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Black Mormons hope priesthood anniversary helps members 'Be One'

SALT LAKE CITY — The celebration began immediately.

Drivers blasted their car horns when they heard the news on the radio. At stop lights, they excitedly shared it with pedestrians. At home, families and roommates jumped up and down and screamed for joy. Friends called friends with the news and sobbed with joy.

But some black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints paused when they first heard on June 9, 1978, that the church had announced a revelation ending its racial restriction on priesthood and temple blessings.

"Please don't joke with me about something like that," a black woman told a man who shared the news.

He wasn't joking, and Friday the church's official website will livestream "Be One," a worldwide 40th anniversary event from the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. In fact, the dominant feature on lds.org since Tuesday has been a countdown clock ticking down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to this celebration of the revelation on the priesthood, which an increasing number of church members around the world refer to as a restoration.

Some have been using "restoration" to describe the revelation since the 1978 announcement because the first church president, Joseph Smith, allowed the ordination of at least a handful of black men to the priesthood from 1830 to 1844. In fact, the 1836 ordination certificate of Elijah Abel is on display now at the LDS Church History Library as part of its 40th anniversary commemoration.

Official essay

Still, the use of the term could be both sensitive and confusing for some because the LDS Church considers itself the restored church of Jesus Christ and declares that the priesthood was restored to earth in 1829 by heavenly visitors John the Baptist, Peter, James and John. But restoration as a descriptor for the 1978 revelation began to proliferate after the church released an official essay titled "Race and the Priesthood" on lds.org in 2013. The essay states that "there is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith's lifetime."

President Young didn't see ordaining black men to the priesthood as controversial or problematic at least as late as 1847, said Russell Stevenson, author of "For the Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013." In fact, President Young that year praised Walker Lewis, a black Mormon priesthood holder, saying of him, "We have one of the best Elders, an African."

Then in 1852, he announced to the Utah Territorial Legislature as it legalized slavery that, as the essay puts it, "men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood." Neither black men nor women would be allowed to receive temple blessings.

"Blacks had the priesthood before, through Joseph Smith, and it was restored through Spencer W. Kimball (in 1978)," said Tamu Smith, one of two black Mormon women who write, speak and tweet as the Sistas in Zion. "For me, and I've taught my children, it's a restoration, because God restored us."

Finding understanding

Church leaders have not used the term restoration that way, but they have clearly focused energy on issues of race. The official church magazine Ensign this month includes three articles about the revelation, which appears in LDS scripture as Official Declaration 2.

In one of the articles, a black college student in Utah wrote that she still experiences stereotyping and insensitive comments about her race. Kirstie Stanger-Weyland added that past speculation on why the restriction existed still affects the way some church members look at her.

"Occasionally some members still say really hurtful things about the faithfulness and capabilities (or lack thereof) of black members," even though the church's Race and the Priesthood essay explicitly disavowed such theories.

The magazine issue also quoted a statement made by Elder M. Russell Ballard, who since has become acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in the church's October 2017 general conference, when he called on all church members to eliminate any prejudice.

Tamu Smith said she wrote President Ballard a thank-you card for using the example of Jane Manning James, a black woman who was among the first Mormon pioneers to reach the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, in that talk as an example of one who built Zion there with blood, sweat and tears.

"I thought the Ensign was beautiful," Smith said. "They're speaking the right language."

On par and equal

In April, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson expressed similar ideas in Kenya.

"You folks are pioneers right here in Kenya," he told 2,000 church members, nearly all of them black. "You might not think of yourself as pioneers, but you're just as much pioneers now as Brigham Young and the Saints were, following the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith."

Such statements can help those who are black to feel like church leaders see African-American experiences in the church on par and equal to the experiences of the Mormon pioneers, Stevenson said.

Church leaders also posted a new essay titled "Healing the Wounds of Racism" in April. The essay is by Darius Gray, a black man who joined the church in 1964 and is a leader in the African-American LDS community.

"Racially insensitive comments and attitudes concerning persons of color have not all gone away yet," Gray wrote, adding that acknowledging problems still exist is the first step toward healing. Another, he said, is listening.

In May, Gray was overwhelmed as he watched President Nelson stand arm-in-arm with a leader of the NAACP at a press conference where the church's leader and the NAACP president jointly called for an end to prejudice and for greater racial and ethnic harmony.

"We're at a very important moment," Stevenson said. "We're in a space and a time when we can reconsider and rewrite our ethnic narrative."

Complex emotions

Feelings among black Latter-day Saints on the past priesthood restriction are complicated. Many African-American Mormons say they continue to experience racism in society and in church. Yet black Mormons in congregations in Africa say they haven't experienced racism at church. Chris Cooke, a 37-year-old London cop and counselor in the presidency of a south London LDS stake that boasts 120 nationalities, said he never has, either, though he was confused and disappointed when he learned about the past priesthood restriction after he joined the church as a teenager.

He said he has been persecuted on the job for being black and LDS. He believes the priesthood restriction largely was bigotry rooted in U.S. societal issues in the runup to the Civil War.

"My experiences have only been experiences of equality," Cooke said. "I'm grateful I've never experienced it. I don't know if people in other places in the world have experienced racism. It would be utterly disgusting if they did, because that doesn't represent the church. The church isn't a racist church, in spite of its history."

Sai Stephenson, 21, a single black woman and fine arts student at Goldsmiths College in London, is among those who describe the revelation as restoration. Both her parents are Amerindians descended from slaves. Her mother is half Chinese and a quarter Portuguese.

Now serving in the Hyde Park Stake Young Women presidency, Stephenson admires James and her parents for refusing to leave their beliefs while the church restricted them from priesthood and temple blessings. Fascinated by identity issues, she rejects the idea that becoming colorblind is a solution.

"That doesn't mean anything," she said. "Everyone is different, and that's not bad. Why would you want to erase that by saying we're all colorblind? We also have far more similarities than differences, and the more we learn, the more clear that is to all of us."

When questioned, members of the church in Kenya and Ghana said the vast majority of African blacks give little thought to the priesthood restriction, though the revelation ending it was also the beginning of the church in their countries.

That's not surprising, said Stevenson, a doctoral student in African history at Michigan State. The different reactions to the restriction today are rooted in major differences in the histories of Africa and the United States.

"It's all about sovereignty," said Stevenson, who has interviewed dozens of Nigerian church members in their tribal language. "In Africa, there is still an ongoing sense of identity, even with the history of colonization. They can say, 'I am of this tribe, and I still speak my tribal language. That's who I am.'"

Ongoing issues

The slave trade alienated American blacks from their identities. As families broke up, Stevenson said, children and grandchildren didn't know where they came from or who they were.

"In addition to that," he said, "you have a concert of legal, social, cultural and political structures laying on top of each other, like slavery, Jim Crow laws and stereotypes, all the things that make up the American racial experience, that are reinforcing that sense of alienation from self and are reinforcing that sense of inferiority. The priesthood ban becomes one more layer on top of 10 other layers. It becomes all part of the system for African-Americans. Because of that, the priesthood ban means something different in America than it does in Africa."

That is ongoing, American church members said.

Smith thought the lds.org countdown clock to "Be One" was "awesome" but was anxious the event would aid that healing, motivating church members to engage in Joseph's Smith's call for "a long pull, a strong pull and a pull all together."

"That's what I want my brothers and sisters to know," Tamu Smith said. "That if there is one person struggling, whether it's with race, whether it's sexuality, whether it's mental problems, whether it's loneliness, if one member is struggling the whole ward is struggling, because we're not at our healthiest."

Her hope is that "Be One" has a restorative effect.

"Jesus waited at the well for the Samaritan woman and connected with her," she said. "My job is to love and show love, to pour into others the love of Christ. That's what restores people."