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How to Talk to Your Kids About Race and the Priesthood

With the Church's special worldwide event on June 1 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, now is the perfect opportunity for parents to discuss the priesthood and temple ban with their children. We hope the following article will help facilitate this important discussion in LDS homes.

When my son first learned that black men were once restricted from holding the priesthood, his instant reaction was, “Why?”

The ideas that black men were prohibited from holding the priesthood and that black men and women were denied participation in temple ordinances seemed unfathomable to my Congolese-American son. His church “normal” includes administering the sacrament, serving in his deacon’s quorum presidency, and participating in baptisms at the temple. He may not enjoy every minute of church, but if you ask my son his favorite part about being a deacon, he’ll say every time, “Passing the sacrament.” At 12, he perceives the sacredness of the ordinance, and he feels a sense of belonging.

Approaching the 40th anniversary of the Church’s lifting of the priesthood ban, I reflect on this problematic topic in Mormon history and how it impacts my family. Some months before my son was ordained a deacon, I realized that I wanted him to hear about this issue from his family first. Yet, I wondered, what would I say?

Talking with Our Children About the Priesthood Ban

Being white, Mormon, and Utahn, talking about race is new to me. It’s slowly becoming less awkward, but White or predominantly white families like mine may struggle with how to broach the topic or answer questions about something we cannot begin to relate to. Raising a black son nudges me out of my comfort zone on a regular basis—and for the better. Here are a few tips we’ve learned along the way that will hopefully make these discussions easier for you and your children.

Discuss Controversial Topics Early on at Home

Concerning the topic of the priesthood ban, I imagined someone mentioning it to my son (and others) in a Sunday School class, for example, and him wondering how it could be true and even worse, why we, his parents, hadn’t told him about it. Discussing the more controversial Church topics within our families first provides a needed framework as they fill in their testimonies elsewhere. This quote from “3 Reasons to Talk to Your Children About Controversial Church Topics,” resonates with me: “As a parent, I had the power to take away the surprise element to learning about some of the more difficult-to-understand aspects of LDS doctrine and Church history.”

Open, Long-Term Communication Is a Must

Discussing the priesthood ban with our children is not necessarily a one-time, sit-down talk. It’s more fluid than that. In my family and those of other families I have interviewed, it meshes together with other injustices we regularly discuss, such as slavery and racial profiling.

As a white parent of a black teenage daughter, Laurie Rose of Utah writes, “...[C]ommunication is a must… The frustrating thing was having her come home from church having been told the wrong stuff, i.e: being cursed, the mark of Cain, etc. and wondering what was going on because it was coming from her teachers. So we would reteach. We are all God's children. We are all alike to Him, with no one above or below another,” and “... one day Jesus Christ will make ALL of the unjust things just. There is such hope in that promise.”  

Hold a Family Home Evening on Difficult Topics

Concerning the priesthood ban, we can all benefit from the insights shared by our brothers and sisters who have directly related experiences. Shelley Washington, a black Mormon from Maryland, offers an inspired way to facilitate discussion at home. When the Church’s essay entitled “Race and the Priesthood” came out in 2013, she and her husband held a family home evening to read and discuss the new information.

Washington has felt tremendous pain and anger regarding how black people were—and sometimes still are—talked about at church. When she and her husband joined the Church in the early 2000s, neither of them knew about the priesthood ban.

“When I first joined the Church, I was like, ‘Where are all the black people?’” she recalls. Soon Washington learned about the priesthood ban and some of the hurtful things that were being taught about black people. “I felt like I had to become a white person. I tried to be white at church because I couldn’t be my black self. I was told I was cursed, and I accepted it because I thought that was who I was.”

As Washington and her husband have raised their three boys, they have made every effort to make sure their boys have a different experience, and discussing the priesthood ban with them has been a big part of that.

“In order to go forward, you have to know where you come from,” Washington says.

Building Faith and Trust

With these issues in mind, how do we help our children reconcile the hurt caused by others with the truthfulness of the gospel? When clear answers aren’t available, particularly with controversial topics like the priesthood ban, returning to doctrinal basics helps. When we model faith in Jesus Christ, acknowledging His gospel as a core set of beliefs, we allow the Spirit to manifest the truthfulness of its doctrine. And since we know that real faith requires works, we educate our children in truth, utilizing the scriptures, words of prophets and other Church leaders, and personal revelation.

A friend I met at Genesis (a Church-sanctioned group for black members of the Church), Tekulvé Jackson-Vann, shared with me ways he promotes faith in his children. Jackson-Vann recalls mentioning the priesthood ban in their baby blessings and has continued an open dialogue from that point on.

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Answering and Sharing Honestly

Keeping an open dialogue in our families means our kids will occasionally ask tough questions. Just as missionaries can’t possibly answer every one of their investigators’ questions, neither can we as parents. I’m learning that “I don’t know,” is sometimes the best, and certainly the most honest, response. The pause after the “I don’t know” creates a space for a child’s faith to sprout. When we’re honest in our responses to the difficult questions, our children develop trust in us. This instills in them the confidence to continue their own exploration and imitates the pattern of asking for and receiving personal revelation from God.

An extension of discussing the priesthood ban in our families is sharing what we’ve learned with others. For me, this includes speaking up to correct myths when prompted in lessons, conversations, and online—even when it’s socially risky.

Educating Ourselves

In addition to listening to the concerns of others, we can also help by educating ourselves. Here are a few resources you should check out.

1. Gospel Topics “Race and the Priesthood” Essay

Familiarizing ourselves with the Church’s essay “Race and the Priesthood” can give us the assurance we need to speak up about incorrect theories we and others may have learned before. This example from the document summarizes and denounces the most common misconceptions:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

2. Works by Black Mormon Scholars

Studying the work of black Mormon scholars can expand our knowledge of race issues within the Church and the scriptures. Co-author of Blacks in the Scriptures, Marvin Perkins, is one such expert. A recent article in LDS Living presents an introduction to his contributions and includes resources for a deeper study of the topic.

3. Social Media Accounts of Well-Known Black Mormons

While we can learn much from our black brothers and sisters, we don’t expect black members to teach us about the priesthood ban. These types of expectations impose a form of microaggression and place an extra burden on our brothers and sisters. One appropriate way to support and learn from the experiences of our black brothers and sisters might be to follow social media accounts of the entertaining Sistas in Zion, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes. An inappropriate action might be to approach a black member in our ward and expect them to explain the myths surrounding the priesthood ban.

Moving Forward

I am sometimes asked by white friends what we can do to help. If we want to “mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9), let’s listen without agenda to our black brothers’ and sisters’ experiences, avoiding saying the phrases that reassure us—the discounting voices that may say, “Well, it’s not like that anymore.”

My family’s narrative, as told to me by mom, Becky, speaks to this: “There are many unfair things in the world. How can we move forward from this one? If there’s something to do, what can we do about it? How do we move on?”

We can do more by saying less. Rather than brushing off potentially offended members with “Don’s be so sensitive,” we might wisely consider that “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles” (Proverbs 21:23). We can listen to voices like the renowned Darius Gray, who, in his essay on lds.org suggests, “ ... if our honest focus was to let [black members of the Church] share of their lives, their histories, their families, their hopes, and their pains, not only would we gain a greater understanding but this practice would go a long way toward healing the wounds of racism.”

I value the voice of Tekulvé Jackson-Vann and have noticed how his faith often supersedes his challenges. He writes, “I remind my oldest son that racism is based on people, and testimonies are based on doctrine. We cannot allow people’s character to pull us away from what we know to be true.”

Listening to these voices without trying to relate or defend requires even more than love; it requires charity. The kind defined in Corinthians—one that is “kind,” “seeketh not her own,” “is not puffed up,” nor “easily provoked.” The kind that “rejoiceth in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6). We won’t get it right every time, but continuing in efforts to correct myths and stop hurtful behaviors is how we keep part of our baptismal covenant to bear one another’s burdens. The part of our shared history as a Mormon people, where only some of us received the fullness of the gospel, remains a burden for our black brothers and sisters. As I stand with my son who bears it, I learn how to love better.

Lead image from Shutterstock

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Sherilyn Olsen is the author of the inspiring book Searched the World Over for Elie: An International Adoption Story, available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com

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