Church culture in process of embracing diversity

Dancers performing onstage to musical numbers as part of the “Be One” 40th Anniversary Celebration. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints say the celebration is an example of a recent trend towards a more racially inclusive attitude within the church. (Claire Gentry)

Andra Johnson was used to loud singing, hand-clapping, foot-stomping music about Jesus Christ and hugging his brothers and sisters. However, when he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 14, it was a little difficult to settle in.

According to Johnson, the professional culture of the church was drastically different from his Baptist background. Plus, he was one of a few black members in his new congregation. He got used to being one of a few and not seeing his own culture in the church.

That all changed for Johnson a few months ago during the church’s “Be One” 40th Anniversary Celebration. The event commemorated the 1978 lifting of the ban prohibiting members of African descent from holding the priesthood or participating in temple ordinances.

“We never thought we would see music from our own culture and heritage performed in the Conference Center,” Johnson said. “These past few months have been dreams that came true for us.”

Johnson said the experience was life-changing.

“It was literally one of the most spiritual days I have ever had in the Conference Center, and I’ve been to many general conferences,” Johnson said. “It was a very special time, and it brought healing to many black people. It literally saved lives. It saved people from leaving the church.”

The “Be One” celebration and similar events, such as the church’s partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), have signaled to Latter-day Saints and friends of the church that the church is moving into a new era: one that embraces a more inclusive and diverse definition of what it means to be a member of the church.

Despite what Johnson is calling progress, he agrees the church has a long way to go before the sting of racism is completely eradicated in the church and all feel comfortable and accepted.

Racism in the church isn’t always explicit. For Johnson, racism comes in more subtle forms, like not feeling represented in the church.

“We will always feel different when we feel like our voices aren’t being heard,” Johnson said. “Lots of times that’s a problem in the LDS church — as minorities, your voice isn’t heard often. It’s even worse when you don’t have someone in leadership to speak for you.”

Johnson pointed out that in the 40 years since the church lifted the ban, it has yet to call an African-American apostle.

“I pray hopefully one day the church will be ready to accept leaders of African descent and people of color in general,” Johnson said. “That excites me just thinking of a Zion that looks like the world.”

Recently, the church came a little bit closer to making Johnson’s dream a reality. The church recently called its first Asian-American and first Latin-American apostles: Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Elder Ulisses Soares, respectively. For members of color, this diversification in church leadership opened the door to a wider definition of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.

Ignacio Garcia, a Mexican member and BYU professor of Western and Latino history, said many Caucasian members simply didn’t grasp the importance of the “Be One” event.

“The white members say, ‘What is the big issue? God called him. He’s a good man. He can serve. Color has nothing to do with it,’” García said, speaking of the calling of Elder Gong and Elder Soares. “For people of color and immigrants, it has everything to do with it.”

García said the event was “liberating for so many people” because it allowed many members to see themselves in the church in a way they couldn’t before.

However, a racially diverse church leadership may be a far way off. According to information on the church’s website, 13 percent of the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are not American — a small number considering 58 percent of church membership is comprised of individuals outside of the United States.

Paul Reeve, a professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah and the author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” said he believes the disparity between membership demographics and those of church leadership is concerning.

“When the leadership is mainly composed of white men from the Wasatch Front, their experiences are very different and distinct from what it means to grow up in Africa or the Philippines — two of the church’s largest growing areas in the 21st century,” Reeve said.

According to Reeve, to fully embrace a more diverse identity, there needs to be a fundamental change in how Latter-day Saints view other members of the church.

“(We need to) step away from the notion that living Mormonism is looking like and thinking like someone who lives along the Wasatch front and recognizing that there is more than one way to be a Mormon,” Reeve said.

For some, that dream seems a long way off despite recent progress. Esperandieu Anofils, a Haitian member of the church who immigrated to the United States as a child, said he believes many American members of the church fail to realize the large international presence of the church.

“The average member is not ready to view the church as an international church,” Anofils said. “It’s difficult to imagine an African guy telling you what to do in Payson, Utah, as the mission president, but a mission president from Payson, Utah, can go to Nigeria and tell them what to do.”

García, who wrote the book “Chicano While Mormon: Activism, War, and Keeping the Faith,” said he has seen how preconceived notions can negatively affect minority members.

“When the stake wants to do something, the Latinos can sing, dance or cook,” García said. He said many members’ capabilities are beyond these simple tasks. They are lawyers and doctors, former bishops or mission presidents; they have more to offer. García said for many this becomes “a downer.”

“After a while, you want to be known for more than you can sing, dance and cook,” García said.

While García said he believes most white members don’t mean to be hurtful, minority members are still harmed by these cultural and racial misunderstandings.

“You realize it traps you into being whatever the perception is,” García said, adding that many members are left to deal with the struggle leaders have to overcome preexisting prejudices.

Despite these and other obstacles, García said he is hopeful.

“It’s just complicated and it’s silly to say it’s not complicated, but it’s workable. Especially when we have the same eternal goals,” García said. “We look at the same man as the prophet of God. The temple is a temple, regardless of who’s inside. Those things are the ones that need to guide us because there’s enough worldly things to divide us.”

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