Feature Stories

I’m a Pioneer: The perseverance of the first Black sister missionary called to serve

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Courtesy of Kendra Bybee

As Latter-day Saints prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Pioneer Day on July 24th this year, LDS Living recognizes that in addition to the sacrifices of the early pioneers, there are many modern-day pioneers across the globe who have built the Church in their nations or in their families. In this new series of articles, we wish to recognize these present-day pioneers and remember all who have helped make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what it is today.

I disliked hearing pioneer stories when I was growing up. Stories of crossing the plains, losing children, and then coming into great blessings seemed to have little to do with me, a young Black girl. Pioneer Day was less a source of inspiration and more a reminder of how my family didn’t belong in Church history.

Yet that was before I learned that I was raised by a living pioneer, my mother, Sareta Dobbs. I had always known that my mom had joined the church “back in the day.” She joined before she could enter the temple or serve a mission. She joined the church before she was considered a "valiant" spirit in the church (based on false teachings at the time). Honestly, if my mother had it her way the story would die with her; she doesn’t see her life as anything spectacular or special. She believed this for so long that only recently has she told me some of the details of her remarkable decisions.

Raised in her grandfather’s church in Kansas during the 1960s, my mother always had an interest in spiritual things. It was her interest that led her to ask a Sunday School teacher two probing questions:

“Where do people go when they die?”

“Nowhere, you’re just dead.”

“Well, where do we come from?”

Odd look, then, “Nowhere.”

The answers were not only unsatisfactory but they also did not ring true to her. She knew the truth was out there but she didn’t know where to find it. Fast forward to 1975. After some travel, mom landed in California where she attended courses at the local community college. One day in the fall a friend showed up to class in a dress and my mom, intrigued, asked her friend what she was up to. As it turned out, her friend was the Relief Society homemaking leader and was getting ready to teach the sisters how to make a one seam dress. Mom attended the homemaking meeting and soon afterward began taking the discussions with the missionaries.

It was when the missionaries taught the plan of salvation, answering the two questions that she had, years earlier, asked her Sunday School teacher, that she knew she had found the gospel of truth for which she had been searching. Mom officially became a church member in 1976 at the age of 21 and like others her age, the desire to serve a mission became a persistent feeling as she patiently waited to reach her one-year mark of membership. Her one year of membership in the church arrived and mom expressed her desire to serve a mission to her bishop. She wanted to serve but she was also unable to enter the temple to receive her endowment. She had hope that she would be able to serve because members of the Church in other countries, who also had not been through the temple, were serving missions. Her request was refused.

Finishing her college courses, mom returned home to Kansas where she continued to attend church. Her presence as a Black woman was accepted by some and a great discomfort to others who refused to not only acknowledge her but who also would not share a sidewalk with her.

Now, here’s where my mom and I differ greatly—I would have taken the unjust refusal and the unkindness from members as an opportunity to quietly and quickly leave the Church. My mom stayed. She knew how God felt about her and felt that one day the Church would enable all of God’s children to receive the fullness of the gospel. So she stayed and, on the basis of a feeling, moved to Utah. She wasn’t sure why she was there and had given up hope of serving a mission. She had only been in Utah for a week and half when, returning from job searching, she was met at the door of her host family where the host mother excitedly asked, “Did you hear?!”

“Hear what?”

“President Kimball has announced that Blacks can have the priesthood!”

Reserved as always, my mom took the news in stride and prepared to attend a stake conference that weekend. She walked up to Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who was presiding at the conference, after the meeting, shook his hand, and asked for a blessing. Without hesitation Elder Maxwell agreed to give her a blessing, the words of which led Mom to believe that the time had finally come for her to serve a mission. Making an appointment with her bishop to discuss serving a mission, her bishop said, “I was getting ready to call you and make an appointment. Elder Maxwell called and said that you need to serve a mission.”

By September of 1978, mom had entered the MTC to learn Portuguese and to prepare to serve in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While in the MTC she learned from fellow missionaries that Elder Bruce R. McConkie had mentioned her in a CES Symposium address titled, “All Are Alike Unto God.”

“We have already called our first Negro sister, assigned to the Brazil Rio de Janeiro Mission. This race and culture now is going to be one with us in bearing the burdens of the kingdom,” Elder McConkie said.

Even after hearing all of this, knowing she was the first Black woman to receive her call, I still ask my mother: “Why would you ever join a church that clearly did not want you?”

My mother’s response is always the same: “Because I found truth.”

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Sister Sareta Dobbs is photographed as a missionary. Elder and Sister Soares can also be seen as young missionaries.
Church News archive

My mom served her mission alongside Elder Ulisses Soares and his future wife, Sister Rosana Soares, who was one of her companions. She returned to the states where she married, raised three children in the gospel, obtained multiple degrees, and has continued to be faithful.

I know I couldn’t have been the first. I am often frustrated by racism and sexism at church and sometimes, honestly, I feel like calling it quits. And then I remember my mom. I picture her with Elder Maxwell. I picture her kneeling in prayer daily throughout my childhood. I picture her standing her ground when church members wouldn’t even look at her. I picture my mom and the joy on her face when her grandchild was baptized.

So, I stay.

I stay because, like my mom, I love the gospel. I love Jesus Christ. I stay because my mom taught me that faith not only matters, it is essential.

I stay for every person who feels or has felt like they don’t belong in church history.

I stay for every person who feels unseen when hearing pioneer plain-crossing stories.

I stay because I was raised by a pioneer.

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