Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part II

By February 24, 2016

This is part two of a three-part series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. For part one, see here. Part three will be posted tomorrow morning. 

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Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on "Blacks in the Bible," Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

Isaiah Cummings presents a lesson on “Blacks in the Bible,” Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent, September 2011.

The Friends Group arose out of the African American cultural celebration as the brainchild of Brother Lee Cook, a white member of the Durham 1st Ward. Lee grew up in Richmond, Virginia, as a Southern Baptist. He described his younger self as a hippie and college dropout who joined the Air Force, which is where he met missionaries and joined the LDS Church. After moving around with the Air Force and then living for a while in New York, he returned to the South. It was exciting to see all of the changes that had occurred since the Civil Rights movement occurred, he explained. Yet, he noticed that, in many places, there was still that separation—a “wall of partition,” he called it. So he started visiting black churches as part of his own quest to overcome that partition and he became very spiritually impressed (a common Mormon term for inspiration from the Holy Spirit) “that the Lord has a great work for us to do together.” Then he met Christina and after one of the African American cultural celebrations she confided in Lee that, as he remembered her statement (which he shared with her permission), “this is the only day I feel good as a black Latter-day Saint.” So, to remedy that sense of loneliness that she and presumably other black Latter-day Saints in the stake feel throughout the rest of the year, he proposed the organization of a support group—“so instead of once a year—once a month.”[1]

Thus, if the meetings are designed at least in part with white congregants in mind—to help them come to know more about African American culture and to be more comfortable around black people—they are also designed to help black members to feel more comfortable in a predominantly white church, and also to help them learn more about what for many of them is a newfound faith. It can be challenging to be one of only a few black members in a ward full of mostly white congregants. When Genesis Group founder Darius Grey asked his mother if she’d join LDS Church, she said, “Son, I’d feel like a fly in buttermilk—one dark speck in a sea of cream.”[2] Similarly, Mary Moore described her first day she attended a Mormon meeting: “When I looked in the church, I said ‘No way I’m going in that church!’ I didn’t see another black person in there!” To Christina, that is just something you have got to get used to and learn to deal with; but she understands why it can be difficult. “If you’ve primarily been raised in a black neighborhood, been around, in a black church and all this that and the other—yes, it’s gonna be kind of hard for you to come into a church like ours.” For Christina, however, this was not a major issue, she explains. Though she was born in west Baltimore, when she was nine she moved to a foster home in the east suburbs where she was raised by a highbrow, middle class African American family in a mostly white neighborhood. She attended schools where she might be one of two black students in the classroom. “I’ve always had more white friends than black friends,” Christina explained, “So I fit right in at church. [laughs] It never bothered me.”[3] This point might highlight a difference that has made Christina a more likely candidate for Mormon conversion and may point toward a possible demographic among African Americans that are more likely to convert, centering around the issue of how comfortable they are being in the vast minority in predominantly white settings (though congregations in places like Chicago and Atlanta may prove to be exceptions).

But Friends members expressed some ambivalence in terms of how included they feel and to what degree they feel they fit in Mormon worship services. Lydia Nduku, a recent convert who recently moved to the U.S. from Kenya, described Mormon meetings as “warm, …one big family. It makes you feel welcome. Whether you’re black, you’re white, you’re rich. Everyone is the same. And you can see the treatment, because they have open hands for you.” In comparison to other churches she attended in the triangle, where she did not feel at ease, she felt welcome and included when she attended her first Mormon meeting.[4] Yet, at the Friends meeting, Lydia emphasized that she feels more welcome there than in other church meetings. She felt more “fitted” there—more like she fit in—like a ring on your finger, or like a new shirt that fits just right. The Friends meetings, she said, feel more like her village in Africa. She gasped when Brother Lee Cook asked the group if we wanted to still keep meeting each month. “Oh yes! Was it going to stop? Are we thinking about not doing it?!”[5] She made it clear that the Friends meetings fulfilled something for her that other church gatherings, as inclusive as they may strive to be, just can’t quite provide.

Solidarity among black Mormons is thus, obviously, very important. Another place this seems to take place, actually within the three-hour “block” of Sunday worship services, at least in Chapel Hill 1st Ward, is in the Gospel Principles class. Gospel Principles is the introductory level Sunday School class for adults. It is the class new members and visitors who are investigating the church attend. It is perhaps telling, in regard to incorporation of black members into the church body as well as the newness of black conversion to the ward, that it is in this class that even seasoned African American ward members, such as Christina, feel more comfortable. “Sunday School is hard,” Christina explained, referring to the “Gospel Doctrine,” or more advanced, adult Sunday School. She commented on how intimidating it can be to make comments in a room full of people who grew up in the Mormon church—the “hard-core sisters,” as she calls them. She contrasts herself with them as someone who prefers to speak in “laymen’s terms.”[6] She related one incident when she made a comment that someone else followed up on by, as she saw it, restating the same thing in different language. So she went back to Gospel Principles, where she is more comfortable. Christina’s daughter Danny, who was baptized in January, is a co-teacher in the course, and the class is currently attended by four or five other African American sisters. One sister in particular often needs help with reading and gets embarrassed easily when she is called on to read in front of other class members. Christina, who knows these women and is sensitive to their needs, describes herself as the support system for these new black converts. Apparently one member feels Christina should be attending the higher level course, but the other co-teacher of Gospel Principles likes having her there to help him teach and so he asks her to stay. “Brother Bob can’t understand a black woman,” Christina states. So she goes to help him out.[7]

Support is thus a major focus in the Friends group. “It’s a support system to come together to kind of see where people’s at, and what their needs are.” Often that support comes in the form of helping new black members resolve concerns they have, which often involves past racist church policies coming back to haunt the present. “You know, the question of the priesthood,” Christina explained to me, “that’s one of the main things that has came up in a meeting. ‘Why, why, why?—Why it take so long?’” She also mentioned the priesthood issue in connection with the Utah-based Genesis Group. “The Genesis Group,” she explained, “I know it was started because of the priesthood, you know, where African American men in the church couldn’t receive the priesthood. So it was set up to be like, more or less, a support system.” The Genesis group, as their Web site explains, was organized in 1971, seven years before the priesthood restriction was lifted, as a means of providing better support for members of African descent.[8] (The Friends group was created as “what you’d call a spinoff from” the Genesis Group.[9])

But Christina suggests that the priesthood restriction has not been a major issue for her. She explains the issue using a term that a lot of Latter-day Saints use: timing. “Well, for revelation, we have to wait on God to give that person a revelation to, um, to…for the time, when the time is right, just like with anything else.” “That person,” in this case, was church president Spencer W. Kimball. The policy change is typically described as a “revelation” that President Kimball received and then presented to other church leaders and then to the church at large. The restriction policy has typically been interpreted by Mormons since then, as something both instituted and repealed by God, through revelation, for reasons humans do not fully understand. To earlier Mormons it was often explained in connection with a divine curse placed on the biblical figures Cain or Ham. Another explanation, rooted in a Mormon theology of a pre-mortal spiritual existence, suggested that those born on earth through African lineages were spirits who were disobedient in the pre-mortal existence and were, accordingly, given limited blessings in this life.

Both of these ideas are often described as lingering “folklore” that some African American Latter-day Saints and some allied white Mormons have worked against. An attempt at revisionist history has pointed out the fact that there is no documentary evidence that Joseph Smith ever recorded a revelation on the matter of priesthood restriction according to race, and, further, the records make clear that he ordained a black man, Elijah Abel, to the priesthood in 1836. According to this interpretation, the racial restriction crept into church policy by accretion and solidified during the presidency of Brigham Young and was never described, during this early period, as a revealed—and hence divinely instituted—policy or doctrine. Over time it was simply assumed to be a revealed doctrine of the church. Some Mormons have made a distinction between “doctrine” and “policy” in this instance, suggesting that if the latter is not rooted in the former, it may well be result not of divine decree but of human error. According to this line of reasoning, the 130(+ or -)-year priesthood restriction was a fatal flaw in the otherwise generally reliable (members hope) economy of revelation in LDS Church governance.[10]

However, while this is a line of interpretation that often is expressed by prominent black Mormons involved in the Genesis Group, such as charter member and current president Darius Gray, it is not one that is held by all black Mormons. Many may not be aware of it.[11] Christina’s comments were somewhat vague on the issue; her comments on timing may refer to a sense that times and attitudes change slowly. But her comment that “we have to wait on God” seems to place her interpretation in line with those of many other Mormons who assume it was both divinely instituted and revoked. “As far as the priesthood and when African American men got the priesthood,” she explained, “it was the time for them to get it, you know… Some people don’t understand it, and you try to explain it to them just with anything else. It’s—it’s a time for everything, you know.” The important element in the issue that she tried to get across to me was that fact that it does not bother her. When I asked her how that issue impacts African American women, she referred to one woman who has attended the Friends group whose husband won’t join because of that issue. But as far as the other members of the group, she explained, “that’s not something that we spend a lot of time on.” [12]

A far greater challenge to African American visitors or newcomers to the LDS Church, in Christina’s opinion, is the lack of gospel music. “The hardest thing, Stan, about African Americans coming into our church out of other churches,” Christina explained to me, “is the gospel part, the gospel singing part—the choirs. That’s the biggest hang-up [for] a lot of people that I’ve tried to…be a missionary to. That’s the first thing they ask, the first thing people ask when they come to our program: ‘You guys sing like this all the time?’ ‘No, we don’t [laughs].” Christina admits to moonlighting herself at other churches in order to get some good gospel singing in (though she is careful to assure me that Chapel Hill 1—her Mormon congregation—is her church), and she’s got a Youtube playlist she listens to while she does dishes or works around the house. But she has also managed to import some gospel singing into Mormon space. Training a white choir to sing gospel music for the African American celebration is something Christina seems to view as her greatest accomplishment. She describes it as “putting some spice” into the congregation. “Like I told ‘em in my first [laughs] testimony, I said, ‘I’m here to add some spice to y’all. Y’all the salt, I’m the pepper.’ And I’m looking out—wasn’t another black soul in there but me (Dushana was the only one). …And that’s what, you know, I’m trying to do. I have got Mormon people moving in sync with each other—you saw the choir; before, I’m like: ‘Just be still, just sing pretty.’ [laughs] Cause that’s part of my culture—gospel singing.”[13]

Incorporating gospel singing into Mormon worship services can be challenging, however. Mormons equate “reverence” in their meetings largely with passive, seated inaction and (attempted) audience silence (though one thing Christina mentioned that bothers many visitors is the noise of so many crying and fussing children in the meetings). The clapping, swaying, and audience response associated with black gospel singing are definitely not the standard mode of LDS worship. “Now we can’t sing like that in Sacrament,” Christina stated.[14] But the African American Celebration has provided a space where Christina can inject black gospel culture into Latter-day Saint space and get Mormons to sing and move to gospel music. But she is not content to remain there. “There are songs that we can sing—gospel songs that we can sing in sacrament, we just, you know—for some reason we haven’t learned any yet. But, umm, …I’m working on that too.”[15]

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[1] Field notes taken during Friends meeting, April 21, 2012.

[2] This quote is transcribed from an interview with Darius Gray and Margaret Young by RadioWest host Doug Fabrizio. For a link to a copy of the broadcast, see Davey Morrison, “ ‘Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons’ to air October 7th and 11th on KUER,” examiner.com, at http://www.examiner.com/article/nobody-knows-the-untold-story-of-black-mormons-to-air-october-7th-and-11th-on-kuer (accessed May 1, 2012).

[3] Stitt, Interview, April 12, 2012.

[4] Nduku, Interview, April 10, 2012.

[5] Lydia’s comments are taken from field notes I took during the meeting, which was held in the LDS chapel on Berini Drive (“the Berini building”) in Durham, on April 14, 2012.

[6] She reiterated this point at a later Friends meeting, commenting that it feels like you need a PhD to be in that class. During that meeting it seemed like “PhD” became a symbol signifying overeducated white Mormons after Brother Lee Cook referred to a conversation he had with a church leader who commented that one of the difficulties in promoting harmony in Durham wards is the typical disparity between education levels among many black versus white members. Christina picked right up on the term. “The PhDs, whatever, they should open their hearts to allow others in. PhDs should be left at the door when you enter the Lord’s house.” (Field notes, may 19, 2012)

[7] Stitt, Interview, April 19, 2012.

[8] The Genesis Group [Web page], http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/ (accessed April 26, 2012).

[9] Stitt. Interview, April 19, 2012.

[10] This interpretation, or something along these lines, is often synthesized from the work of Mormon historians and scholars such as Lester Bush, Newell Bringhurst, and Armand Mauss. See Bush and Mauss, Neither White nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984); and Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

[11] The priesthood restriction did not arise in my interview with Lydia Nduku, a recent convert who moved to the US from Kenya. When I asked her about any challenges she has faced in her conversion, I thought the restriction might come up, but it did not. In 2001 Barabara Copeland interviewed an African woman named Patience Dadzie who had converted to Mormonism in Ghana in the late 1980s and then immigrated to North Carolina in the 1990s. As Copeland explains, Dadzie “was never cognizant of issues of race within the Mormon Church until she moved to North Carolina.” Oral History Interview with Patience Dadzie, interviewed by Barbara Anne Copeland, October 21, 2001. Interview R-0156. Sothern Oral History Program Collection (#4007). University of North Carolina. Southern Historical Collection.

[12] Interview, April 19, 2012. Generally speaking, women outnumber men among African American Mormons. Such is definitely the case in the Durham stake. Based on personal observation, in 2012, Chapel Hill 1st Ward has one regularly attending African American man and five to six regularly attending African American women, not counting children. When I attended the Friends meeting on April 21, 2012, there were 3 adult black men and 8 adult black women in attendance.

[13] Interviews, April 12 and April 19, 2012.

[14] “Sacrament meeting” is the main Sunday worship service.

[15] Interview, April 12, 2012.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Current Events Gender Intellectual History Oral History Politics Race Reflective Posts


Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Stan. It’s great to hear about this in people’s own words. I loved reading the last part–I feel there is a lot more work we could do on Mormon music around the world.

    Comment by Saskia — February 24, 2016 @ 4:45 pm

  2. […] This is the third and final post in a series chronicling the experiences of the The Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. Part one and part two can be read here and here. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Black Mormons and Friends in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, Part III — February 25, 2016 @ 6:31 am


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