23: How We Move Forward
After a year of asking and waiting, Donald finally got permission from his mom to join the church when he was 15. Being a part of this new church family felt like the right next step for this Jamaican immigrant living in Florida, but he soon learned that while the restored gospel was perfect, the people weren’t. In this story, Donald shares the moments that left him wondering about his place in the body of Christ and what helped him to chose faith and forgiveness.
But I can tell you instead of the "why", I can tell you how you move forward. And how we move forward is by focusing on Jesus Christ because we're all, black, white, Jew, gentile, green, whatever color you are, We are all His sons and daughters.
We met Donald Kelly and his wife Cristina when we were filming in Florida in the fall of 2017. In fact, the audio for this story was taken from the video that we made of Donald for the VIEWPOINT series.
KaRyn: This episode of This is the Gospel is sponsored by Bookshelf PLUS+. With Bookshelf PLUS+ you can have unlimited access to every audio book that Deseret Book has ever released from all your favorite authors -- fiction, non-fiction, even the newest books like Sheri Dew's "Insights from a Prophet's Life" which is full of stories, and well, insights from President Nelson's extraordinary life of service Read by the author. So if you want more uplifting, good stories after this episode is over, try Bookshelf PLUS+ free for 30 days by visiting deseretbook.com/thisisthegospel.
Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay. There are now over 16 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world. And when you think about it, that's a lot of people who've put their hearts and their souls into the hands of a church family seeking opportunities to learn together and grow together as we individually work towards our salvation. That's a lot of people from a lot of different cultures meeting in the proverbial chapel every Sunday.
I come from a family with seven kids so I understand that the bigger the family the more room there is to feel neglected, misunderstood, or forgotten or in some cases, even overly protective of your status in the family structure. In fact, I understand this because my favorite book when I was a little girl was called "Noisy Nora" (by Rosemary Wells) and it was about a mouse who was constantly making noise just so her family wouldn't forget she existed When a new baby came. So, I get it. But here's the other thing that I know about big families. They also give us more opportunities to brush up against the kind of, what I like to call, "divine friction" that can only come from so many different personalities, backgrounds, races, and cultures engaged in the work of God. And that "divine friction" asks us to change and to be better. Sometimes we get it right. And sometimes we get it wrong.
Today our story comes from Donald, whose conversion at 15 and membership in the Church was often complicated by some of this divine friction around race. As a black member living in a predominantly white stake of the church in Florida, his experience with racism sometimes left him wondering about his place in that body of Christ. How he chose faith and forgiveness is a story that truly is the Gospel.
DONALD: I'm 33 years old. I was 31 and I was called to be a bishop and it was definitely something that I was not expecting. He definitely has a lot of trust.
Anyone who wants to be a Bishop... they're more than welcome to be the Bishop. It's a lot of work when you're a bishop.
Why I do what I do? For the money, man!!! (laughter) It's all about the money -- the bling bling, baby. (laughter)
The reason why I do what I do because I feel people need to know it.
My life has been changed because of the truthfulness of the Gospel, the direction that it gave me.... and I know that there is more, there are more Donalds and out there and more people who need that direction. And that's why I do what I do . It's because of the love Jesus had for me and spared me so I can go and do his work and help spare somebody else.
I grew up in Jamaica and moved to the United States when I was nine years old and my mom was a single parent raising two kids. Then my sister came along later on and there was three of us. And when I moved... in Jamaica they refer to anyone in the United States-- you're a "Yankee" so the Jamaican term, "You're a Yankee man, turned yankee man no junior!"
My mom came to the United States for a better opportunity. Jamaica economy had different challenges especially in the early 90s.
So she came here with hopes of a better life earning more money and also providing for us. Giving us the opportunity as her children to get quality education and to get an opportunity just to better ourselves. My mom did everything to make sure that opportunity came through. She worked hard. She is a hard worker. She still works right now. You're not a Jamaican unless you have two jobs. So she embodied that, where she worked multiple jobs and just, I call it "the hustle" hustled and did whatever she could to provide for us. And it didn't seem like much -- making thirty thousand dollars a year.
I grew up in a not so safe neighborhood and it was... a lot of us in the neighborhood were poor and some people were poor and didn't know it. But, some of us knew it. I knew that I was poor but my mom always made sure we had what we needed. We never went hungry. We always had food and we always somehow found out a way to get clothes... if we got to McDonald's? That was cool.
My childhood growing up and my early adolescent going into teenage years, I went to middle school, Bear Lakes Middle School and that was.... I had some friends who were kind of rough around the edges and my mom raised us as a goody-good kid. I never drank, never smoked ...I never never saw her drink or smoke and it was just this good environment and it was... it rubbed off on me. So when I selected friends, I just selected friends who were people in the neighborhood and even though they did things that I didn't necessarily agree with or approve of, they were friends. We hung out with them. So the four of us one evening, we were hanging around in the neighborhood and went to this fence and we were being teenage boys and the neighbors thought we were breaking into his house... came outside and he chased us. I got caught out of the four of us and I was arrested that evening and wasn't taken to jail but I was booked and released back to my mom. And I was put on house detention - no bands on your legs, you're just put on house detention so I just was home and my mom being a strict Jamaican mother, she said, (Donald in Jamaican accent) "you're grounded for life." So I was was... I was grounded forever. Pretty much that was my prison was home.
we went to church every so often. After being arrested and being at home and now having a lot of time to myself, a lot of time to think, I knew I need to get back into a church. I know what church or any church. So one of my friends, Ralston Campbell, Dane we called him. He introduced me to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Invited me at a National Junior Honor Society meeting to come to scouts and play basketball on Tuesday night. I blew him off but then he reminded me and invited me again and I took him up on it. I went to church, my first time was on Easter Sunday 1999. I think it was a General Conference that time and then I had all these questions and he said, "I have two friends for you." and introduced me to the missionaries. So I started taking lessons and the missionaries invited my mom to take the lessons and to learn about it but she was stuck in her ways and didn't want to learn anything about it. But didn't have a big deal with me going to church and it was a good thing for me at that time of my life.
Growing up in Jamaica is really interesting though. People don't get baptized until you're later. It's kind of like you're done making all your mistakes in life -- your sinning. You're an adult, you understand what you're doing. So when I approached her that I wanted to get baptized... I started going to church April and I approached her really soon after getting to the lessons that I want to be baptized. And she said, "no, you need to wait until you're 18."
and then she pushed it back "until you're 16." So several months later I asked her and she said, "no." So the missionaries were transitioning through and then it came down to the end of the year was December and I really want to get baptized so I asked her. I remember seeing all my friends passing the sacrament and I was like I want to do this too. And she said no.
It Was a fast Sunday so all of us the teachers and the young men's and some of the members they said we're gonna do a joint fast. And we fasted that my mom would allow me to get baptized. She had said at 16 at this time and I just turned 15. So we went that Sunday again in December. I asked her and she said, "yes, you can get baptized." It was amazing. So that gave me a huge huge testimony of fasting. And if you have something, you bring it to Lord to help you. And I was baptized when I was 15.
We went on this high adventure (scout campout) and I remember we were in North Carolina and there's, you know, five, six of us kids... scouts... that were black and the majority of us were just white and we all friends and so forth. But we're gathered together and some of the other kids had doubts about the Church and about the Book of Mormon and the blacks and the priesthood and I remember that really hitting me.
And that was the one time I started to think like, "Well, is something wrong here? Is something wrong with the Church... is something wrong with that?" And I really... I stopped reading the Book of Mormon. You know, something doesn't seem like it's right. I had good leaders at the time who gave me good mentorship and guidance and taught me to study the scriptures, to go to get an answer. So I read the Bible and I read the Book of Mormon and I would study and picked up and I came to know that it was true but it's still in the back of your mind.
The High school I went to was predominantly white and I didn't have any black leaders. I didn't necessarily see it as an issue but one time there was a guy named brother Carter and he came to our ward and he was a bishop previously. But seeing him in the church— that he was a black man that was a bishop at one point. It was like, "that is cool." I remember the day that when I did see that, it was awakening to say - oh, Brother Carter. It just gave me that vision that - oh, you know, we can have opportunities." It was just interesting. It was just different.
For the majority of our life, my mom was a single mom raising us and my stepfather was in the picture for a little bit of the time. He was... it was an abusive situation... physically abuse, domestic abuse from my mom and he was in the picture for a few years and he was thrown in jail.
So that left us with a financial situation. My mom was recovering from abuse and missed a couple of weeks of work. And that led us to being evicted from our home. I remember coming home seeing the fluorescent orange sheet of paper on the door and you know what it was because you've seen it before in the neighborhood. Somebody is getting evicted. And that was us.
I knew things were rough but not that bad. And we threw everything in a small storage unit and my mom, brother, and sister went to live with one of my cousins on the other side of town and I stayed with another relative, a cousin because that was the busing route to my high school.
One of my best friends in the Church is Andrew. So we always hung out, always spent time together. a few of us together. And so when I stopped we got evicted and I lived with my cousin and his small apartment. I stopped going to seminary because I didn't have my rides to pick me up and take me to seminary anymore so he knew something was wrong. So I just pulled it out of me and I told them what was going on. That we were evicted and family was separated and I was staying with my cousin in the laundry room. He said, "well you know, we're already brothers already like brothers. I think my parents be fine you come and stay with us."
And I went home with them that evening and they said, "Of course you can stay with us." And I used to live with them for about a year until my mom got back on her feet. T hey have seven kids and always the extra was Donald. I remember the youngest son Matthew, He was so confused because he was a little kid at a time when I lived with them...
but they would say, "yeah we have six kids and seven kids." and hew was like, "What about Donald?" (laughter) And it was always uh... cute.
My friend who introduced me to the church at 14, He's also Jamaican and black American as well. And his mom left the Church... he left the Church too.
There was that thing that started it... someone at the time was teaching Relief Society and said (or some meetings) said that the blacks were the seed of Cain and taught that false doctrine and it was very difficult for her. I can see how tough it was. So not seeing her come to church and not seeing Dane come to church, It was really hard for me to figure out how I was going to get to church.
I knew I was right. I knew deep down that it was right. So I kept going and it was again that escape for me and I went and went. Those questions came later on. There were times... I remember one situation where a girl that I had interest in and she had interest in me, But her parents would not approve because of the fact that I was black and it's that idea. How do you feel about that? When people read and misunderstand the Book of Mormon and to say don't mix your seed with someone... like, what did I do? And that was really a difficult time to grasp that again.
But the Church was like the thing for me. It was an escape away from, you know growing up and in the way I grew up, in the environment. And being in a wholesome environment... having a vision. And I did get my Eagle Scout and naturally, that's the next progression. You go on a mission. And I knew I wanted to but going on a mission I got called to Detroit Michigan. And Detroit. It's a lot of African-Americans, right? And being a black missionary in Detroit it was like a big deal for our mission. So I got placed in the inner city a lot of times and it was it was really neat to be in the city. But stuff came up.
Out of the hundred and fifty, one hundred and twenty missionaries only a couple that are black, the population of the Church majority are not black. So people ask that question, "how can you be a part of a church like that?" And it brought me to think a lot. I knew that this was the Church of Jesus Christ and knew it was restored. There are things that I didn't understand and it brought a lot of questions and I can humbly say it did bring me to question certain things.
"Is this the right place for me? Is this correct? How come blacks couldn't have the priesthood?" and it brought me to my knees a lot to study and to try to understand. How can I teach people, how can I go out every single day and tell people that this is a church for them when no one looks like them.
The cool thing about Detroit, they saw us as Christ-followers— Christians who were out there doing the Lord's work... but it was... there was a tension. The members in Detroit, you have to be rock solid. You have to gain that testimony to know that, "yes, I understand there were issues in the past but I know without a shadow of a doubt that is true."
And I've seen so many of those members that became the bedrock and the foundation in establishing the Church. When Gladys Knight became a member of the Church that... she is in Detroit ... that was pretty big as well because that helped people understand somebody who's prominent who is African-American as well was also remember the Church. It brought the church out of this obscurity that it's a church for everyone.
The history in the past happened but it doesn't mean that the Church isn't Christ's Church. Things happen. That helped to see those strong members and that guided us and gave us direction and companions who are just like you know you saw us brothers who were just really awesome. I can tell you the thing that kept me going was just getting on your knees and praying and knowing that Jesus is the Christ that he truly did die for my sins and he truly did made the way. He (was) resurrected and gave us an opportunity. That doctrine, that ideology is the bedrock that kept me grounded. To understand that this is Jesus' work. It was that guidance that helped me through. Through all of that even understanding that people make mistakes and that we're not perfect and if that was the case there would be no need for the Atonement. Made me realize that everyone makes mistakes and people can repent and can change and in due time they will come to understand and I hope they did and I hope they do.
But for me, it doesn't make sense to hold a grudge or to be angry. It makes sense to keep going in the testimony of Jesus Christ and I do have and that has guided me and forged a path and kept me going and led me to the opportunities in life I have today.
Being a bishop and being African-American, younger folks come to me and ask, "Well, I have trouble with this. I have concerns about this. And why did this happen in the past in the Church?"
And some of them, I really don't have answers to and I think that's one of the interesting things with life. We don't get answers to everything.
And I remember, being one of the times as early as a bishop I went back into some of those studies and I studied for a couple days and just diving into more on the topic and a final answer it came back down to that I give to people as my final answer is that they're imperfect people in the church and some people say things are not right. But the truth is the gospel is restored. And don't let anyone take that part away from you. And though we may not have all the answers --I can't give you everything about "why" -- In due time those answers will come . But I can tell you instead of the "why", I can tell you how you move forward.
And how we move forward is by focusing on Jesus Christ because we're all, black, white, Jew, gentile, green, whatever color you are, We are all His sons and daughters.
And he wants us to go back and live with Him.
KaRyn: That was Donald Kelly. I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to hear those stories of times when we as members of the church didn't quite get it right. And I really appreciate Bishop Kelly's personal revelation that helped him make sense of the things that we don't yet understand or know about our history. I also recognize that there are many brothers and sisters who are still waiting for that personal revelation that will heal their wounds. But I revel in the hope that each of us can be healed through Jesus Christ and those of us who have done the wounding, whether intentionally or not, can seek repentance and forgiveness. And isn't that just like being part of a family?
There's this part in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" that says, "Successful families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work and wholesome recreational activities."
I think as a church family, we've got that recreational activity part down if our Ward's block parties and chili cook-offs are any indication. But what if we could do better at all the other things to help make our family, our ward family, our stake family, our church family more successful? I asked Donald to share his thoughts about what we could all do better to minister to our brothers and sisters of color. And here's what he shared:
DONALD: Now, this is a very sensitive topic for both black members and white members as a whole and I feel the answer is complex but still yet could be very simple. But, in order for us to understand it simply we must recognize or go through the complex answer that I feel first. .
It comes down to education and empathy. Hear me out on this for a second. Personally, this is my opinion, personally I feel for years that many members of the Church don't talk about race because they just don't understand enough about race or don't talk enough about blacks and the priesthood because they don't understand enough about blacks and the priesthood or they don't understand where members are coming from with it or just simply don't have an answer. And is ignorant to what they should be saying or how they can help other members go through it. So the easy answer, "let's ignore it. Put our heads in the sand, so to speak, and maybe what will happen... They just won't experiment with anything.
It is not easy to talk about. We can do what Stephen Covey said, "Seek first to understand then to be understood."
Because what happens, especially when I served my mission in Detroit, Sometimes you will find that members, they were taught years ago by the missionaries. These two guys came through the neighborhood started preaching about scriptures, about the Book of Mormon, about the restoration of the Gospel and it made sense. They felt something. They knew they had this spirit tell them that this was true. They made the decision to get baptized and then maybe couple years later somebody mentioned this idea about blacks and the priesthood and then they start to question like, "wait, what do you mean about that??"
Now understanding you're probably saying, "yes they got a testimony so why in the world would somebody start doubting?" It's not necessarily doubting and this is where empathy needs to come in play. It's putting yourself in a person's shoes. Oftentimes these individuals who are maybe newer to the church and first time hearing about race and blacks and the priesthood, they probably... they feel... and this is what I'm just sharing what I've heard is.." I feel like I wasn't told everything up front before I made a decision."
This caused them to have some kind of question and start questioning everything. How come the missionaries didn't say something about it? How come my bishop didn't talk to me about it? How come some of these things are not taught to me? And then those questions lead to more questions. And more resentment. And then more confusion and frustration.
Now when they start having a conversation with, say a member of the church about it, Because We don't necessarily understand how to Have that conversation with A black member, We go back to just simple saying, "You need to just have more faith. And stop doubting."
It's depicted, "Well, This person just seems like they don't believe in the fact that we have the restored gospel or that we have prophets on the earth today because if they believe that, they wouldn't ask these questions." Which by the way, is totally not true. It is because I do believe that there is a restoration because it is because I do believe that there are prophets and apostles on the earth. It is because I do believe in the fact that we have priesthood authority. That's why I am asking -- to get better understanding. Again, having a question isn't bad. Maybe you recognize -- yes someone has questioned or going through this challenging time in their life and they're trying to figure things out. Help them. Don't shun them. Don't say they're not faithful. Read scriptures with them. Study with them. Have them over for come follow me.
Or maybe you can... There are things that you research and you could talk about with them. And just maybe as a bishop, you have more dialogue. As the elder's quorum or Relief Society or Young Man or Young Woman president. Taking time to recognize someone's questions and helping them. And for black members of the Church or any one of the Church that may have doubts or have questions, who have these things they wrestling with, I share this a lot, but I just say, don't jump out of the boat. Stay. In. The boat. Right now. You are safe. You're protected. You may not understand everything. Stay in the boat. Continue to progress. Serve in your calling. Help the ward. Help the members share the gospel of Jesus Christ, live the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And as you continue to do this, I pray and I hope that you will gain the answer and insights and revelation that you need. And perhaps maybe we will all come to a better understanding. As we have more of an open dialogue. So again my answer is quite complex. But it comes back down to the simple part. Of. Us. All. Making sure that we educate ourselves and to have open dialogue. And to have empathy. I think those things will help.
KaRyn: Donald is always quick to say that he doesn't speak for every black member of our church family so I was thinking that one of the ways I could put his ideas into practice would be to actually ask my friends of a different race, "What is it like for you to be a part of this church?" and then to really listen to their story --not to try to fix it for them or to offer solutions-- but to simply listen and make space for the hard things they might say. And then we can celebrate together the shared faith that brings us all to the sacrament table every week to feast together as brothers and sisters in the same family of Christ... while vowing to do better at being part of that family.
Well, whatever you feel inspired to do to make our church family better, I hope you'll write it down this week and find a way to put it into action. Let that divine friction change us so we can be better.
That's it for this episode of This is the Gospel. Thank you to Donald for sharing his story and his faith.
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This episode was produced and edited by me KaRyn Lay and Sarah Blake with story editing by Davey Johnson. It was mixed and mastered by mix at six studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom.
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