LDS Convert, NFL Player Shares How Diversity Led Him to Join the Church

Playing for the NFL

Just as Willis’s father had predicted, Willis’s BYU experience was a success. He went on to play as the running back for the San Francisco 49ers. As a new convert and a new husband, Willis felt blessed to have good role models in the four other LDS members of his team, including Steve Young and coach Tom Holmoe. He said that they were a huge support to him in living his faith during his time playing in the NFL.

Image title

“On Sundays obviously we couldn’t go to church because we played all our games on Sunday,” Willis said. But his teammate Steve Young got permission for the four of them to conduct their own sacrament meeting in their hotel room. Two of them would bless the sacrament and the others would present a spiritual thought. “It was such a spiritual experience,” Willis said.

Willis remembers a time when his teammate Jerry Rice came up to him and said, “You’re not LDS are you?”

Willis told him he was. “It blew him away. He said, ‘Well, you don’t act it. You surprise me,'” Willis said.

Willis took the comment in the light it was intended. First, he recognized that many people don’t realize there are black Mormons. Next, he understood that many don’t realize that you can be yourself and still be a good Mormon. “I think he was impressed that you can be within your own skin and be a member of the Church,” Willis said.

Called to the Genesis Group

Willis was recently called by Area Authority Seventy Elder David Warner to be the first counselor in the Genesis Group presidency. Embracing individuality and diversity is at the heart of the group.

Image title

 The new presidency of the Genesis Group — first counselor Jamal Willis, left; President Davis Stovall, center; and second counselor Joseph Kaluba, right; after they were sustained in the group's monthly meeting in Cottonwood Heights, Utah on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Image and caption from Facebook.

The group was created in 1971 to support black Latter-day Saints and is a place where many feel they can let their hair down and be themselves, worshiping and celebrating the gospel in a way that is culturally familiar to them. “It’s all about inclusion. It’s about love. It’s about service. . . . It’s about acceptance of anyone and all differences,” Willis said.

The monthly group meetings feature music by the Unity Gospel Choir, which engages the audience through clapping, swaying, and encouraging sing-along. The choir is accompanied by instruments not typically seen in an LDS chapel, such as the electric guitar and the saxophone. Inspirational speakers and a testimony meeting round out the program.

At Genesis, the congregation is encouraged to stand up and meet new faces around them, shout or holler when they feel moved, and clap during and after musical performances and speakers’ messages. “After you’re done with Genesis . . .you just feel so rejuvenated that you want to go out and you can conquer the world,” Willis said.

According to Willis, many attend Genesis Group because it’s a place where they feel welcome to be who they are without judgment or criticism. “Sometimes that lacks in certain wards,” Willis said. “I mean, we all know that feeling.”

Although Willis loves that people have a place to congregate and be themselves, he hopes that Genesis Group will accomplish more than that. “Our goal is for those people who come to Genesis to leave Genesis with the motivation and the love and the hope to go out and not just show their uniqueness in their wards, but to help others feel the same spirit of unity.”

Genesis reflects the lessons Willis learned at BYU. “Instead of trying to fit in, understand your uniqueness and what you bring,” Willis said. “Once you do that, people tend to gravitate to you, regardless of color, regardless of differences.”

Willis wants everyone to understand that you don’t have to change who you are to be a member of the Church.

“Diversity is a great thing in the gospel,” Willis said. “We’re different, and it’s okay to worship and to be excited in your own way.”

Photos courtesy of Jamal Willis

Interested in learning more about Genesis Group? Visit ldsgenesisgroup.org

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com