Saturday, June 11, 2011

8883: Life’s A Picnic For Black Mormons.

From The New York Times…

At Picnic for Black Mormons, No Sign of Church’s Biased Past

By Mark Oppenheimer

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — On Christmas Day in 1964, the day before Darius A. Gray was to be baptized as a Mormon, he learned that the church would not allow a black man, like him, to be in the priesthood.

“I was not amused,” Mr. Gray recalled with a rueful smile.

It was last Saturday, and we were sitting with about 300 other Mormons, including dozens of children, at the annual picnic of the Genesis Group, a social organization for black Mormons and their friends. Some were Latino or American Indian, and nearly half were white, the parents and siblings of adopted black children. It was the most racially integrated church event I had ever attended.

Having been introduced to Mormonism by kindly white neighbors in his hometown of Colorado Springs, the teenage Darius read his way through much of the scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had no idea about the racist church policy. His newfound faith was badly shaken.

“I went home and prayed,” Mr. Gray said. “And I received a personal revelation, an inspiration from God: ‘This is the restored Gospel, and you are to join.’ So the next day, I entered into the waters of baptism. Then the next day I went to church as a member for the first time.” And a little girl addressed him using a certain racial epithet. That was a first, too.

“I am not unaware,” continued Mr. Gray, a bearded man with the smooth baritone of the television journalist he used to be, “of the bigotries and biases of people in this country, and in this church. But I have a counter to that, which is the assurance from God that this is the restored gospel.”

By “restored” Mr. Gray was referring to the belief that Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon completed the message of Old and New Testaments in 1830. Since that time, Mormonism has grown to more than 14 million members, according to the church, including many Africans converted by missionaries. But it was only in 1978 that the church opened up the priesthood to “all worthy male members,” no matter their race.

The Genesis Group was chartered by church leaders in 1971, and it is one of several organizations for black Mormons and their friends. Mr. Gray said he knew of other groups in California and Ohio. The Genesis Group’s picnic in a Salt Lake City suburb is a small correction to the stereotype, largely accurate, of American Mormonism as lily-white.

The church says it does not keep records of membership by race.

A happy tangle of young children played in the park’s playground — short Afros, cornrows, fine blond hair — taking breaks to eat hot dogs and hamburgers and drink lemonade, but not caffeinated soda, this being a Mormon event. I hung back with the parents, listening to their stories.

A tall man wearing rainbow suspenders told me he likes the Genesis Group even though he is white and has no children. “They’re just friendly,” said the man, Wayne Richardson. “So I come to help. I help set up the food.” He said that when he was a missionary in Alabama in 1975, he was not allowed to baptize a black maid.

“They would not allow it,” Mr. Richardson said. “She wanted to learn the church teachings, and we were told not to. We were there to work with the rich whites.” Mr. Richardson could not remember who had forbidden him to baptize the woman, but he said the message had been clear.

Jerri A. Harwell, who is married to the president of the Genesis Group, said the singers Donny and Marie Osmond, famous Mormons, first made her curious about the religion. As Ms. Harwell recalls, it was 1976, and she was away at college and eager for mail.

“I was watching ‘The Family and Other Living Things,’ ” a Mormon-produced television show in which the Osmonds appeared. “They said at the end of the program, ‘Would you like more information?’ I thought, Oh, I can get some mail.” Ms. Harwell received a mailing about Mormonism, then sent back a reply card requesting further information. Within days, two male missionaries turned up at her door.

“They didn’t know I was black,” she said. “The missionaries were taken aback, asked me, ‘Do you really want to be taught?’ I thought that was odd. It was only later I learned they weren’t supposed to proselytize among blacks.”

Ms. Harwell studied with them for months and was baptized in 1977, less than a year before the church lifted its ban on blacks in the priesthood. In 1980, she became one of the first African-American women to be a Mormon missionary, serving in Houston. She now teaches at a community college and performs a one-woman show about Jane Manning James, a black Mormon pioneer who helped settle Utah in the 1840s.

Max Perry Mueller, who is writing a dissertation at Harvard on African-Americans and the Mormon church, and who attended the Genesis Group picnic last year, says that the church has “made a very sincere effort” to welcome blacks, but that so far few American-born blacks have joined the church. Mr. Mueller also said that “the idea that Mormons” were until recently “exceptionally exclusionary or racist is probably unfair.” While no other large, predominantly white church barred blacks from the clergy in the 1970s, none was particularly integrated or had notable black leaders, either.

But history was not on anybody’s agenda at the cookout.

I met a white man who had just adopted his eighth child, a black infant named Henry.

I met Sergio Orozco, a half-Hispanic and half-American Indian from New Mexico, who said “for a Native American, being Mormon is great.”

“The Book of Mormon teaches that the ancient inhabitants of American came from Jerusalem,” he said. “So being L.D.S.” — Latter-day Saint — “is close to our roots.”

And I met a former Southern Baptist preacher, a white man with a real Dixie accent, who became a Mormon after moving to Utah. I asked him how that happened, and he said, “I got lucky!”

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