Black Mor­mons still look­ing for apol­ogy for racist his­tory


SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The Mor­mon church on Friday cel­e­brated the 40th an­niver­sary of re­vers­ing its ban on black peo­ple serv­ing in the lay priest­hood, go­ing on mis­sions or get­ting mar­ried in tem­ples, rekin­dling de­bate about one of the faith's most sen­si­tive top­ics.

The num­ber of black Mor­mons has grown but still only ac­counts for an es­ti­mated 6 per­cent of 16 mil­lion world­wide mem­bers. Not one serves in the high­est lev­els of global lead­er­ship.

The Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints has worked to im­prove race re­la­tions, in­clud­ing call­ing out white supremacy and launch­ing a new for­mal al­liance with the NAACP, but some black Mor­mons and schol­ars say dis­crim­i­na­tory opin­ions linger in some con­gre­ga­tions from a ban rooted in a be­lief that black skin was a curse.

In a 2013 es­say, the church dis­avowed the rea­sons be­hind the ban and con­demned all racism, say­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion came dur­ing an era of great racial di­vide that in­flu­enced early church teach­ings. Blacks were al­ways al­lowed to be mem­bers, but the nearly cen­tury-long ban kept them from par­tic­i­pat­ing in many im­por­tant rit­u­als.

Schol­ars said the es­say in­cluded the church's most com­pre­hen­sive ex­pla­na­tion for the ban and its 1978 re­ver­sal, which lead­ers say came from a rev­e­la­tion from God.

But it didn't in­clude an apol­ogy, leav­ing some un­sat­is­fied.

“A lot of mem­bers are wait­ing for the church just to say, `We were wrong,''' said Phyli­cia Nor­ris-Jimenez, a 30-year-old black Mor­mon and mem­ber of the grass­roots Black LDS Le­gacy Com­mit­tee, a group of women who are or­ga­niz­ing a con­fer­ence Satur­day in Utah to honor the le­gacy of black Mor­mon pioneers.

Nor­ris-Jimenez said non-black church mem­bers still strug­gle with how to talk about the ban or un­der­stand the pain it causes. She said the an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion hon­ors some­thing that should have never ex­isted but that it's a good ges­ture and hope­fully leads to more dis­cus­sions about race.

A fel­low group mem­ber, LaShawn Wil­liams, said she finds com­fort in her be­lief that the ban was a “pol­icy of peo­ple, not a pol­icy of God,'' made dur­ing a racist time.

She and her three chil­dren are the only black mem­bers of her con­gre­ga­tion in Orem, Utah, and she tries to talk about race is­sues reg­u­larly with the teenagers she teaches in Sun­day school.

Wil­liams, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in so­cial work at Utah Val­ley Uni­ver­sity, would like an apol­ogy.

“If we preach re­pen­tance, we should def­i­nitely em­body it,'' she said.

The theme of the an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion in Salt Lake City was “Be one,'' a ref­er­ence to a Mor­mon scrip­ture. Gla­dys Knight, one of the most fa­mous black Mor­mons, per­formed, and top church lead­ers gave speeches.

Pres­i­dent Rus­sell M. Nel­son said com­pre­hend­ing true broth­er­hood and sis­ter­hood can in­spire peo­ple to “build bridges of co­op­er­a­tion in­stead of walls of se­gre­ga­tion.''

Nel­son's first coun­selor, Dallin H. Oaks, ac­knowl­edged the “pain and suf­fer­ing'' the ban caused while urg­ing mem­bers to “look for­ward in the unity of our faith.''

Prior to event, Ah­mad Cor­bitt, a church em­ployee who led the ef­fort to or­ga­nize the event, said the cel­e­bra­tion was “a call to the en­tire church, and by ex­ten­sion, the en­tire world, to let go of prej­u­dices and come to­gether as one uni­fied fam­ily.''

Cor­bitt de­clined to ad­dress a church apol­ogy, say­ing the faith is fo­cused on a for­ward-look­ing ap­proach to unity.

Dar­ius Gray, co-founder of the Gen­e­sis Group that sup­ports black Mor­mons, said the church and its doc­trine aren't racist but racism lingers in the faith as it does in so­ci­ety.

He said he's been plagued by calls from Mor­mons con­cerned about how they're be­ing treated, which he at­tributes to a rise in racism in the U.S. since Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was elected.

He said he wouldn't be op­posed to an apol­ogy for the ban but that he's more in­ter­ested in help­ing the faith make progress in root­ing out racism. Gray, who helped plan Friday's event, said it's a step to­ward heal­ing.

“An apol­ogy is here to­day and gone to­mor­row,'' Gray said. “More sig­nif­i­cant is what an or­ga­ni­za­tion does long term. The LDS church has been mov­ing for­ward and changed its par­a­digm in mas­sive ways.''

The Utah-based church doesn't pro­vide eth­nic or racial break­downs of its mem­bers, but in­de­pen­dent Mor­mon re­searcher Matt Mar­tinich said those of pri­mar­ily African de­scent ac­count for about 6 per­cent of world­wide mem­bers. In the U.S., blacks ac­count for about 1 to 3 per­cent of 6.6 mil­lion Mor­mons, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­veys done in the last two decades.

It's not the only faith that strug­gles with a lack of black mem­bers in its U.S. con­gre­ga­tions: The United Methodist Church, Catholic Church and Ju­daism also have sim­i­larly low rates, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 Pew Re­search Cen­ter study.

Mor­mons prob­a­bly shouldn't wait for a rare apol­ogy from church lead­ers, said W. Paul Reeve, a Mor­mon stud­ies pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Utah. The church seems to be try­ing to walk a tight rope by dis­avow­ing past be­liefs while not apol­o­giz­ing for the ban to avoid mem­bers ques­tion­ing other doc­trine they think should be changed, he said.

“What else are they wrong about? Are they wrong about gay mar­riage? Are they wrong about fe­male or­di­na­tion?'' Reeve said. “If they got race and the priest­hood wrong, what else could they be wrong about? I think that's part of the fear.”


PROM­I­NENT MEM­BER: Leg­endary singer Gla­dys Knight re­cently per­formed at the Mor­mons’“Be One” cel­e­bra­tion of its re­ver­sal of a ban on blacks serv­ing it its priest­hood.

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