Major events in the nation, and within the Church, have necessitated honest examinations of our past, and of our hearts. Becoming disciples of Christ holds within it the expectation of changed attitudes and behaviors.
1993, Wybark, Oklahoma
The little cemetery both looked and felt completely different from the first time I had stood there. It had been two years since the family reunion tour of the old place. Back then the grass was high and the brush all a tangle. Cousin Gene Bell had come to the reunion from Ohio, and luckily his growing-up years had been spent there in tiny Wybark, just up the road from Muskogee, which made Gene the ideal person to guide the tour of the Marshall Cemetery.
Once we were out of the cars and walking toward an apparent entrance, Gene grabbed a broken branch with which he began tapping the ground as we walked forward. His action seemed curious, so we inquired as to the why. He casually said, “Snakes don’t have ears but they are sensitive to vibrations.” He wanted to alert them to our presence. Overgrown and unkempt would best describe the cemetery, but this excursion was dedicated to finding and honoring our long-dead relatives, so snakes or no snakes, we were not to be deterred, whatever the difficulty in finding our people.
The memories of 1991 had imprinted the improbability that someone would choose such unfit ground for burial anytime in the future. But here we stood, gathered as family to bury another cousin, William Allen Glover. Thankfully, attention had been given those receiving grounds, now allowing a degree of honor for those buried therein.
As we waited for the graveside services to begin, a cousin approached me and asked, “Now, you’re from Utah, is that right?” With those few words I knew what was coming next, and in all honesty, my back did straighten as I confirmed that I lived in Utah. I love being a Utahn, but experience had taught me to prepare for certain questions. “Isn’t that where all those Mormons are?” Again I answered yes, which led to the expected, “Well, you’re not one of them, are you?” Answering proudly that indeed I was, we had finally arrived at the trophy question: “I thought they didn’t allow Blacks to be members?” In that brief pause before William’s graveside service began, I did my best to disabuse my cousin’s thinking. Yes, I’m Black and a Latter-day Saint, or what he might call a “Mormon.”
His questions, innocent as they were, weren’t a surprise. As a Black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I had received and answered those same questions many times before. But somehow, standing solemnly among my kindred dead, it resonated with me how universal such experiences had been. If people knew next to nothing about Latter-day Saints, they knew we gathered in Utah—somewhere we had engaged in polygamy in past days—and that tenets of that faith were hostile to Blacks.
The experiences in Wybark occurred in the early 1990s. Later, in 1999, one of Salt Lake City’s daily newspapers, the Deseret News, conducted a survey of its readership as the world prepared to enter a new century. The major question posed was, “What have been the greatest stories of the past 100 years?” The hands-down winner was the official revelation received by the Church leadership in 1978 allowing those of Black African ancestry to again become ordained in the Church’s lay priesthood and again engage in temple attendance. Two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, government challenges to monopolies, the Holocaust, atomic bombs, polio, Korea, the civil rights movement, Vietnam … the list extends endlessly, yet, for the readers of the Church News section of the Deseret News, all else was eclipsed by that one bit of news—steeped in race. I hasten to add that the significance was not limited to Latter-day Saints. The news of June 8, 1978, was so compelling that at least two commercial flights announced the event mid-flight. Such was the worldwide connection between race and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
No longer considered a regional faith, what has historically been known as “Mormonism” is now a dynamic, proselytizing religion with millions of members worldwide. It saddens me that we have yet to rid ourselves of views that have never been of God.
A recent anniversary marked my fifty-seventh year as a member of the faith.
I was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ in 1964. The location was Colorado Springs, Colorado, the city and state of my birth. In the summer of that year, I returned to live at my mother’s home after briefly residing in Portland, Oregon.
The early sixties were a time of growing racial unrest in much of America, as Blacks, frustrated with the slow progress of civil rights, began voicing their concerns more openly and stridently. Race had always been an issue in America, but now in the sixties, the heat of the debate was rising.
My parents, Darius M. Gray (born late 1800s) and Elsie M. Johnson Gray (born early 1900s), came into this world and began their working years during a period of time when Negroes were allowed only menial jobs. Typically, “Coloreds” had few opportunities for education in those days. In the case of my father and mother, Dad had the greater education, having made it to the fifth grade, whereas Mom had only four years of schooling. But compared to many of their generation, they were fortunate.
Like most parents, Darius and Elsie yearned for better days and better opportunities for their children, if not to be experienced themselves. Somehow they held to a vision of what could be rather than what hadn’t been. As their children, we were taught lessons centered on the value of education and how knowledge could open the door to possibilities, even for Coloreds. While Mom and Dad held to a positive vision of life, it was one of limited reach. College was seldom mentioned, but a high school education for their children was a must. My parents also placed great worth on moral truths and values. Through their examples, we were shown the benefits of respecting others as well as respecting ourselves.
They also had a strong sense of racial identity. They were proud of their ethnicity, its accomplishments, and their endurance in the face of so much adversity. This, too, they undertook to teach their children.
It was with this family background, and in the days enveloping the explosion of this country’s inner cities centered on inequality, that I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The focus here is not my conversion to the faith, but the “how” and “when” of my becoming aware of the restriction on priesthood for Blacks. For an event that would figure so prominently in my life, it happened almost as an afterthought.
It was the night before my scheduled baptism. I was at the apartment of the two missionaries who were conducting my pre-baptismal interview when the issue was raised. The subject of race, which is evident throughout the Book of Mormon, had come up once before. That first inquiry resulted in my being told that we would get to the matter later. Now, the night before I was to be baptized, “later” arrived.
I asked, “As I read about the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon, I see that they had dark skin and were often out of favor with God. How, if in any way, does this relate to me?”
Both missionaries were seated on the couch. One stood and walked over to the corner, leaving his companion to respond. There was a pause. “Well, Brother Gray,” said the missionary, “the primary implication is that you won’t be able to hold the priesthood.” Then he went about explaining that this restriction was because of my race.
Having two young men, supposedly representatives of God, tell me that my race would disqualify me from holding the priesthood was more than I was willing to accept. By then I knew the worth and power of that priesthood, and all of my prior training had declared my right as an equal to any other man—including those Latter-day Saint men and boys who held that priesthood. That night as I left the missionaries’ apartment, I knew there would be one less baptism taking place the coming day.
Back at home, the newly disclosed restriction continued to torment me. Earlier in the discussions I had received a testimony of the restored gospel, but self-respect—or loyalty to my upbringing—now challenged that testimony. Finally, in desperation, I sought God’s guidance on a dilemma that I could not resolve alone. In His infinite wisdom, a generous Father explicitly confirmed that this was the restored gospel and that I was to join. No mention was given whether the restriction was of God or of man, whether it was right or wrong. The following day, knowing full well that I would be restricted in my membership, I was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Today I found myself reflecting back to a particular sacrament meeting that took place in the late 1960s. It was at a University of Utah married students’ ward, and on that Sunday we were seated in the chapel’s center section, about midway back from the front, with me on the aisle. When the sacrament tray was presented, I partook of the bread and then reached for the handle to pass the tray to those seated at my right, including my wife. I was stunned as the tray was quickly pulled away, only to have the elder reach around me and offer the sacrament to my melanin-deprived wife, who then passed it onward. Eye contact was made with this brother in the gospel, and his expression left no doubt about his motive. My cursed hand would not be allowed to handle the Lord’s Supper.
An area not often considered is the sense of isolation that can accompany Black membership. I felt it that Sunday even though no words were exchanged; a look and brief action bore witness to my aloneness. That same reality can afflict members of color even today. Though minority membership blossomed following the revelation of 1978, for some there remain old judgments steeped in curses, worthiness, and lack of valiance. Senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have often affirmed the belief that the hand of God was instrumental in bringing forth this great nation along with a constitution that focused on the individual. They have held that America was intended by God to be a beacon of freedom and truth. How odd then that racism and the embrace of slavery have corrupted every portion of these hallowed lands. Throughout history both the nation and its people have been at cross purposes. Would concepts of inclusion and dedication to Deity hold sway, or would hatred and greed seize the day? Our focus must not be on history alone or the shortcomings of humankind, as there is good news, even great news, if we will but embrace it. God is alive in His heaven, and continuing revelations guide our paths.
The Church Today
In theology and practice, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints embraces the universal human family. Latter-day Saint scripture and teachings affirm that God loves all of His children and makes salvation available to all. God created the many diverse races and ethnicities and esteems them all equally. As the Book of Mormon puts it, “all are alike unto God.” [2 Nephi 26:33] …
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.1
The above comments are but a small portion of the Church’s essay “Race and the Priesthood,” the official statement that strives to lift the institution and its members from a troubling racial history. Reflecting nearly thirty years to that day at the Wybark cemetery with my cousin who had thought the Church racist, we have come a long way. Major events in the nation, and within the Church, have necessitated honest examinations of our past, and of our hearts. Becoming disciples of Christ holds within it the expectation of changed attitudes and behaviors. As my dear friend Catherine Stokes, herself a pioneer, has said, “This is the United States of America, where you are free to hate anyone you choose. That is until you take upon yourself the name of Christ. At which point the right to hate is no longer available to you.”
- Gospel Topics, “Race and the Priesthood,” topics.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.