honor of King’s birthday. Speakers included Ronald Coleman, a non-Mormon black professor of history at the University of Utah; Mary Sturlaugson Eyer, a black LDS author; and Alan Cherry. During the week the group sponsored other activities including dances and dinners to make BYU students and the Provo community more aware of black Americans.17
Another social group was organized with a publication in mind. The LDS African American Cultural Awareness Group (AACAG), a Utah-based non-profit organization, was formed in September 1989 by Nathaniel and Ruby Womble, Natalie Palmer-Taylor, and Nathaniel Chism, all residents of Salt Lake City. In the first issue of the association’s newsletter Let’s Talk, editor Jerri A. Harwell asked how these two separate cultures—black and white America—could come together, admitting it was “awkward at first.”18
A later article in the newsletter reported that the Salt Lake City Genesis Group had combined with AACAG and that Ruffin Bridgeforth was serving as an officer. The author, Cara M. Billinger, continued: “Some day there may come a time when we no longer need the AACAG and similar groups, when all people are unified by gospel love and are so secure in their love that unique characteristics are celebrated and understood.”19
This group like Genesis sought official recognition from the LDS church. Despite discussions with Apostle David B. Haight and others, that goal was not accomplished. In a highly hierarchical institution[p.188] where the line between “official” and “unofficial” is sometimes perceived as the equivalent of “orthodox” and “unorthodox,” this was a significant blow to the organization. At a dinner meeting in Salt Lake City in October 1989, Joseph C. Smith, the group’s president, explained that he did not want the group to be perceived as “a splinter group.” According to Smith, “If the prophet told us to disband tomorrow, we would do it.” Dinner speaker Apostle Haight was cautiously encouraging. After asking members to participate in their wards and branches, he commented, “It is also good for this group to meet.”
At the same meeting Smith defined the organization’s goals. These included sharing testimonies and being an example for other blacks. “It helps to hear a testimony from someone in circumstances similar to your own,” explained Smith. Another goal was to maintain black culture in the LDS church. “One of the biggest goals of the AACAG is to dispel the fear that African Americans will have to give up their black culture in order to be accepted into the church.” And these differences, according to Smith, “need not separate us …. In fact, those differences can strengthen us …. Through the gospel, all races can be united.” The news article about the dinner concluded: “It is the mission of the AACAG and this newsletter alike to break down those barriers. For, as Elder Haight concluded, ‘Christ atoned for all men. There are no exceptions.’”20 The AACAG sponsored potluck dinners, musical programs, and other socials. The group later changed its name to Latter-day Saints for Cultural Awareness, although it continued to cover only African-American issues. The LDS church Public Communications Department occasionally called on members to entertain black guests from other countries.
The AAGAG’s newsletter, Let’s Talk, attempted to reach black members throughout the world. Let’s Talk was edited by Jerri A. Harwell and published bimonthly. Seven issues were printed. Let’s Talk listed its goals as the “three-fold mission of the church” defined by the First Presidency: “proclaiming the gospel,” “perfecting the Saints,” and “redeeming the dead.” To achieve these goals the newsletter outlined specific objectives to “assist African-Americans with the transition into the gospel so they do not feel separated and lonely after[p.189] joining the Church, nor that they have to leave their culture behind to assimilate into the LDS culture,” “to encourage African-Americans to open up avenues of communication and trust with their local Church leaders,” and “to educate Latter-day Saints about African-Americans.” The newsletter cost $9.50 for a yearly subscription or $1.25 a issue. It carded historical articles and short essays.
Shortly after Let’s Talk ceased publication in 1990, a quarterly replacement, Uplift, published by Latter-day Saints for Cultural Awareness, started. Now in its second volume, it continues to be published at no cost to subscribers, but it seeks advertisements and donations.
All of these groups attempted to fill social, spiritual, emotional, and cultural needs of black members, believing that there were unique aspects of the African-American lifestyle which united them. None of the organizations was set up as “dating services” for single blacks nor was that a goal. George Garwood attended Genesis to associate with other LDS Afro-Americans. He explained, “I think it is good especially for blacks who need that building up and that encouragement that comes from that group.”21 Carol Edwards of Washington, D.C., found that many new members “get lost in the shuffle…. There is not a net to keep them in… long enough to realize what they should be concentrating on. That is why this [D.C.] Genesis Group is important to us now because, as they come in, we are going to try to hold them and keep them in.”22
Clara Mcllwain, Edwards’ mother, noted: “Before Genesis I only knew the four [black] people that were in my ward.”23 Natalie Palmer-Taylor added, “It is just nice to know that people are all going through the same struggle and you are not alone.”24 Jerri Allene Thornton Hale, who joined the church as a student in the midwest in 1977 and[p.190] served a mission in Texas, did not feel a need to socialize but participated in Genesis and later the AACAG because, she said, “perhaps there are other blacks who do need a social support and maybe I could help them there.”25
Social groups have also enabled blacks to retain and enjoy cultural distinctions. Annette Reid said that she enjoyed meeting with other black Latter-day Saints because “we not only have the gospel in common, but a lot of times we have common words and lingos and traditional things that have happened in our families that are unique to that particular culture of people.”26 Genesis meetings included “Baptist music that [blacks] were brought up with …. It is just something to make you feel that you are with your people.”27
James Sinquefield, at one time Ruffin Bridgeforth’s counselor in Genesis, explained the group gave “black members an opportunity to worship together.” Its intent, he explained, “was not to segregate them. I hope that in the future maybe more Genesis groups will be organized within the church throughout the world so that black members can worship together for culture’s sake.”28 In Washington, D.C., “Negro spirituals” in special programs sponsored by Genesis exposed other LDS members to black music.
Another reason Bridgeforth and others had in starting black organizations was public relations.29 Many people assumed that the priesthood restriction excluded blacks from membership. The D.C. Genesis, for example, volunteered to work at the Shiloh Baptist church family center, which helped improve the LDS church’s image in the black community.30
Cherrie Lee Maples felt that support from black members allowed[p.191] her to reach out to other blacks:
To deal with families who are nonmembers, to deal with my culture which is not in the church, I need the strength and support of black LDS people to rely on …. My white LDS friends cannot give me that strength. They could if I totally assimiliate and immerse myself in their world, but I choose not to do that because I want to be able to bring blacks into the church. To remain in my culture, I need the support of my black LDS friends.31
Parallels to the various Genesis groups were the church’s special language units in Utah. In organizing a German-speaking ward in 1963 Apostle Spencer W. Kimball hoped that as immigrants learned English they would return to their local wards.32 Similarly black members such as George Garwood attended Genesis for a short time and then stopped going. As he explained: “I felt that I needed not to be tied to that group because… you need to get used to going around with different [i.e., non-black] people.”33
Garwood touched on one of the problems of Genesis. Darrin Davis, who occasionally attended Genesis in Salt Lake City while studying at Brigham Young University in Provo, had mixed feelings. Although he enjoyed the gathering, he also felt “a little bit distressed when black people feel that there is a need for special treatment.” He advocated a less culture-conscious approach to church membership: “I think if we just take our role as regular Latter-day Saints and let our daily experiences teach one another, then things will go smoothest.”34 Being a “regular Latter-day Saint” takes time and adds meetings and callings to family and work obligations. Genesis groups were disbanded in part because they added one more layer of responsibility.
After 1978 when black men could be ordained to priesthood, black branches were organized in areas where missionary work in black neighborhoods produced significant numbers of members. The president of the California Los Angeles Mission, F. Britton McConkie, organized one of the first black branches in the Watts area of Los Angeles. The ninety-two people who attended the first meeting on 2 December 1979 sustained Robert L. Lang, a member since 1970, as branch president. During his six years as president, Lang often served with no counselors and only rarely had two, although most of the auxiliaries were completely staffed.35 Lang insisted it was not a “black branch”; it was the Southwest Los Angeles Branch in a “predominantly black area.”36 In 1981 the 109 members were black, except for several families of mixed race and approximately ten white members.37 Black members came from throughout the greater Los Angeles area, some traveling from as far away as Long Beach and Orange County. In 1981 Van Floyd, who was married to a white woman, lived three blocks from the Inglewood Ward but traveled miles to serve as a counselor in the branch presidency.38 Joseph C. and Marilyn Smith and their children, who moved to California after Joseph had graduated from BYU, commuted from Orange County to attend the branch. When Lang was released, Paul Divine, a black member from Long Beach, replaced him. John Phillips, a white stake high councilor who served in the branch presidency under both Lang and Divine remembered only one white member, the wife of a black man, among the sixty to seventy members who attended regularly.39
The Southwest Los Angeles Branch had built-in structural problems. Members in the black neighborhoods had no transportation to[p.193] church, and branch leaders often spent most of the time between meetings giving rides. The need for imported leadership guaranteed dependent status and a lack of full psychological independence. Ecclesiastical responsibility for the branch shifted four times in eight years from the mission to the Torrance California North Stake to the Lawndale California Stake and finally to the Downey California Stake. Teri La Rue Hall, a white woman who served in the stake Young Women’s program, recalled that the branch’s young women would not attend stake-sponsored activities, despite efforts to find out what displeased them about their interracial gatherings. When the branch sponsored special events, they seemed to expect and enjoy participation from other young women in the stake.40 In 1988 the branch was disbanded. Some members had become inactive, others attended their local wards.41
In the mid-1980s mission president Ralph Bradley organized a similar branch in Charlotte, North Carolina, after missionary efforts in federal housing projects resulted in a large number of black converts. He hoped the branch would both solve transportation problems for new converts and ease racial and economic tensions that threatened to swamp fragile religious accords.
At first white missionary couples were in charge of the branch with the husband serving as branch president. Robert Ezell was the first black called to be branch president. He was sustained shortly before Alan Cherry conducted interviews in North Carolina in 1986. A number of white stake leaders believed Ezell had been a minister, but he had actually been an itinerant preacher who had felt a “calling.” Without formal training or administrative experience, he was unprepared for the responsibility and was soon replaced by a white member. In 1988 branch membership was estimated to be 900-1,200, though only 100-200 attended regularly.42
The branch in Greensboro faced similar problems. Rex D. Pinegar of the area presidency asked Johnnie McKoy to help organize a black branch. At first McKoy urged him to find another solution. When Pinegar countered that there was no time to come up with another[p.194] plan, McKoy agreed, though he declined to serve as branch president. He felt a white president could enlist more assistance from stake leadership. Instead he was made a counselor and involved in all decisions.
The Greensboro Bennett Branch, organized in 1986, had geographical boundaries. Because of the area’s ethnic makeup, approximately 90 percent of members were black. McKoy explained that the branch averaged four baptisms a month, had a 60 percent retention rate, had reactivated about 50 percent of those who were lapsed at the time the branch was organized, and had an average attendance of sixty to seventy weekly. McKoy believed this was the equivalent of about 150 active members since most worked swing shifts and could only attend every other week.43
After serving in the branch presidency, McKoy was called to the high council and later became branch president. McKoy was a powerful local leader. In a 1989 Church News interview, McKoy said the branch was averaging two baptisms a week. With this growth he concluded: “Within a year’s time… we’re going to have a ward, and then other wards will develop. We feel this branch will be a nucleus where blacks will come. This kind of love is going to spread through the black community, and thousands will come to the church when they see the work progressing here.”44
Like Genesis and other groups, ethnic branches met a number of needs—social, missionary, reactivation, and leadership training. Donna Chisolm decided to go to the Charlotte Sixth Branch, the name eventually given to the black branch, because she “wanted to … get the black LDS experience.”45 Members of these fledgling branches felt the energy of a new enterprise. Mason Anderson commented: “This is really encouraging to me to see people coming in, to be able to start from the beginning, to be able to work themselves up and be able to take part in the church …. I have liked the fellowship with the Saints that I have met there. I have come to know quite a few of them ….[p.195] We are trying to organize ourselves and to get the church set up.”46
Many black members, discouraged by integrated wards, felt revitalized by ethnic branches. According to Johnnie McKoy, seventy-five of nearly 400 inactive members came back immediately. He said the branch “gave them opportunities to grow, to experience the gospel more deeply, more fully … because it was a close knit branch.”47 Beverly Perry recalled that some of the people who came to the Southwest Los Angeles Branch at first “sacrificed a lot to come” and “the spirit was really neat.”48
These inner-city branches sometimes covered entire metropolitan areas. Nathaniel Womble, who had been a counselor in the presidency of the Georgia Atlanta Mission, felt that many small branches throughout the Atlanta area would make it easier for members to attend church services. Bryan Waterman, a white missionary, thought storefront churches, similar to those maintained by evangelical and rescue missions, would help some Newark members who could not afford the bus rides across town. He had heard that small congregations directed by mission presidents rather than stakes had been established in New York and Philadelphia. Waterman felt a need “to bring the church to the people” and commented: “If we are ever going to become strong and deeply rooted, then we will have to have store-front churches scattered throughout the cities to bring the church to the people.”49
Some missions and stakes have developed the store-front churches Waterman encouraged. The Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission worked with African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans living in ethnic neighborhoods. To help meet the needs of these groups, LDS general authority F. Enzio Busche organized the Philadelphia Metro District in June 1991. Two years later the mission ran the district’s ten urban branches with some 500 members. In addition to holding meetings, these branches were involved in projects[p.196] to improve their members’ living conditions. A Laotian woman, Viengzay Mounelasy, appreciated the opportunity to work in a small branch. She became a Primary president only six months after her baptism. She explained, “Serving has helped me grow more quickly than I would have otherwise.”50
The Boston Massachusetts Stake organized an urban congregation, the Malden Branch, in 1989 as part of a master plan. Since then stake leaders have organized branches in Spanish, Portuguese, and Asian areas of the city. The stake originally organized the branches to deal with the three major reasons inner-city members had stopped attending church meetings: distance, language, and culture. Stake members referred to these units as “store-front” branches or “boutiques” because “they represent a street-level effort to display the beauty of the gospel before the people.” One of the first organized inner-city congregations, the Boston Branch, included church members originally from Haiti, Cuba, Tonga, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mexico, Trinidad, Ecuador, Asia, and El Salvador. According to the branch president, “Our branch is a neutral place; we accept people where they are …. We offer them peace with God and with themselves, as well as practical solutions to their everyday problems.”51
Transportation was not the only problem facing new black members. Often if they had to travel to a suburban ward, they encountered people from different economic backgrounds. For them the advantage of economic similarity was significant. Before the creation of the Spring Garden Branch in Newark, New Jersey, members in Irvington, a poor inner-city community, were included in the Shorthills Ward. According to Waterman, this ward “was at one time the most affluent ward in the church.” Sharon Davis, who immigrated from Jamaica with her mother and sisters lived in Orange, New Jersey. Her first experience at the Shorthills Ward was intimidating.52 Waterman noticed that not only did “black members [have] a difficult time attending church[p.197] in Shorthills …. the members in Shorthills had a difficult time home teaching in Irvington.”53
Similarly blacks in Oakland felt uncomfortable attending church with people from Piedmont, an exclusive nearby neighborhood. When asked why some black members stop attending the Mormon church, Vivian Troutman, a manager of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in East Oakland, explained: “They see all these white people with all these nice cars and nice clothes. They may have one dress, and the next Sunday they don’t want to wear that one dress. They don’t have the funds to do better.”54
Some see a public relations benefit of inner-city branches. John Phillips hoped the Southwest Los Angeles Branch would establish a physical presence in Watts from which wards and eventually stakes would grow.55 Robert Lang commented that “the branch had done wonders” because the black community saw that blacks “belong to the [Mormon] church.”56
A further benefit of black branches, like black groups, was leadership opportunities provided to new converts. AS Robert Lang argued: “A black man gets baptized into a ward with another race of people. What is the chance of this particular black person getting a calling in order to learn leadership? It is kind of slim.”57 Elizabeth Pulley found her greatest opportunities to serve in the Los Angeles branch. She taught mother education and social relations in Relief Society and worked in the Primary.58 Mason Anderson elected to attend the Charlotte branch because with his lack of education and experience, he felt, “If I went into a church that was already established[,] I would not be able to do hardly anything…. To be able to work is really helping me in my growth in the… church.”59
[p.198] Yet disadvantages of ethnic branches grew from the very factors that were their strengths. New converts misunderstood church procedure and had difficulty functioning in leadership positions. Beverly Perry, who lived in San Pedro, California, commented: “Some good has come out of the Southwest Los Angeles Branch … but I think the leadership needs to be reinforced. In the beginning I was telling everyone to go [there to church] …. But now I do not think I would tell anyone to go because they are so disorganized.”60
In North Carolina members of the Charlotte Sixth Branch soon recognized Robert Ezell’s inexperience. Melonie Quick, a Baptist before she became Mormon, remembered that Ezell spoke every week and “mostly read … out of one of the [church] books …. It’s kind of hard to sit and listen to someone when they really don’t understand what they are saying.” Even though she complained, “I don’t know why they put him in that position,” she was willing to work with him “so he can accomplish something and try to make it work, I guess. We are all beginners.”61
With so many recent converts in the black branches, there was often confusion about basic church organization and teachings. Gladys Brown, a forty-year-old convert, interviewed after she had been a member for less than a year, wanted leaders to “take fifteen minutes and explain to the people what [Relief Society] is all about.” She also had questions about the temple that no one took the time to answer.62 Donna Chisolm reported other concerns about church procedure. When a Relief Society teacher’s attendance became sporadic, the president asked Chisolm to teach the class instead, but she was never formally called.63
Naturally new members brought with them experiences from their previous churches. According to Robert Lang, people had to “unlearn” old habits.64 Benjamin Washington, who had attended[p.199] Methodist, Baptist, and Holiness churches as a child, said, “I do not think there is any harm in singing good songs on Sunday, but all of that whooping and hollering … that fire and brimstone stuff is their biggest problem.”65 The wife of the president of the Charlotte Sixth Branch recalled a white speaker repeating the LDS platitude that “the church is the same wherever you go.” From the back row one of the members called, “Amen, Brother!”66 Such congregational interaction is rare in most Mormon worship meetings.
The most tension-fraught issue of black branches was the suspicion of segregation. Darlene Bowden, of the Charlotte Sixth Branch, noticed that there were “not a whole lot of whites going to the black church” and vice versa, and that “there is still that uncomfortable racial feeling [that is] like a thick smog.”67 Catherine Stokes, former Relief Society president of the integrated Hyde Park Ward in Chicago, adamantly opposed separate units for Chicago, pointing out the “public relations nightmare for the church. It would tend to confirm what most people think about the church, that it is racist.”68 Jerri Allene Thornton Hale living in Provo summarized the dilemma: “Some blacks need [a black ward that] … would serve as support,” but “then you would have [people] on the other side saying that the church segregates you.”69
ISOLATED LDS AFRO-AMERICANS
Black branches, whatever their advantages and drawbacks, cannot be organized where there are few black members. The Willises, the Jenkins, and the Rices in the St. Louis area were acquaintances before they joined the Mormon church. They meet together once a month for a dinner and social. They have deliberately limited the group size, because they feel a need to maintain these private friendships. [p.200] According to Eva Willis, “We’re three couples that really gel …. We do fit well together.”70 Janet Rice explained, “I think the reason that I guarded this so carefully was because we all had common interests, we all liked each other, and we all got along so well with each other. When other people ask about joining our group, I tell them no way.” This policy includes her mother who cannot come over on dinner night.71
Other groups are deliberately inclusive. Aurbie Rayford Johnson of Atlanta recalled that blacks would come from a hundred-mile radius to gatherings Nathaniel Womble organized. “We would just congregate together and talk about some of the problems that we would have and try to work them out. We would try to bring investigators from each area to talk to or show a film and share our testimonies.”72
Others have more diffuse contacts, such as Mary Smith, a high school student, who said that black members in Jackson, Mississippi, were “sort of like family. We hang on to each other. We use each other for strength. We use each other for sounding boards. If there’s something that is truly bothering us and that we can’t talk to the white LDS about, we can always go to one of the blacks and tell them how we feel.”73 Marilyn Larine Thomas, who lived in the same city, felt less connected: “I don’t have too much [contact with black Latter-day Saints] fight now. When we first joined, there was just a handful. Now that the number of blacks has increased in the church, we’re now trying to get to know them. We see them in church, and we talk to them. Outside of that right now, we don’t have much contact with them.”74
Many LDS African-Americans are the only black members in their[p.201] area. Annie Wilbur of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, grew up in a black area and moved to a largely white neighborhood after high school. She stayed there through a marriage and a divorce and worked in a hospital operating room, where most employees and patients were white. Depressed by her singular situation after baptism, she exclaimed: “I have got to find some ward that has some black members in it. I am traveling miles to church anyhow so I might as well travel miles in another direction so I can see somebody black. I am working all day with white people; I am living in a white neighborhood; I am going to a white church. What am I doing?”75
Some members responded to interviews with delight because Alan Cherry was someone they could relate to. Junious Edwards Ross living in San Jose, California, was gratified to learn that Cherry was “actually doing something to let others know that you are not alone. That is a good feeling.” He continued, “Once in a while I need to talk with someone who knows what I am going through. You and I can relate. We are both black and we know the problems… . It is kind of hard to talk with someone else about feelings I may have when they didn’t grow up in a ghetto and they didn’t ever experience racial problems.”76
Carl Simmons, a Utah State University football player from West Oakland, knew only one black member, Kenneth K. Mack, a fellow football player. “I think it would be kind of fun to sit around and to talk with them and to see some of their reasons why they joined the church and why they like the church so much,” he explained. “It would be a good experience just to sit down with a lot of the black LDS and just start talking about the church.”77
The LDS Afro-American Symposium held on the tenth anniversary of the priesthood announcement, 8 June 1988, provided such an opportunity for those who could afford to come to Provo, Utah.[p.202] Approximately 300-white and black—attended the opening session where Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, the keynote speaker, and Alan Cherry discussed the experiences of LDS blacks. Eight LDS African Americans talked about their experiences as Mormons and the future of black Mormons. People traveled from as far away as Hawaii and Philadelphia; even some non-Mormon blacks from Salt Lake City and Ogden attended. African-Americans who attended the symposium were also invited to an informal discussion group the next day. A picnic featured “nostalgia food” with fried chicken, collard and turnip greens, corn bread, and pound cake, all staples of black church socials. Participants greeted old friends, some of whom they had not seen for years, and struck up new acquaintances. Many wanted a poster from the conference and started collecting names and addresses so they could stay in touch.
NEED FOR BLACK PROGRAMS
The survey showed a division among blacks about the needs and values of black programs. Three-quarters of respondents (75.7 percent) said that having more black members would not make them more active. Over four-fifths (83.1 percent) said they “never” wanted to belong to an all-black ward/branch. An additional 7 percent “very seldom” or “seldom” felt that desire. Only 2.5 percent said they “very often” wanted to worship with only blacks; 6.5 percent “sometimes” felt such as a wish.
Respondents were more evenly divided on the need to communicate with other black Mormons. The survey asked if there should be a publication exclusively for blacks. Jerri Allene Thornton Hales Harwell, former editor of Let’s Talk, objected to the word “exclusively,” but the question was designed to measure the need for information related primarily to black Latter-day Saints. Over a third (39.5 percent) said “never”; an additional 16.4 percent said “very seldom” or “seldom.” But two-fifths (44.2) said they “very often” (16.8 percent) or “sometimes” saw a need (27.4 percent). In response to another question about whether they spoke differently to blacks than whites, almost half (49.3) said they “never” speak a different language with blacks than whites and a quarter (26.4) said “seldom” did. Burgess Owens, of New York City, addressed this issue in his interview: “It doesn’t really come down to a black/white issue at all. I just happen [p.203] to be an LDS member that happens to be black.”78 Deborah Spearman, who grew up in Philadelphia, felt the church needed to make an effort “to understand blacks a bit. They should look at why some of them are converted but don’t really stay. It is not that they should start a special program, but they should understand why it is hard for some types of blacks to convert from Baptist to Latter-day Saints because it is a totally different environment.”79
Rosetta Moore Spencer had been dissatisfied with the Lutheran church and was thinking about the Baptist church before she met Mormon missionaries. She expressed the dilemma of dissatisfaction probably shared by others: “I do feel a need to have the church meet black people’s needs specifically, and I haven’t figured out how yet. … At the same time I sometimes feel guilty for having those feelings. I have a lot of faith in the church, and I know that all of the programs are of God. I feel that they should be meeting our needs.” Yet she added, “Our cultures are different, and because of that, [blacks and whites] have different needs.”80
Maintaining elements of black culture is important. The black church has been “the major vehicle for the preservation and interpretation of the rich heritage of Black Americans,”81 and from these predominantly black congregations, Mormon converts were suddenly worshipping with whites. Most (61.3 percent) “strongly disagreed” and 24.6 percent “disagreed” with the statement: “I am afraid that in order to be a good member of the church, I have to ‘give up my black identity.’” People were less sure about what white Latter-day Saints expected of them. When asked to respond to the statement, “I have felt that some non-black members expect me to forget my blackness and to fit into a white world,” half (50.8 percent) said “never,” 20.8[p.204] percent said “seldom” or “very seldom.” However, 18.9 percent said that they “sometimes” felt that way and 9.7 percent said they did so “very often.”
Style of worship is an area where most blacks have made enormous adjustments. Robert L. Simmons, pastor at the First United Methodist church and professor at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, taught a class on black music in white churches at the Gospel Music Workshop of America in Salt Lake City. He observed that Euro music is usually fast tempo and tells a story. He cited as an LDS example, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” written by William Clayton as Mormons came to Utah. The song encourages the Saints to face their new adventure with “joy,” describes different elements of the trip, and closes by comforting/exhorting:
And should we die before our journey’s through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrows, too
With the just we shall dwell.
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell,
All is well! All is well!
Simmons maintained that Afro music is slower and requires voice and body movement. He argued that it was a “sin” not to have movement, either in the notes themselves or the body in the Afro tradition. Afro music focuses on the power of repeated phrases rather than on telling a story. Simmons “rewrote” “Come, Come, Ye Saints” for the closing session of Salt Lake City’s Gospel Music Workshops in Afro style and gave it its original name, “All is Well.” His changes added runs to the standard English tune so that the music “moved” more, repeated phrases from the Clayton verse, and eliminated the story elements. For example, the Clayton version begins, “Come, come, ye Saints, no toil or labor fear,/ But with joy wend your way.” The Simmons version repeats the opening phrase “come, come, ye saints” four times. Simmons also added traditional Protestant phrases. “Gird up your loins; fresh courage take” became “lift high the cross, fresh courage take.” The Mormon tradition places no special emphasis on the cross while [p.205] Protestant/Catholic convention does.82
The survey asked how black Mormons adapted to Euro music with the statement: “I would like to hear some black gospel hymns and/or spirituals in church services.” Less than a quarter (23.7 percent) said they felt that way “very often,” but 43.7 percent said they “sometimes” did. The rest of the answers were divided between “seldom (11.1 percent),” “very seldom (11.6 percent),” and “never (10.0 percent).” But interviewees gave indication of ambivalence towards standard Mormon music. Alvin Alphabet, a former Baptist who joined the Mormon church with his wife Ellen in 1981 to provide a religious background for their daughter, said: “I still have to go once in a while [to the black church in the Atlanta area] and hear some good gospel singing.”83 Since the question was not specifically asked, only those who felt strongly about the music commented about it.
Bryan Waterman recalled a new black member in New Jersey who was a gospel music pianist. Shortly after he was baptized, this piano player was asked to play at a stake meeting in a white neighborhood in Caldwell. Waterman recalled when the new convert got up to play, he said, “‘This probably isn’t quite what you’re used to hearing, but if you feel the spirit, I hope that you will get up and dance.’” Waterman observed, “That wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t know that, though. He also didn’t know that we don’t applaud in the chapel. He went through a really loud piece of stand up and get excited because ‘Jesus is your Lord.’… No one clapped; no one … danced.”
Waterman remembered that later the convert ‘told me that he was depressed the rest of that meeting.” Although people complimented him after the meeting, he interpreted their restraint negatively. Waterman recalled the convert’s feelings: “He said it made him feel like we didn’t have the spirit because we didn’t act on whatever we might have felt at the time.” Employed as a pianist at other churches, he no longer attends Mormon meetings but told Waterman,[p.206] “As soon as the church progresses to the point where they will accept his culture, then he would be the best Mormon you have ever seen.” He quoted a Book of Mormon scripture to Waterman which said, “Shout praises to the Holy One of Israel,” and then told Waterman, “You are not living your own scripture.”84
The decorum at worship service seemed unnatural and subdued to Emanuel Reid of Georgia, a former Baptist, who drove sixty to seventy miles to attend the nearest Mormon church: “I was used to a lot of ‘Amens’ and clapping and feet patting…. Everything was so quiet and reverent.” Despite the difference, Reid still felt “a good spirit” at Mormon meetings. He remembered: “I was hungering and thirsting after the knowledge that I knew was there.”85
Deborah Spearman, formerly a Seventh-day Adventist, was also “not used to the quiet that is in the church.” She commented, “Sometimes I enjoy the [hymns] and sometimes I can’t relate because I am used to hearing gospel music.”86 She had the same reaction to the variety of speakers rather than a minister. “Sometimes I enjoy them; sometimes it just doesn’t relate to me.”87
Charles Lancaster, son of an AME minister and a former minister himself, summarized the main differences in services:
Your LDS services are very quiet, very refined … Our people are used to having a regular minister deliver a regular sermon on Sunday, whereas in the LDS church the bishop might speak and he might not. Somebody else is assigned to talk. There will be a youth speaker, then this speaker, and then that speaker. It’s just a vast change in not having a full-time clergyman up there delivering this Sunday message. Sometimes we find that a little boring. I have stated to the bishop at certain times that I find that his services are boring.
He added, “I know that I wouldn’t be happy anywhere else … [But] I will not give up all of my traditions. I love my black music. I love the[p.207] spirituals. I love to hear a good fiery sermon sometimes. I haven’t heard one since I’ve been in the LDS church. I haven’t had the opportunity to deliver one either.”88
Other important areas of black culture involve lifestyle. William L. Cox, of Greenville, North Carolina, grew up during the 1960s. He recalled: “I get the impression that many of us [blacks] think that we have to give up our cultural heritage, our history and our background, in order to join the church. I have not changed any in the area of my diet or … lifestyle.” He summarized: “The only thing that separated us in the early years was segregation. The only thing that separates us now is economics.”89 Sharon Davis, who was born in 1958 and grew up in Jamaica, moved to the United States as a pre-teen. She observed: “Black is not only a color. It is also a culture. Your culture is a part of you no matter where you are from. It is exciting when you can hold onto a rich heritage and enhance it with God’s true church.”90
Betty Ann Bridgeforth admitted, “I have to adjust” to the Mormon church being “a way of life, … not a Sunday thing that you leave after church.”91 She implied she was willing to make the change, but it was not easy. Rodney Carey, who served a mission in Oakland, where he returned to live, was uncompromising: “I think the worst problem that I have seen with black Latter-day Saints is that they carry their… black culture too heavily into the church.”92 Considering this range of opinion, it is interesting that respondents did not see cultural differences as a reason for becoming inactive. When asked to respond to … the statement, “I have considered leaving the church because of … feeling that blacks don’t fit into the social or cultural experience of … the church,” 63.2 percent said “never,” and 21.4 percent said “seldom”[p.208] or “very seldom.” Only 6 percent said “very often,” and 9.5 percent said “sometimes.”
At least one change in LDS publications might give many respondents a stronger feeling of belonging. Responding to the statement, “I wish more black church members were shown in film, magazines, and other church publications,” 57.7 percent said “very often” and 30.6 percent said “sometimes.” Only 3.1 percent said “never.” Darrin Davis, a returned missionary and student at Brigham Young University in 1985, commented favorably about blacks in Bonneville Corporation’s “Homefront” spots for the church. He explained: “I think it is fine. It is representative of the change that is coming about in the church.” But he added: “I don’t feel there should be any special programs … for black people [nor should their] needs… be catered to … I feel that we should fall into the rank and file of the church, do our duty, live, enjoy, bless one another’s lives. As a whole the church will grow and grow. As we become more and more a multi-cultural church, there won’t be problems.”93
PARALLELS WITH OTHER ETHNIC GROUPS
Davis’s point is a valid one. Mormon church membership even within the United States is becoming less European-American. Native Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Polynesian-Americans as well as African-Americans are joining the church in increasing numbers. All of these cultural groups experience adjustment transitions when they come into the church. Are their experiences different from each other? Are adjustments harder for blacks than for other groups?
Marva Collins felt the answer was yes. She wrote to Apostle David B. Haight in 1984: “Black people do not have a wide reference point in the church like the Tongan, Asian, and Latino people do.”94 She repeated the theme in an 1986 issue of Ebony Rose: “When other races join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they manage to keep their wonderful culture first because they don’t give up their[p.209] language.” She added that while blacks speak the same language as white Americans, they have a “cultural family” they want to preserve.95
The Charles Redd Center for Western Studies is currently documenting how other ethnic and cultural minorities feel about their positions in the LDS church. While each group feels that their problems are unique, they are often similar. The language branches for Spanish-speaking, German-speaking, and Tongan-speaking people Collins cited as advantages did not always have a smooth existence. Other LDS ethnic groups, regardless of the group involved, identify the same advantages and challenges as do the black branches and social groups. Advantages included worshipping with people who shared a similar culture, more leadership opportunities for men and women, reduced prejudice, a visible presence in ethnic neighborhoods, and shared activities.
For example, the stated goals of the Indian Branch organized in Los Angeles in 1961 for relocated native Americans were: “to provide the Lamanite members of the church with an opportunity to become active in an organized unit of the church, to mingle with their own people, to serve in positions of responsibility, to grow in the gospel, and to have an opportunity to socialize and progress under the influence of the church.”96
These goals closely match those of black organizations and branches, and were shared by other ethnic groups. In a Spanish-speaking branch in Oakland an elderly sister who was illiterate in both English and Spanish, could participate in meetings, something that had been impossible in an English ward. The clerk of a Samoan branch in the Long Beach Stake declared with pride when the branch was organized in 1966: “Now we are taught in our own mother tongue.”
Esmeralda Meraz, a Mexican-American from Southern California, explained why her parents decided to attend a Spanish-speaking branch: “Even though my dad speaks English, he has not mastered the English language and he can’t communicate very well. He is not a very educated man as far as schooling is concerned. My room has had less schooling than he has … I think [my dad] felt that[p.210] he would get more out of it and so would his family if we attended the Spanish branch.”97
But just as the goals are similar, so are the problems. There are organizational and staffing difficulties when members are inexperienced in church administration and doctrines. Smaller branches cannot offer the full church program some members would like to experience. All ethnic branches have difficulties with members who have not been socialized to fill callings dependably or to certain standards.
According to Omaha Joseph Harlan, who served as branch president in Macey, Nebraska, “Without the numbers, you can’t really have all of the programs in the church and all of the auxiliaries. You get a watered down version of the gospel. You have to do a lot of independent study to really get the meat of the gospel.” Meraz had similar experiences in Southern California. When her family moved from Mexico to California and attended a Spanish-speaking branch, she had a hard time adjusting. She explained,
[In Mexico] I was used to attending these ward meetings separating into my classes, and seeing my friends. [In California, however] I felt like we weren’t really part of what was going on. It was kind of discouraging to see only ten people, twelve people in the meetings. It was also discouraging not to see any youth. We were the only kids that were attending church… We didn’t really have any teachers in Primary or Young Women’s … We always had a feeling of not being complete and of not … having everyone there that needed to be there to make it a successful experience for us every Sunday.
She explained that the Spanish branch “didn’t have the leaders. It didn’t have people that were strong in the gospel … There weren’t people there who were examples of returned missionaries… or people who had been outside of El Centro or the Imperial Valley.”98
Whether they were German-speaking Americans, Hispanic-Americans, native Americans, or Polynesian-Americans, they repeated similar challenges and satisfactions. Navajo Robert Hatch used to attend the Alma Lamanite Branch in Farmington, New Mexico, and stopped[p.211] attending church when the Lamanite Branch was dissolved in the 1980s. “I just miss it so much. It was joyous. It was always a friendly feeling to go there … It’s really sad to see it interrupted now.” Yet when asked what he would do for Navajos if he were the stake president, he was hesitant to reinstate such a branch: “I don’t know that I’d make such a big deal about Indians or Navajos … Maybe our Lamanite Branch that we used to have wasn’t such a good idea. It kept us separate for all these years for no reason really… While I’m sad that Alma Branch is gone, I think it’s good that we’re all mixed in like this.”
The dilemma for Hatch was simultaneously achieving integration and retaining ethnic identity. “I’d like the Indians to be proud of themselves,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t want them to hide that. I’d like them to blend in, but, at the same time, be individuals … I just think that we don’t need to bury our heritage, bury our skin color. We don’t need to raise it on a flagpole either. We just need to be somehow more aware of who we are but it’s not a big deal to anybody. I don’t think we need to glorify it, just be content.” He admitted, “I don’t know what a program like that would be.”99
Black Latter-day Saints are in a unique position since they are the only group that has historically been excluded from priesthood and temple worship. Still, like other ethnic groups, they want to retain their culture and maintain contact with other blacks, but organizational efforts to achieve both goals have shown mixed success—whether it has been social groups like Genesis and its offshoots, inner cities branches with mostly black memberships, black publications, or less formal networks. Those responding to the survey are divided on whether these programs are needed. Because there are no easy solutions, the topic of how to blend diversity without assimilation will continue to be debated for blacks as well as other ethnic groups.
1. Lamar Williams and Nyal B. Williams Oral History, 30-32, interviewed by Gordon Irving, 6 May 1981, James Moyle Oral History Project, archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives).
3. Ibid., 14; Alan Cherry Oral History (in process), interviewed by Jessie Embry, 1985, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter LDS Afro-American); Armand Mauss, “The Fading of the Pharaoh’s Curse: The Decline and Fall of the Priesthood Restriction Ban Against Blacks in the Mormon Church,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Autumn 1981): 41.
82. Robert M. Simmons, “Black Music in White Churches,” Gospel Music Workshop of America, 14 Aug. 1991, Salt Lake City, notes in my possession; Robert M. Simmons, “All is Well,” music in my possession.
99. Robert Hatch Oral History, 9, 11-12, interviewed by Ernesteen Lynch, 1989, LDS Native American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Lee Library.