Black Saints in a White Church
Jessie L. Embry
Within the Black Community
[p.213]It would be both impossible and undesirable for black Latter-day Saints, having joined what is perceived to be a white church, to sever all ties with the black community. Even though they have changed religion and thereby entered a new culture, many LDS African-Americans continue to live in a mostly black world. Over a third of survey respondents (36.8 percent) live in mostly black neighborhoods. About a quarter (23.4 percent) live in integrated neighborhoods. The rest (38.3 percent) live in mostly nonblack areas. They all continue social and collegial associations with black friends and relatives. Many maintain ties precisely because they want to talk about their new church with other blacks. Despite their best intentions, they sometimes feel ostracized, often misunderstood, as though they are hovering between two worlds but belong to neither.
REACTIONS OF BLACK CONVERTS
Black friends and neighbors possess many of the stereotypes about Mormons being a Jim Jones-type cult,1 or a polygamous group.[p.214] Some knew the church had denied priesthood to black men. How did nonmembers react to their close associates joining the Mormon church? To try to assess that, the survey asked about reactions of family members and friends. For example, the survey asked how often “my black friends tell me that I am a traitor to ‘my people’ because I am a member of the church.” Only 8.5 percent stated that their friends reacted this way “very often,” but 16.6 percent said it happened “sometimes.” Nearly half (49.2 percent) said it “never” happened; 10.1 percent said “seldom” and 15.6 percent “very seldom.”
The survey asked for agreement or disagreement with the statement, “I think many black members of the church are leaving the church because of pressures from their black friends.” The survey did not define “pressure,” leaving both persuasion to return to black culture and insistence to return to former lifestyles as possible interpretations. Here 10.8 percent said “very often,” almost a fifth (19.0 percent) said “sometimes,” and 70.2 percent said “seldom,” “very seldom,” or “never.” Over a third of those (37.4 percent) said “seldom.”
People who were interviewed again provided more details. Over three-fifths (62.3 percent) of those interviewed mentioned family responses to their LDS church membership. No two responses were exactly the same, but nearly all answers fell into four categories. Of those, over a quarter (27.7 percent) said their families were pleased and supportive, slightly less (24.7 percent) had both positive and negative reactions, and only 8.4 percent saw their families as antagonistic but accepting. A very small percentage, 2.3 percent, claimed they were disowned or lost contact with their family.
A higher percentage of friends than family members was upset. Half (50.7 percent) mentioned the reaction of friends and neighbors as generally antagonistic. Responses fell into five general categories. Only 4.7 percent had a positive reaction from their friends, 8.5 percent said their friends were curious, 19.7 percent had positive and negative responses, 10.8 percent were antagonistic but supportive, and 7.5 percent were hostile and disassociated.
DeNorris Bradley, who grew up first in a Holiness church and then[p.215] a non-denominational black church, phrased his response in almost the same words as the survey: “If they don’t say it with words, they say it with actions. ‘You are a traitor. You have relinquished… all of our heritage and our culture. You have joined a white church.'”2 Deborah Taylor’s brothers and sisters asked: “Why a white church? Are you turning your back on your race? … Do you think you are better than me now? … Have you forgotten where you came from?”3 Barbara Lancaster’s father-in-law was an AME minister. Her in-laws and her husband’s children from a previous marriage “were going to kidnap us and have us deprogrammed because they thought we had been brainwashed.”4 Mary Smith, a high school student from Mississippi, said a black date cancelled when he discovered she was LDS because he said, “You’re betraying my black heritage.”5 She added: “A lot of black teens oppose you because they say you are going to a ‘white’ church. If you want to hang out with them, you’ve got to do what they do. If you don’t want to do what they do, then you’re kind of left out in the cold.”6
Complete tolerance was rare. Margaret and Willie J. Carter lived in a white neighborhood in Danville, California, when they were interviewed in 1985. Members for a year, Margaret reported: “We weren’t taught to hate the white man. We were taught to love our fellowman. I think maybe this is why my parents accepted it and why no one has squeaked about us becoming LDS.”7 Willie’s family had “no reactions.” He explained: “When we were growing up, no one even thought anything different about LDS. We did not realize that some LDS members feel constantly persecuted.” In fact his sister’s [p.216] bland reaction was, “I guess the only thing that is different is that they do not object to using lipstick and things like that.”8
For most built-in prejudice seemed inevitable. Candance Kennedy said her friends in California warned her, “The Mormons believe the black man is cursed, and the black man can’t get to heaven.”9 Deborah Taylor’s family asserted: “They will always think they are better than you are. They may give you a job in the church, but you will never hold a high office. They will keep you right where they want you.”10
John W. Phoenix, a pharmacist from Washington, D.C., said blacks would “throw… in our faces that we couldn’t become a leader in the church” because of the priesthood restriction.11 Marvin Arthur Jones, who was a missionary in Utah when he was interviewed, said his father had investigated the church before the 1978 announcement and would not join because of the restriction. When Marvin wanted to become a Mormon, his father, who was involved in Civil Rights, thought that “the church is just trying to change their views just so they can get more blacks.”Jones conceded, “I guess even if I were him and I grew up in his time period, I would probably have some hard feelings in the same ways. I can understand where he is coming from.”12
Interestingly many of the interviewees had not been aware of the priesthood policy until they started investigating the church. When some joined, they were unaware that they could not have participated fully before 1978. For example, Alan Cherry asked Benjamin Washington, a truck driver from Charlotte, North Carolina, “What do you know about the past situation of priesthood restriction in the LDS church?” In his reply Washington exposed his lack of information: “I hope I have got the right meaning of it. You have to give up all of your[p.217] old habits if you want to advance in the priesthood.”13 After recognizing that neither missionaries nor church leaders had discussed priesthood restriction with these new converts, Cherry realized that it would take too much time to explain the policy and even when he attempted, it was so foreign to them that their answers did not add to the interviews.
A more widespread perception was that the LDS church was a cult. Emanuel Canaday, who grew up in St. Louis, said his family thought the church was “making me run off to a South American country and drink poison Kool Aid.”14 Others warned black investigators that Mormons worshipped Joseph Smith or another prophet in Salt Lake City, still practiced polygamy, or were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Edwin Burwell, who lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, when he was interviewed in 1986, had been a member for about a year. An aunt denounced him because he “had left God.” Many friends felt that “Mormons are a cult. They do not believe the Mormons serve God. When you tell them that they believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, they go, ‘They just started because they used to worship this man in Salt Lake City.'”15 Burwell’s wife Retha also reported that friends attacked her: “Why did you join that church? It is a cult. You know that, don’t you? They do not worship Christ; they worship Joseph Smith.”16 “I lost a lot of friends,” she continued, “I can count my black friends on my hand, three… It is like, ‘This child has a disease. We do not want to be around her any more.’ It was hard because I am so used to having friends.”17
Doris Russell, a divorcee from Pennsylvania and Virginia, had been a Baptist but was praying for more religion when missionaries[p.218] came to her home. She explained: “I met so many black people who were anti-Mormon and some who really just got downright indignant with me about my membership. Some of my friends just shied away from me, and I was not close to any of the members. I think my family was really perturbed with us becoming members of this church. It was kind of lonely for awhile.”18
Delphrine Young said his uncle believed Mormons “have multiple wives” and warned that “they are the Ku Klux Klan… I was told I was set to be killed.”19 Young’s father had been killed by a white policeman for “resisting arrest.” Johnnie McKoy, a brick mason, was also told the church was “a cult” and “full of Klansmen.”20
Some friends were dismayed that LDS Afro-Americans would leave traditional black churches. David E. Gathers commented: “You have it on both ends. You have the white Mormons. A lot of them do not believe that you should belong. They feel you are inferior. Then you have the blacks that feel that you are overstepping yourself and how dare you not be a Baptist or how dare you not be a Methodist.”21 Virginia Johnson of Los Angeles, whose mother was a lapsed Baptist because her minister had been so strict, countered her mother’s arguments by asking: “Didn’t they hang black folks in the South in the name of Christianity? Your good old Baptist Christians, didn’t they do that in the name of Christianity?”22
Brenda Sanderlin, who had been in the military and a Roman Catholic nun before joining the Mormon church, told of calling her mother and telling her: “Mom, you’ve always wanted me to be happy. Now I have a full joy. I am now a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her mother said, “A cult.” Brenda said it could not be a cult if it used the name of Jesus Christ. “That gave her some[p.219] peace, but not much.” Now when she talks to her mother, she “keeps commenting, ‘Brenda, you sound so happy.’ I am glad it sounds like that because underneath everything I am. That is what the gospel has been doing for me.”23
Like Sanderlin, others reported that their families and friends softened as they saw positive changes. Barbara Lancaster said her stepchildren eventually accepted their conversion: “I think they thought we were going to change and we were going to be something other than what they thought we were. They see that their father still loves them. They see that he still has a love for the Lord. Even though he doesn’t have his own church and pastoring every Sunday, he still has a ministry that he has to fulfill.”24
Melvin D. Mitchell, who was born in 1937, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and joined the marines in the 1950s, said his mother told him that it didn’t matter what church he belonged to as long as he had some religion in his life. For him “joining the church … brought my family closer to me even though I am a Latter-day Saint and my family isn’t. We are able to talk scriptures and talk about the Bible. It was very interesting because I didn’t think they would accept me when I joined the church. But they have seen the change it has made in me.”25
Sarah Kaye Gripper grew up in the Union Baptist church in her hometown of Springfield, Illinois. When she was baptized, her mother told her it didn’t matter what church she belonged to. But then “I found out that my more and my sister had been laughing behind my back.” She confronted her mother: “I believe in God, and we believe in the same things basically.” Gripper stated that with time her mother could “see a growth in me as far as the religion goes. She sees how active I am in the church also. She hasn’t had a lot of comments lately.”26
Winston Wilkinson said his mother-in-law hesitantly attended the[p.220] baptism of his eight-year-old son. “She had these preconceived notions about the church, [but] once she got in the church and she saw that she was welcome and Mormons didn’t have devil ears and horns, her own attitude towards us changed.”27 Florita Davis’s family also saw positive changes in her, and because of that she said the family members “have kind of a gratitude towards the church.”28 Davis who grew up in the Los Angeles area as a Catholic had also attended the Baptist and Jehovah’s Witness churches as a teenager before joining the LDS church in 1980.
J. Joseph Faulkner of Gadsden, Alabama, reported that people told him “we had joined a cult. I guess they thought that we had joined a Jim Jones sort of a situation where eventually we were all going to drink some poison and die and that we had to sign all the property that we had over to the church.” When Faulkner “started doing my genealogy, and I shared with [my brother information about] our grandparents that he didn’t know,” his brother’s feelings became warmer. “He has made a vast change that he is willing to at least listen to me talk about the church.”29
A rare reaction was that of Beverly Latimer’s mother, who was indifferent at first, but “then… she saw that we were serious because we would go to church every Sunday … One day she said, ‘Did you know that they don’t like black folks?'” In contrast her husband, Randolph E. Latimer, Jr., an attorney from New York City who shifted from the Baptist church to the Pentecostal tradition with his mother as a child, encountered no opposition when he joined the LDS church. His mother saw their baptisms as “moving towards where she wants us to move anyway—which is serving God.”30
Virginia Johnson of Los Angeles found acceptance from some relatives but not from others: “The part of my family that are Catholic[p.221] accepted my baptism without any problem. That is my stepmother [and] my natural father’s side of the family … They came to my baptism and some of the lessons…. From the Sunday school classes, they told me that the doctrine was not that much different from their Catholic upbringing. My Baptist side of the family were against it 100 percent. They could not understand why I had to be baptized again.” Johnson said that she “wanted to share [the gospel] so much that I was becoming over-excited. Then when they would condemn it, I would become overly defensive…. I had to learn to tone myself down.” She said with time her family started asking her questions. Her sisters thought she wouldn’t last, but since she has they seem to say, “‘I love her; we better accept it.'”31
Thomas Taylor, a former Baptist who lives in Chesterfield, Virginia, joined the church in 1980. His family had mixed reactions. Some “were happy that I am an LDS member. The rest of them kind of frown,… think it’s some kind of a hoax” and “shy away from me when we get to talking about religion.”32
Some black converts reported no waning in family members’ attitudes. Sherile Honore Franklin said when she, her husband Harvey, and her children converted in New Orleans, “we became … outcasts in our family.” She overheard her mother say snippily to her daughter: “Your mama must be on the phone with one of her church members. I can tell because her whole speech changes.” Sherry was irritated that her mother made comments to her daughter. She went on to explain: “Whenever it comes down to something for the church, it’s always a negative tone. She can’t find anything right with it.”33
By joining the LDS church, African Americans become part of an active proselyting movement with the slogan “every member a [p.222] missionary.” Many want to share their newly found knowledge, yet black converts see relatively few blacks joining the Mormon church. Alan Cherry asked people why they did not feel missionary efforts were more successful in black communities. The responses can be divided into six categories:
1. The “white” image of the LDS church
Nearly all interviewees agreed that the LDS church is considered a white church. Marie Edington Chisolm, whose father was a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee, asserted that blacks “feel… Mormons are not interested in bringing black members into the church. I have heard some say that Mormons did not welcome black membership until after the nation as a whole started doing something about civil rights. Then the church got on the bandwagon and started doing it too.”34
Clement Biggs, who had served as a branch president in Birmingham, Alabama, felt that anti-Mormon literature and stories followed missionaries into black neighborhoods: “You go and visit them the first time, and they are all happy and excited about the gospel and what you have to say. You go back the next time and they don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to see you because they’ve been told by their friends something on the contrary to what you were teaching.” Biggs felt such pressures accounted for inactivity as well: “We’ve had some pretty big disappointments in this area lately. We get people baptized in the church. They remain in church a couple of Sundays. Then their family or friends get to them.”35
Michelle Evette Wright, a college student in Baton Rouge, expressed frustration about changing the negative image. She wished “there [could] just be a statement or something that the church can do to let people know that they are not prejudiced.” One possibility she suggested was the church could help “in a disaster that just happened in a black community.” Then, more realistically, she added:[p.223] “But the church doesn’t act that way. They are not just going to come out and try to do something to get black people to join the church.” She rationalized: “Those are just signs I guess. Some people need to have something that they can see.”36
Several Church News articles report similar kinds of community outreach programs. Danny Boyle, a Young Men’s president, noticed that the Holy Temple church of God in Christ in Mesa, Arizona, needed repair. He and the pastor, Rev. B. E. Dansie, had been on the track team in high school. When Boyle offered the services of LDS young men and women, Dansie willingly accepted. “Both groups were surprised,” said Boyle. “We found that regardless of color and denomination, we are the same people, people who like to laugh and talk and work.”37
Another article reported missionaries starting a scout troop for deaf boys on the south side of Chicago.38 Peter Gillo, who is African-American, was asked to help. It was his first encounter with Mormonism, and he joined the LDS church in 1983.39 Cleeretta Henderson Smiley of Maryland observed that the Washington, D.C., Genesis Group’s service projects with the Shiloh Baptist church provided a positive Mormon presence in the black community.40
Bryan Waterman recalled that the airing of a “Homefront” television public service announcement impressed African-Americans in the area where he was working. He commented: “From what I understand—this might be a myth of our mission—Newark had the highest response in the United States for free copies of the Book of Mormon. When the first large-scale media blitz took place the Christmas of 1989, in one day our mission office received three hundred referrals from it…. Part of the appeal might have been that they were free and[p.224] definitely the appeal was Jesus. When we talked to people, they were most interested in Jesus.”41
Edward J. Harris, who grew up in Pike County, Missouri, during the 1930s and 1940s where he experienced discrimination, reported a critical, yet helpful comment of a woman who wanted to come to church because she saw an LDS advertisement. Pointing out an obvious but overlooked approach, Harris said: “If you were to do something like that where you have a high density of black population, [use] the same kind of spot with a black face saying the same thing in a black idiom.”42
2. Inability to explain priesthood restriction
Several people interviewed struggled with the historic priesthood restriction policy. Although they had accepted it themselves, they felt uncertain about providing a persuasive explanation to others. Nathleen Albright, who had read accounts of hostile demonstrations at Brigham Young University athletic events, asked missionaries about it when they came to her home in Virginia in 1971. Later she could not remember what they told her, “but I do remember that whatever they said it was enough to soothe me… My only problem, after I became a member, was explaining to other people…. So I had to just bear my testimony when I was asked.”43
Florita Davis felt blacks “feel kind of shy to go and preach to our own people because we are going to be looked at as, ‘You fell for that?’ because of all the bad traditional things that people have put on the church, because we are black, because of not having the priesthood.”44 William Johnson, who joined the church after the 1978 priesthood announcement, agreed. “A lot of times I’m afraid to take the gospel to other blacks,” because “I’m somewhat embarrassed about the past.[p.225] … Overcoming that is a barrier for me, and I’m sure it is for a lot other blacks. Perhaps there’s an attitude that no one likes the idea of being thought of as an Uncle Tom.”45
3. Past church experiences
Many blacks come from strong religious backgrounds. While they are willing to discuss religion with Mormon missionaries and often accept return visits, they generally feel satisfied with the spiritual life in their own churches. Julius Ray Chavez, a Navajo who served in the Virginia Roanoke Mission, recalled, “They [blacks] always want to hear a message about God or hear a message about Jesus. You’re welcomed into their homes … The majority want you to come back.” Yet, he said, the missionaries’ “duty… was to teach people and to baptize them.”46 Why should blacks leave the church of their childhood, steeped in tradition, for an unknown religion with a recent track record of black consciousness? What can a young missionary say in response to this kind of objection? Indeed, what is the proper response?
Barbara Lancaster of Barberton, Ohio, acknowledged this dilemma: “It’s really hard to proselyte in this area because the majority of the blacks here are Baptists or Methodists. Their parents and their relatives have always been Methodist or Baptist, and they have no desire to change.” She continued: “Had I not been praying and searching, I’m not so sure I would have let [the missionaries] come into my home so eagerly either.”47
4. Need for black missionaries
The most common response on how to improve LDS missionary work among blacks was to increase the number of black missionaries. The comments of Janis Parker, who grew up in Chicago, are typical.[p.226] She said: “[If] two clean-cut white boys come into an all-black neighborhood, people are going to automatically say, “These people are from a church.'” Parker thought people would be “automatically turned off.”48 Brenda Elaine Combs, who grew up in the St. Louis, Missouri, area where her parents were active in the Church of God in Christ, explained that “black missionaries … on the streets” would diffuse a common reaction to white missionaries: “‘That’s the white folks’ religion, and I don’t want to be bothered.'”49
Mavis Odoms, who served a mission to the Philippines, agreed: “I think it would be easier to be taught by a black missionary than it would be a white missionary. I think a black missionary would understand a little better the problems they would be going through conversion wise.” She added, “I do not think a lot of people understand the feelings that black people go through their entire life being called names all the time and being denied so much.”50
Linda Cooper of Oakland, successively a Baptist, a Jehovah’s Witness, and Baptist again before joining the LDS church in 1982, felt, “The white missionaries that they sent out into the field cannot relate to where the blacks are coming from.”51
Kenneth Bolton added, “When they see two white guys knocking on their door, some people, especially older people, are very skeptical about it.”52
Black Mormon missionaries reported a range of experiences working with blacks. George Gatwood was one of the first black missionaries in the California Oakland Mission in 1979. When his mission president asked if he would like to work with a black companion, Garwood resisted: “It would have been just too obvious putting two black missionaries together in a predominantly black[p.227] area… That is not the makeup of the church. When the people go to church, they are going to see a different group. I think they need to be exposed to that as they are being taught the gospel.”53 The mission president agreed and furthermore did not have blacks work in black neighborhoods simply because of their color. As a result Alan Cherry spent most of his mission in Walnut Creek, a largely white community.
Ollie Mae Lofton, who served in the Los Angeles area, explained: “When you go door to door, you just don’t really know whether it is going to be somebody black. We had a variety of people to work with, but I was really fortunate in being able to have experiences with a lot of black brothers and sisters that did join the church.”54 Jerri Allene Thornton Hale, who served in the Texas Houston Mission, recalled one ward in which the mission leader decided, “Maybe the blacks are just not ready for the gospel yet” and asked missionaries to go to a white area. After two weeks she reported: “The only two callbacks we had were from blacks.” Although her color may have been an entree in some cases, she did not feel it protected her. “I wouldn’t even go” into a black area of Wharton, she commented. “It was very rough. I just didn’t have the spirit that felt there was anyone there to be taught so we just basically left it alone.”55
Most black missionaries were not sent to exclusively black neighborhoods. Marvin Jones, called to the Utah South Mission, did not mention teaching blacks on Salt Lake City’s west side. He next worked in Vernal and Cedar City, both small Mormon communities with few ethnics other than native Americans.56 Cherrie Lee Maples worked with Southeast Asian refugees in the California Fresno Mission.57 Paul Staples, who grew up in southern California during the 1960s, worked with Spanish-speakers in the Washington Spokane Mission.58 [p.228] Obviously mission leaders did not feel it was necessary to call blacks to work with blacks, and missionaries had not expressed a desire to work only with African-Americans.
5. Need for black members to work with missionaries
Several people suggested leveraging techniques such as having black members accompany missionaries and actively discuss Mormonism with friends and relatives. But Janet Rice, a former Catholic teacher, expressed frustration at the closed system: “You’ve got to get them in first before they can talk to their friends and relatives. It’s a cycle. I know the missionaries don’t go out looking for black people, so I don’t know the answer.”59 Rice added: “I think that Heavenly Father prepared certain black people for the church because I don’t think that all black people are ready to accept [Mormonism] … Blacks will listen to blacks as opposed to sometimes listening to whites … I feel we [black members] have a purpose in the church to set examples and to carry the gospel to other blacks who will relate with us as opposed to the whites.”60
Several others agreed. Florita Davis felt that “in a black community you want to accept someone that is your race. You feel automatically like they understand. You are more acceptable to them.” People are impressed with the clean-cut Mormon missionaries, but black missionaries “make you even more proud. They are going somewhere; they are doing something. I think the black communities will accept them because they automatically know, ‘There is not a racist thing there.'”61
Alfonza Day from Charlotte, North Carolina, said more black members “can reach out and touch people if they set their minds and hearts to it. They know the circumstances in which they are living, so they know more or less what they would need to encourage them to[p.229] pick up the cross and walk with it.”62
Members who had assisted missionaries generally felt good about the results. Hattie Soil and her daughter Lenora, members of the Hyde Park Ward in Chicago, found “we had a lot of doors open” when they accompanied white sister missionaries going door-to-door. “Maybe it’s because of the black and white situation,” she continued. “I think that the members, especially the black members, need to help the missionaries out a little bit more … because I certainly know black people better than the missionaries do.”63
Kenneth Bolton, a twenty-seven-year-old member in Jackson, Mississippi, was not pleased when missionaries asked him to visit only black investigators with them, but his attitude soon changed: “Believe it or not, the fact that I’m black and the fact that they’re black does make a difference. There is a common bond there; there is a tie there.”
In contrast William B. Jenkins, a retired federal government worker, refused when white missionaries wanted him to call on black families: “The attitude when I go with you is that I’m a token. You automatically los[e] the minute you walk in there with me … Just like you have got your inside jokes, we’ve got our inside jokes. Once they figure I’m just a token, then you’ve got a sound bit of hostility from then on about coming into the church.”64 George Garwood also felt that blacks saw tokenism when two whites came initially and came back with an African-American.65
6. Need to change missionary approach
Several thoughtful members pointed out the need for adaptation in missionary approaches in black neighborhoods. Alan Cherry tried to help his mission president realize the subconscious message presented by the flipchart. In the 1970s and early 1980s missionaries[p.230] commonly used hand-held illustrations to give a quick introduction to the church. The photographs were all-white faces with dress and hair styles from the 1950s. The message was ultra-conservative. “It meant that we weren’t representing the church as it is,” summarized Cherry. “It didn’t mean that we needed a flipchart full of black faces because when a black person would come to church they wouldn’t find a church full of black people. We needed something, I felt, more representative of what these people would experience as they went. We needed to show them what they would be experiencing in the church and we didn’t.”66
Janis Parker, a journalist from Chicago, also felt the limitations of the all-white lifestyle portrayed in church videos: “You can’t have a generic presentation; you have to talk to people in ways that they will understand.”67 Bryan Waterman said he quickly learned which videos worked in a black community. “Together Forever,” which included a black couple, was especially successful. But he stopped showing “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan” after a few tries because it “would create an uncomfortable situation. A lot of times I would be asked if there were any blacks in our church at the end of that film.”68
Sarah Kaye Gripper, a working single mother from Illinois, hoped to see the lesson plans “revamped.” When she went with elders to teach a black woman, she was “not embarrassed” but dismayed by the discussion format. “After they said something, then they’d reword it and ask the question back. It’s just kind of repetitive. It kind of insulted my intelligence.”69 It reminded her of “sales training.”
Not all missionaries were equally successful in black neighborhoods. Alan Cherry explained:
Taking a young man from Idaho and submerging him into an Oakland, California, black neighborhood is easy enough to do and the Spirit of the Lord will attend him. But the Spirit of the Lord might not teach him all that might help him ease the communication if he knew certain things. … A white face in a black neighborhood in a dark suit may seem all right[p.231] in the designing rooms of the missionary committee in Salt Lake City, but in Oakland, he will look like he is an FBI agent perhaps, a bill collector, or someone that is not a welcomed image.70
Bryan Waterman agreed. In Newark, New Jersey, most people thought missionaries were from a federal agency charged with caring for abused children, and he commented, “A lot of people wouldn’t open their doors to us.”71
Because of his cultural conditioning, Alan Cherry realized one way missionaries could avoid problems was to say they were ministers. Because of the high regard most blacks have for ministers, such an approach would give missionaries entree whereas identifying themselves as representatives of the Mormon church would not.72 Bryan Waterman said his senior companions had taught him that if a problem developed to “say we were ministers. Immediately, we were treated with respect, and there was no problem.”73
CHURCH GROWTH AMONG BLACKS
African-American Mormons anticipate large numbers of blacks joining the LDS church in the future. Referring to the influence that a minister has in a black Baptist church, Ollie Mae Lofton explained: “The way the black communities are structured is that they have a lot of strong black leadership within the community … When one person within that community or that church joins that is a strong leader, they will be very influential in bringing in many … I know if my father [a Baptist minister] were to join the church today, he would bring in many, many people with him because he is an influential leader in the community.”74
A member of a stake presidency in Virginia wanted to form a branch in Petersburg, a largely black community, for basically the same reason. He felt that if the church had a presence in the city,[p.232] whole congregations of black churches would join just as British converts had during the early Mormon period in England in the 1830s and 1840s.75 Elijah Jackson, a former Ricks College and BYU-Hawaii basketball player who had been a Jehovah’s Witness before he became a Latter-day Saint, adapted a Mormon scripture to explain what he felt would happen: “There is a saying that the fields are white, the harvest is white and ready to pick. I … say, ‘The harvest is black and ready to be picked’ because the blacks are going to be a massive flock in the church in the upcoming years.”76
For most blacks, joining the LDS church meant they now worshipped with whites but continued to maintain contact with black family and friends, whose reactions ranged from accepting to hostile and frequently changed over time. For most LDS converts, these reactions did not affect their views of Mormonism. People responding to the survey felt that negative reactions might discourage LDS Afro-Americans from remaining members. Like other members black Latter-day Saints were eager to share their new faith with peers, and most had thought about ways to improve missionary work among blacks. In their attempts to share their new religion, LDS African Americans who participated in the survey and who were interviewed demonstrated how they have now entered a new culture.
1. In late 1978 the world learned about the demise of the Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, South America, a utopian community established by Jim Jones. Some 914 residents of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project died in a mass murder-suicide, most from drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. This event had such an impact on Americans that families of Mormon converts remembered and connected it with all unknown sects. For more information, see David Chidester, Salvation and Suicide: An Interpretation of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple; and Jonestown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).
2. DeNorris Clarence Bradley Oral History, 35, interviewed by Alan Cherry, 1986, LDS Afro-American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Jessie L. Embry, Black Saints in a White Church, [p.215] Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter LDS Afro-American).