This article is the second in a two-part series excerpted from Panther to Priesthood, the upcoming autobiography of Eddie Leroy Willis. For background on Willis’s childhood and young adult experiences, including as a member of the Black Panther Party, read the first part here.
Before Ed and Wanda were married, she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this excerpt we read how Wanda and her sister Elva introduced Willis to the Church and how his past experiences with racism affected his experience there.
[After meeting with the missionaries,] Wanda was soon baptized, as were her mom, dad, and two daughters. … Wanda felt that she had never before been so secure in the decisions she was making in her life. All of the things she had ever been concerned about were now resolved. She was so overjoyed by the blessings of the Church in her life that she tried to share the good news of the gospel with anybody who would listen! She especially wanted to let Black Americans know that they didn’t have to struggle—that they didn’t have to live in pain and hardship, even though society had set life up that way for them. She wanted them to know that they have a Heavenly Father who loves them. She would often share the message that the enemy has put so many stones in our way, but we can overcome them through the Savior.
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I had no understanding of what was before me, but I was glad that she had expressed to me that all of this was important to her. I was also grateful that she had shown me where her ward building was, because this allowed me to have a place where I could pay my tithing. On any given day, I would put money into an envelope and go to her ward and drop it in the mail slot. Wanda found out what I was doing when I asked her to drive by her church one night. Upon doing so, I asked her to pull over. I went to the mail slot, dropped the envelope inside, and returned to the car. When she realized what I was doing, she seemed to think it was humorous.
“Sweetheart, why don’t you at least put your name on the envelope?” she asked.
“God knows who is giving it,” I replied. Wanda and I laughed.
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Oftentimes during my morning dedication to the Lord, I would ask in fervent prayer that He would lead me to where He would have me worship. I knew—or at least I felt I knew—that God didn’t want me to continually worship alone, for how could I learn all that I needed to on my own? Another important part of my prayers would be that the Lord would lead me to others who were like-minded.
Wanda and Elva knew what kind of church I was accustomed to and decided that I would have a good experience at a church located in South Central Los Angeles, which had become a megachurch. The format of teaching, preaching, and singing was very similar to that of my much smaller church in Oakland. The church was quite jovial. Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time. I know I enjoyed the teaching, the preaching, and the music. The church was very popular. Many celebrities could be found at this church any given Sunday, such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Denzel Washington, Stevie Wonder, or Angela Bassett. I would notice that after the pastor would get everybody lathered up, he’d have everyone all over the auditorium-style chapel form a humongous line leading into another area. There, they would sign some sort of contractual agreement. This agreement involved declaring what their salary was and then agreeing to pay ten percent of that salary to this church. Needless to say, I would never get into this line, for it felt like people were being herded like cattle off to the slaughter and being taken advantage of in their elevated state.
It was very kind of Wanda and Elva to try to help me in this way, but after several visits to that megachurch, I felt change was needed. The next Sunday morning, I began to ponder the idea of learning more about the church I was already paying tithes to. So, I decided that Sunday morning that I would go to my family’s church with them. From the time we entered the parking lot, I observed that many of the parishioners at my family’s church were white. When I saw some Asians and a few Hispanics, I realized that this would not be a traditional experience. Even though I was a stranger, I was greeted as though I were a friend. At the megachurch, I had been spoken to only one time by another member. I noticed slight smiles on Wanda’s and Elva’s faces, as if they knew something I didn’t. A multitude of white members greeted my family with hugs and kisses and smiles. One white-haired man named Jack seemed to adore my granddaughter. I was told that even in her infancy, he would always hold her in his lap during the meeting they called sacrament. Members greeted me with handshakes and smiles while looking me straight in the eyes. I looked them back in the eyes. My mother had always told me to look others in the eye. However, this time, I did not see what I was so accustomed to seeing in the eyes of white people. These people did not just pretend they saw me when they really didn’t. Here, something was different, but it was too much for me to understand at the moment.
In the holy sanctuary, I felt a sense of peace that came over the entire room as young men recited beautiful words concerning our Savior. It seemed so powerful and loving. My eyes filled with tears and my heart with gratitude that I was being allowed to take part in all of this. This way of worship was not anything I understood or had known before. I only knew in my heart that it was right.
I felt that I could have sat in the sanctuary for hours, but before I knew it, the meeting was over. After a song and prayer, everyone began to stand and head for the rear of the chapel. Some went out of the doors on the right, and some went to the left. I didn’t know which way to go. I looked to my family and asked, “Where do I go? Do I follow you?”
Wanda and Elva escorted me to the rear of the sanctuary toward a gentleman who was seated on the very last row. “Ed, this is our friend Bob Petersen,” Wanda said. Bob seemed especially glad to meet me because he was a dear friend of both my wife and my sister-in-law. I believe he was glad to hear that Wanda had gotten married! “Ed, go with Bob,” they said. “He’ll take care of you.”
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I had learned over the years that whites could indeed be friends with Blacks. Some even became friends with me—in fact, I was quite popular with my friends of all ethnicities. However, I had never been in a situation in church where a white man was to take the lead and I was to follow. All of this was new and, I have to admit, somewhat exciting. We entered a classroom setting for Sunday School, and it was so energetic with so much enthusiastic participation that I wanted to participate as well. Because of my Bible studies, the Lord had given me some understanding of the scriptures, so I could be involved.
What really touched me was the next class, which consisted of all men. They called it the high priests quorum. At the time, I did not understand the meaning of this quorum, but I witnessed that these men carried a wonderful and mighty spirit. They taught about the deeper things of God and His kingdom. Often, I had to remind myself to close my mouth—it kept falling wide open in amazement.
After being born again, I had read through the Bible a couple of times. Many years later, I read it a few more. Many times, though, I would read the Bible and have no idea what certain passages meant. For example, as mentioned before, I had no clue about the temple, the priesthood, premortal existence, garments, or other amazing things referred to in both the Old and New Testaments. Sitting in on these new church meetings provided me with a new understanding. Teachers and students alike would often make reference to a book they called “another testament of Jesus Christ”—in other words, the Book of Mormon. I then realized that this book contained the stories of Nephi and the other people I had seen in the temple visitors’ center.
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[During one of many meeting with the missionaries,] one of the missionaries explained to me that after learning about the Church, people are offered the opportunity to be baptized. I reflected on what one of the cofounders of a men’s Christian organization in West Oakland had preached. He said that once people are baptized, they never have to be baptized again. The elder explained to me that a baptism must be done by someone who has the proper authority. I thought about the many self-proclaimed preachers from the neighborhoods I grew up in. I understood where the elder was coming from. So, I joyfully agreed to be baptized.
After everyone left, I went upstairs, put away my books, and read through my notes. I knew that I was going to have to tell my wife and my sister-in-law the decision I had made. They had never made any comments about my studies or my meetings with the missionaries. The most they would ask was an occasional, “How did the lesson go?” They never tried to influence or pressure my decision to join the Church. I called them upstairs and asked them to be seated.
“I have made a sound decision to become baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” I said to them. Both my wife and my sister-in-law broke out in tears. My own eyes began to well up full of water, but they were tears of joy. I was about to be baptized by someone who had the authority to do so. Amen.
In this raw, gritty memoir, Willis shares how a lifetime of hardship was, in its own way, preparing him to receive the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Through his unique voice and willingness to share with sometimes painful vulnerability, you will gain valuable perspective to increase in empathy, challenge preconceptions, and overcome the odds through the Savior’s mercy and grace as you witness the lengths to which God will go to save each of His children.