The words Black, White, and Mormon are all important parts of my identity, they were also the title of a conference recently held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The conference attempted to create a platform for a critical conversation; the intersection of race and the LDS church.
Participants included renowned scholars Like Lester Bush, Black Mormon pioneers and spiritual leaders of the Black Mormon community Cathy Stokes and Darius Gray. Famous Mormons like Jermaine Sullivan (co-star of the film Meet the Mormons) and Tamu Smith (author and radio host), and a few of my close personal friends Tamu and LaShawn Schultz who have been sisters to me. An LDS general authority Elder Joseph Sitati of the first quorum of Seventy delivered a keynote speech on the Black international church. Elder Sitati is from Kenya, and based on his remarks is obviously more familiar with experiences of Africans in the church than those of the diaspora. Creating understanding between American and International members of the church is essential when conversations about race are taking place with a global church as a back drop.
While this conference was reminiscent of others such as Theology from the Margins: From the Borderlands Within (March 2015, Salt Lake City, UT), which also aimed to explore questions of race in the LDS church. The Black, White, & Mormon conference addressed issues such as, race in the inner city, the experience of black women in the church, the priesthood ban and other important issues related to race in the church. The conference came on the heels of LDS general conference where three new apostles were called and sustained. These top leadership positions were filled with three more White American men from Utah. To say that emotions are high right now in Mormon communities of color is and understatement; and thoughts and feelings on that topic were expressed.
In reference to a painting of a White Jesus surrounded by White angles seen in the Chicago Temple, Janan Graham-Russell said "This is how my fellow saints see the eternities...I felt that my brothers and sisters didn't see me not only on a cultural level but on a theological level."
People of color in the church feel unseen, unheard, and unrepresented in leadership and deity and having space to process that truth is critical. Presenters shared research and personal experiences, and still the micro-aggressions were abundant. Because of the system in which we are all force to operate, space in general is White and male; thus the fragility of oppressor is often present.
During the discussion of race at Brigham Young University (BYU- the churchs' flagship university) a White female professor stood up and asked why BYU should lower their standards for Black students who are not academically prepared to attend an "elite University" like BYU. Previous to her comment statistics on enrollment of Black students at the Nations leading universities (e.g. Harvard, Yale, Berkeley etc.) all of which had significantly more Black students than BYU. In a moment where offense was taken at her words and tone, panelist Maybelline McCoy a photojournalist from the DC area modeled grace. Earlier Maybelline spoke of the racism she faced as a student at BYU and how she is working to make it better for future generations. Maybelline showed the utmost love and patience as she metaphorically held her White sister and wrapped her in words of love and connection. She identified this professors privilege, and corrected her, all while loving her through the process. It was a beautiful moment. I have since heard that this professor was touched and apologized for her insensitive and inaccurate comment.
While that comment was lead and followed by others of a similar nature, much of the work is the in moment processing. The work is two fold, top down as well as bottom up, macro and micro, systemic and individual, it takes research and conversation. This conference modeled how the work of deconstructing the current system can look from an interdisciplinary, and multiaxial approach.
When we know better we do better, this conference taught and hopefully that will translate into action.