We’re pleased to present the following series of posts from Stan Thayne, PhD candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founding editor of the Juvenile Instructor. The posts, which trace the little-known history and significance of the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent support group in Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is longer than our usual offerings, but is well worth the time. It will be published serially over the next three days. –admin
When Christina Stitt moved into the Chapel Hill 1st Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2005, she and her grand-daughter Dushana doubled the number of African Americans in the congregation. There were only two other black members at the time, as Christina remembers it: Brother and Sister John and Mary Moore. They didn’t get to know each other right off, Christina and the Moores. Perhaps both overly conscious of the blackness that should supposedly connect them in this sea of whiteness, they were both a little stand-offish toward each other at first, as Stitt recalls. But after Christina sang a gospel piece during sacrament services, Sister Mary Moore approached her and expressed her desire for a program in the church celebrating African American culture. “She planted a seed in me,” Christina told me during one of my interviews with her. “But me, when you say something that really hits my heart, I try to get it done. And that’s what I did. I went to the bishop and I asked him, and he thought it was a good idea too. So that’s where it started.” In February 2006 the Durham Stake hosted the first African American Night of Celebration at the LDS stake center on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Chapel Hill. It has since become an annual event held every February during black history month.
Three years later, after the third annual African American celebration, Christina was approached by a white brother (Mormons typically refer to each other as brother and sister) named Lee Cook with the idea of organizing a support group for black Mormons to help them feel more comfortable and to create a forum for discussing some of the challenges of being black in a predominantly white church. This idea took a little bit longer to germinate. He raised the issue again a year later at the next celebration. Though both were busy with other things, Lee persisted to raise the idea with Christina from time to time. Finally in spring of 2011, the Friends of Latter-day Saints of African Descent (hereafter referred to as Friends) was organized for the purpose of providing, as their Facebook page explains, “a multiracial, monthly forum, for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints of African descent, and those who are sensitive to African American culture and history, to listen and to express ideas, frustrations, and cultural challenges, to promote new bonds of goodwill, friendship, appreciation, build our personal testimonies, love and support, and grow intertwined, in Faith, Hope, and the Charity of Jesus Christ.” They have met almost every month since.
This paper is about the organization of these two intertwined organizations in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It is based on oral interviews with African American members of the Chapel Hill 1st Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (primarily on my interviews with Christina Stitt), and on ethnographic observations and interactions in conjunction with some of these monthly meetings and the annual African American cultural celebrations. It is thus also, inescapably, a paper about me as well, as an ethnographer and historian and a former member of Chapel Hill 1 who became involved in these organizations and in these individual’s lives. It is a paper about black Mormons and white Mormons who call each other brothers and sisters and regard each other as family. But it is also a story about a family that cannot escape its own history. It is a story about a few who have chosen to confront that history and to make history in the process.
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I didn’t know many African American people growing up in Utah. I recall a time in high school when I was talking to a group of friends at a party and a friend remarked that he had never talked to a black person. Another person in the circle couldn’t stop laughing until he realized that he hadn’t either. Most of us hadn’t. I don’t know that I was even aware my church had had a priesthood restriction against members of African descent until I was nineteen years old and serving as a missionary–when I actually interacted with African Americans for the first time in my life. This lack of exposure to diversity in my own background was one factor that made moving to the American South for graduate school very appealing to me. As a new father, I became concerned about the racial milieu my children would be raised in. This was driven home to me when my partner Becca came home one day and told me, only half-jokingly, that our one-year son was racist. He had apparently seen an African co-worker of Becca’s and began crying, apparently startled by the unexpected difference. I hoped that after a few years in the South, he would be accustomed to diversity.
Little did I know then that it was with folks like me in mind that sisters Christina Stitt and Mary Moore organized their annual celebration of African American culture and, later, the monthly Friends meetings. Utah seems to have become a symbolic referent in Christina’s lexicon signifying ignorance of black culture among some Latter-day Saints. “They should have a class,” Christina suggested, for the purpose of exposing white Latter-day Saints to black culture–“especially the ones straight up out of Utah.” And that is precisely one of the main goals of both the African American celebration and the Friends meetings. This point was reiterated by Sister Mary Moore at a Friends meeting held recently. “The purpose of these meetings,” Sister Moore explained, “is not to bash or make anyone uncomfortable, but the main thing is to get all the cultures together, in better company with each other, because, for example, a lot of people in the church come here from Utah and I know there are not a lot of African American people in Utah.” Several people in the circle (including several white members from Utah) laughed at her comment about Utah’s lack of diversity, and she quickly qualified her statement, “I’m not trying to be rude–that’s just how it is. They don’t know how to communicate with African American people.” That’s the purpose of the meetings. To open up dialogue and to learn to communicate. To provide, as another Friends group member put it, “exposure.”
Christina seems to have a similar objective with the annual African American celebration. On this point, Christina’s approach to the celebration seems to have differed slightly from that of her bishop and ward council (in 2012) who approached it from a missionary perspective, viewing it as an opportunity to bring community members in–particularly African Americans–and introduce them to the church. They thus wanted to publicize it as much as possible. To Christina, however, this emphasis on numbers seemed to miss the point she had in mind when she organized the event. It was primarily with white members in mind that Christina organized the event. “I wanted to start the program to share my culture with my brothers and sisters. To love me is to know me, and, you know, to be part of my culture. We are different. But yet, we’re all for the same purpose, which is heavenly father, and living the way we’re supposed to, to be able to go and be able to live with him… However, till we get there, we need to learn about each other’s cultures. I love learning about my brothers’ and sisters’ ways, you know.”
To Christina, the event wasn’t so much about bringing people in from outside as it was about bringing about change within. In Mormon terms, it is not so much about proclaiming the gospel to others as it is about perfecting the Saints already there. To use a term that I’ve heard black members of the Friends group use a number of times, it is about “exposure.” At the Friends meeting I was struck by how black members really did not want to label any of the interactions they have had with their white brothers and sisters as racism or prejudice. Rather, they choose to view whatever challenges they have faced as the result of ignorance and a lack of exposure to African Americans and black culture. “To be able to understand me, you got to know a little about me,” Christina insists. “I can’t say I understand you, ’cause I’ve never walked in your shoes. But yet, to offer me to come into a church and be baptized in the church, you gotta know a little bit about me too.” “To love me is to know me,” Christina insists, “and to be a part of my culture.” “You say you love us,” Christina said in another context, “come get to know our culture.”
 Field notes taken during Friends meeting, April 21, 2012.
 Field notes from Friends meeting, May 18, 2012, LDS Berini Chapel, Durham, NC.
 From my field notes taken during the Friends meeting, April 21, 2012: “Christina: don’t think it’s prejudice[;] group nods, uh-huhs[;] Bro Collins it’s exposure[;] people [group] uncomfortable[;] not used to it; their raising; where they were raised; Bro Collins problem we have in the nation / we don’t dialogue need to have dialogue[.]” The only one who seemed to be comfortable with identifying actions as racism was a white brother, Lee Cook, who said there is still racism in the church because we are Americans.
 Stitt, Interview, April 12, 2012.
 Stitt, Interview, April 19, 2012.
 Field notes taken during Friends meeting, April 21, 2012.