Melodie Jackson’s activism has always been rooted in her faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and a desire to do her part in the Church.
“If you study Black liberation in America, you will find that a lot of it is rooted in Christ, it’s rooted in Christianity,” she said. “My activism is rooted in my Savior — a man of color who was lynched with his hands up.”
Jackson grew up in Mississippi but moved to Utah when she was 18 to study at BYU. She called her time at BYU “the initiation of me realizing I was Black in the LDS world,” even though she’s been a member since she was a child.
Her next realization regarding race and the Church came as she was serving a mission in Rio de Janeiro. It was there that she saw multiple Black priesthood leaders, a sight she had never seen back home. She says the realization that Black men could also be priesthood leaders coupled with learning about the Church’s history with racism sparked her activism.
Working to create change
Jackson, who will be starting a Ph.D. focusing on the experience of Afro-Brazilians in the Church this fall, recently started a Facebook page titled “Black Lives Matter to Christ.” The page is meant to be “sacred space” for Black members of the Church to share their experiences and build a community as well as a hub for different activities like a Juneteenth fireside that was streamed live on the page.
“When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ that means all Black lives, no matter in what area they may be. And because there are Black people in the Church, that means that Black lives matter in the Church,” she said.
One of the first steps to doing that will be reckoning with the Church’s history with racism, according to Jackson. She said to do this, members need to allow themselves to view Church leaders as fallible individuals whose choices didn’t always align with God’s will.
“We have to allow ourselves that complexity and that space to know that these leaders were human,” Jackson said.
She also hopes white members will start searching for ways to help include their Black brothers and sisters and to help make a change instead of relying on Black members to tell them what to do.
“We’re just so tired of having this conversation and having to create these spaces because there aren’t safe spaces in our wards, in our Relief Societies, in our sacrament meetings,” Jackson said.
Navirlene Amoa-Ohenakwah, a Black member living in Orem, Utah, agrees. She encouraged white members to look inward and see how they can improve and root out racism in themselves and to keep serving their black neighbors when everything dies down.
“Don’t bring me cookies or food to my door if you are not correcting these things that are happening,” she said at the Juneteenth fireside.
Taran Trinnaman is a member of the Church currently residing in Florida. Jackson credited him with helping come up with the name of the Facebook page Black Lives Matter to Christ. “It’s a hashtag right now and a Facebook page, but I’m hoping it will grow to be more,” Trinnaman said during the fireside.
He said while the gospel is pure and can’t be corrupted, there are cultural aspects, “the things that are taught that aren’t part of the gospel, the way members behave,” that are negative and need to change.
Dancer and women’s health advocate Cheryl Neufville-Etiang believes it’s important to not try to separate the Black Lives Matter movement from religion. “That’s not how Black people live — Black lives matter is everywhere for us,” she said. “Our minds and bodies matter in every space.”
Wrestling with the past
Neufville-Etiange originally became involved with the movement in 2016 and is now using her voice to speak about issues pertaining to Black members in the Church. As conversations about race start happening in religious spaces, she hopes to see change — from basic things like accepting Black hairstyles as worthy and appropriate for missionaries to bigger actions like other members and leaders to the Church acknowledging past racist teachings and their origins, like the priesthood ban.
“Unfortunately, retracting it and saying ‘Oh, just kidding’ isn’t enough because we’ve learned this, we’ve passed it down to our children,” she said.
For Caleb Joubert, those teachings are something he still has to deal with.
“Every Black member in the Church comes to a crossroad where they get confronted by this,” Joubert said during the fireside. “They have to decide between whether they want to leave the Church or whether they want to hold on,” to their testimony of things that are true.
Jairo Carvalho, a Black member from Brazil who grew up in the UK said many people in the Church grow up learning that the Church escaped the aftermath of slavery and other racist systems and policies. He said he’s had various conversations with other members who perform “mental acrobatics” to justify or explain historical and scriptural racism within the Church.
“But that’s not true,” Carvalho said in the fireside. “Many times I’ve been in Church and I’ve been taught false doctrines regarding darker skins and people of African descent. Because at some point those false doctrines were the official stance that the Church had on those topics. There is no reason; there is no justification for racism.”
Joubert and Neufville-Etiange hope to see change, though. “This time feels different,” Neufville-Etiange said.
One of those changes could be more representation of people of color in religious art. BYU graduate and artist Melissa Kamba has made it a personal goal to uplift and empower people through her art by normalizing equal representation — something she never saw growing up in the Church.
“It’s hard to feel like you belong in a place that doesn’t represent you in its narrative. It’s said with words but not with imagery,” she said during the fireside. “For a worldwide religion, we need to be better at having images that look like everyone on our walls.”
She remembers as a kid being told things like when she went to heaven, she would turn white. “I believed that and I thought that was okay and I internalized that because all the images around me were of Eurocentric figures — so obviously if God is European the people on earth who look like him have to be closer to God,” she said.
She’s breaking this sterotype by creating works of art that depict people of color in religous narratives, such as her painting “Eve” that depicts Eve as a Black woman.
One thing she said people can work towards is acknowledging that popular depictions of Christ and God are the renditions of those artists rather than factual representations. She also encourages individuals to contribute to making diverse imagery the norm by using different images in Church lessons or in their homes.
“I had to unlearn a lot of things that were taught to me and I don’t want the next generation of children to have to unlearn false doctrine and biases about Africans and people of color,” Kamba said.