Two Decades After the Ban: My Experience in the Black Caribbean Church

During the period of the racial priesthood ban, missionary work was nonexistent in entire regions of the world. Obviously, no missionary work was done in much of sub-Saharan Africa — the major exception being South Africa, where missionary work was largely confined to British and Afrikaner groups. Yet the ban also froze the church out of areas much closer to the church’s U.S. home. The Caribbean, for example, was considered largely off-limits until after the ban. For most islands in the region, no missionary work was done, the church had no congregations, and indeed there were often no members whatsoever.

For example, the Dominican Republic — an island of at least some 9 million, although exact numbers are difficult to come by given the number of people without documentation — was evidently home to exactly zero Mormons until 1978. According to most accounts of the Dominican church, the first members were baptized in the United States in that year, one year after the end of the priesthood ban. The same year, the country was dedicated for missionary work. The first missionaries arrived the following year, and the Dominican Republic had its own mission starting in 1980.

Why were there no members whatsoever for such a long time in a country located a short plane flight away from the U.S.? The church’s racial policies are the one and only answer. According to the CIA World Factbook, the Dominican population is 11% black, 16% white, and 73% mixed. But as always with measures of racial and ethnic identity, these statistics merely cover over layers of complexity. Dominican national identity is defined in contrast to Haiti, the country by which the land that would become the Dominican Republic was governed — by military force — from 1821 to 1844. As a consequence, Dominicans often define themselves by the extent to which they have non-black ancestry, in contrast to the perception of Haitians as more “purely” black.

Mormon racial priorities during the pre-1978 period, by contrast, involved determining the extent to which an individual diverged from a conception of “pure” non-blackness. In the Mormon worldview, an individual who was known to have a single black ancestor was black and unable to receive the priesthood, hold leadership positions within the church, go to the temple, and so forth. Such an individual was therefore also not a target for missionary work. Given this racial frame, in which blackness can be acquired by having a single black ancestor, every one of the 73% of Dominicans of mixed racial status in the CIA’s reporting was black. So also were many or most of the 16% of Dominicans reported as white.

So a large majority of Dominicans were black, in the pre-1978 Mormon racial schema, and it was really hard to be confident about the whiteness, in Mormon terms of the era, of any Dominican at all. And so the church simply stayed away.

Since the day we mended our ways and reached out to the Dominican people, our church has grown substantially there — although the extent of growth is mired in the typical problems of measurement. Officially, there are roughly 100,000 Mormons in the Dominican Republic today, although the best estimate is that only about 20,000 are active at all. Even so, either figure represents truly remarkable growth from a starting point of zero less than thirty years ago.

I served a mission in the Dominican Republic shortly before the 20th anniversary of the revelation changing our racial policies. At that time, there were about 60,000 official members in the country, not to mention the emergent organizational and physical apparatus of the mature church: three missions, various stakes, a temple and missionary training center under construction, and the standard network of full-time church employees, buildings, satellite dishes, basketball courts, and so forth. In other words, the church had developed the standard Mormon material artifacts and was really sinking roots.

What were the legacies, some two decades later, of the priesthood ban in the Dominican Republic? The question requires multiple responses.

For missionaries from the U.S., the legacy of the ban was perhaps more pronounced than it should have been. As a personal example, I learned in the MTC that the Dominicans were largely black and not — as I had naively imagined — probable candidates for Lamanite status. To me at the time, this was something of a disappointment, because I had imagined that I would be involved in a literal gathering of Israel along the lines of traditional Mormon racial myth. I am now ashamed of that response, and I can no longer imagine any reason why God might see anyone as better in any way than a Dominican. Nevertheless, I did think along pre-1978 lines at the time, and several other missionaries told me that they had thought the same way.

Other conversations revealed perhaps deeper and more troubling legacies of the earlier racial policies. I heard several conversations among missionaries in which they speculated about reasons for the racial ban, suggesting for example that the ban had been designed so that the church could become strong enough to spiritually support people like the Dominicans. This line of thought implies that Dominican potential members are so inferior to members from Europe and North America that somehow the Dominican members impose a spiritual cost on their brothers and sisters — an idea that I can find no way of defending. Yet it was one legacy of the earlier priesthood ban and related policies, as was the application of similar reasoning to particularly difficult investigators: “he’s part of the reason these people didn’t used to get the priesthood, you know.”

In the mid-1990s, the church as an institution was still experiencing serious effects of the earlier priesthood ban, as well. The most obvious of these was an acute leadership shortage. Because of the very late start date for missionary work in the country, the church had no members with as much as 20 years in the church, and really quite few with even 10 years of membership experience. Nonetheless, each unit needed a bishopric or branch presidency, a Relief Society presidency and teaching corps, a Sunday School, a Primary, and so forth. This institutional burden often weighed quite heavily on the handful of established members in a given ward or branch. In one branch where I served, the branch president talked in Sacrament Meeting every week, taught Sunday School, and ran the Elder’s Quorum because the entire Quorum presidency had gone inactive. His wife taught the youth Sunday School and ran the Relief Society. His 18-year-old daughter ran the Primary. I’ve often wondered how this family had the time to do anything other than church work.

The heroic sacrifices of these committed members simply could not rectify all the institutional weaknesses the church suffered due to a lack of established members — and therefore, in the end, due to the priesthood ban. One or two active priesthood holders cannot hope to fully implement the home teaching program, so the program was rarely in effect. One or a handful of established families cannot realistically fellowship the torrent of new members that the missionaries baptized into their units, so new members frequently went inactive before anyone other than the missionaries and the bishop or branch president really even knew their names.

Even so, it is worth emphasizing that the institutional legacies of the priesthood ban in effect contain their own sunset clause. The church in the Dominican Republic now has a handful of members with nearly 30-year histories in the church, not to mention a fair number of people with 20 years of experience. In all probability, the burdens of leadership are no longer as heavily concentrated in only a few hands, and the church is functioning at a level somewhat closer to full efficiency. Soon, at least a modest number of second-generation Mormons will be available for leadership positions. In a generation, this legacy of institutional weakness will likely be a matter for the history books.

Finally, and most optimistically, we may consider the legacy of the priesthood ban and related policies and doctrines on the beliefs and self-perceptions of the mass of members in the Dominican Republic. From what I could see and hear during my time as a missionary, this legacy was nearly nonexistent. I never heard a single member talk about the ban, and I never had a single investigator raise it as a pre-baptismal concern.

This lack of a prominent discourse about the ban may have at least two meanings. First, the ban may be irrelevant to Dominicans, for a variety of reasons. The ban predates the church in the country, so, really, no Dominicans were ever personally denied priesthood ordination or temple ordinances. The racial worldview behind the ban is so different from the racial frames current in the Dominican Republic that the ban may seem too foreign to take seriously. Or the policy might simply seem like ancient and irrelevant history.

Second, the ban may be a pending issue with the potential to seriously disrupt the Dominican church in the future. Perhaps there is no discourse about the policy because few people know about it, and the few members who do have not yet resolved their views on the subject. On this account, Mormon racial history may be something of a metaphorical powderkeg sealed in the foundations of the Santo Domingo temple.

I hope and pray that some form of the first version is correct. During my mission in this island of the black Caribbean, I met women and men of true faith, people living in desperate poverty who nonetheless were willing to make breathtaking sacrifices to join our church. I hope that these people have had the profound Christian charity to forgive us, to simply overlook our racial past and call us their brothers and sisters. And I pray that we, as a global body of Christ, may become more worthy of such an honor.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this account, J.

  2. Amen. Experience trumps philosophical speculation every time.

  3. JNS: My Dad is leaving in September to go on a mission there. He will serve as legal counsel to the area president. I will pass this along to him. Thanks.

  4. My parents-in-law served a mission at the temple a few years ago. They loved it, but it also opened their eyes. This is crossing threads a bit, but their experience at the temple speak volumes about the issue of rapid growth and lack of BIC leadership.

  5. Ray, indeed — if it hadn’t been for the priesthood ban, the Dominican church may have had the much-better-established leadership of other areas of Latin America such as Mexico, Chile, or Brazil.

  6. As the son of a government official, I spent a year living on the other side of Hispaniola from ’90-’91. The situation in Haiti is obviously very similar to the DR, although the whole country was excluded from missionary work under the priesthood ban because — as you mention — Haitians are “purely” black.

    Because no members there were baptized prior to 1978, the issue didn’t seem like that big of a deal to the members I interacted with, although perhaps my perceptions would change if I were there now rather than as a 12 year old. To be honest, I don’t really know the extent to which many of the members knew of the ban, or harbored any strong feelings either way. Those who did know about the ban must have been able to reconcile it in their minds in one way or another, as they were obviously active members. Perhaps it’s a minor blessing of being too poor to find time to intellectualize the subject.

    The effects were still lingering a dozen years later when I lived there, especially in terms of leadership. However, there’s a caveat. It’s difficult to distinguish whether the cause of the leadership deficit was a direct result of the ban, or simply part of the growing pains that come when the Church is in its infancy anywhere, much less in a place as poverty-stricken and politically unstable as Haiti. My mission to Lithuania certainly revealed similar leadership struggles, but often for very different reasons. I don’t know where to draw the line on any analysis of the effects of the ban on the Church in Haiti. There are many competing factors at work.

    I am certain of one thing, though. Had the ban been removed earlier, the Church in Haiti would have been more established and probably far stronger. The Saints who were there were beautiful people, and my experiences there led to my first serious doubts at the ‘inspiration’ behind the priesthood ban. After all, when I turned 12 I received the Aaronic Priesthood at the hands of my father and our home teacher — a ‘pure’ black Haitian. Every time the accusation of racism is hurled at the Church, I remind myself of that.

  7. JNS,

    I served in South Africa 1993-1995. I heard a great story or two about having to prove all your ancestors off the continent prior to ordination prior to 1978

    I only heard once from a investigator about the ban.

    The non white members were used to religious discrimination by white churches and seemed shocked by the mixed race congregations they encountered.

    It seemed like a non-issue to me at the time.

  8. “The non white members were used to religious discrimination by white churches and seemed shocked by the mixed race congregations they encountered.”

    bbell, that, in a nutshell, was my experience in the American Deep South those exact same years. We were one of the only truly integrated churches in the area where I lived. Truly ironic, and truly inspiring given our history.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    JNS,

    Great post.

    How much do you know about the Church in Haiti? I’m actually heading down there for a week on June 15. Would be interested in picking your brain about the place via email.

    Aaron B

  10. John Williams says:

    Nice post.

    Fun fact: Hispaniola is the only island in the world with two countries on it. (If I’m not mistaken).

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Well, St. Maarten (Dutch) and St. Martin (French) share their island, John. But neither is its own “country,” so maybe that doesn’t count.

    Also, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei all share Borneo, John. And Timor-Leste and Indonesia share Timor. And Chile and Argentina share Tierra del Fuego. And the Greeks Cypriots and Turk Cypriots are, for all practical purposes, two different countries.

    But I guess Hispaniola is the only island shared by two countries that basically don’t have any territory other than the main island.

    My apologies for being such a nerd.

    Aaron B

  12. John Williams says:

    Okay, Aaron Brown, you nailed me on that one.

    Maybe what I was recalling was that Haiti and the Domincan Republic are the only two complete countries that are found on one island, like you said.

  13. JNS,

    I had a son serve in the DR during the same time frame. Drop me an email, I’d like to see if you overlapped.

    He loved the DR, but also struggled with the lack of leadership, but has never I think linked it to the ban. However, he may just not have ever brought it up before.

  14. Ouch. I think you just got spanked JW.

  15. JNS,

    Very interesting post — thank you.

    BBell,

    Hmm. According to the Prince bio, David O. McKay officially did away with that requirement in the late 1950s. Were your interlocutors older people who were around for the older policy? Or were their stories more recent (60’s and 70’s), indicating that perhaps the official change of the 50’s didn’t make it all the way down to the grass roots level in some cases? (Which wouldn’t really surprise me).

  16. Which mission were you in? I was in the west mission from 95-97

  17. Dan, yep, me too.

  18. Missions from 95-97? Stop it, guys. I wasn’t feeling old until now.

  19. a random John says:

    During my mission in Brazil members rarely mentioned the ban. I do remember a branch president that was a long-time member speaking once about “a epoca do racismo” which translates to “the era of racism”. I thought that was a blunt but honest way to categorize it.

  20. JNS, Dan,
    You guys might know my cousin (Elder Jeff Nelson) or guys from my MTC district (Elder Holbrook, Redd, Gormley, Zirker…I can’t remember the others).

  21. Thanks for the post J. N-S. You trace the current state of development of the church in the Dominican Republic to the late start of the work there, which in turn is due to priesthood ban being lifted only 29 years ago. I would note though that it’s late start isn’t all that late. Preaching in most Latin American countries began in the 1950s and 1960s. Only Mexico, Argentina and Brazil (big exceptions I’ll admit) had missionaries or branches before World War II. Perhaps as is suggested here, absent the priesthood ban, the proximity of the Caribbean would have led to the Dominican Republic having its first branch before Chile did in 1956 or Ecuador did in 1965. Perhaps not; it may have still waited as the gospel was rolled out in stages elsewhere first.

  22. K,

    The stories were from the 1950’s if I remember right. One brother who later served as a mission President in Colorado told me that his father was denied ordination to the M priesthood in the 50’s due to not having documentation on his ancestory and served as a BP as a Deacon. They had compromised and said no MP but hey we need a BP so lets make you a deacon.

    If you told a black or mixed race South African about the ban they would ask….

    Is it over now? 1978? Oh that is early.

    Every church historically in SA was segregated. There were even hundreds of congregations of black Dutch Reformed. The Dutch Reformed in SA were the architects of Apartheid.

  23. John Mansfield, yes — perhaps there would have been only a 10-15 year difference. On the other hand, that difference would have made a real difference. Missionary work in the Dominican Republic and other predominantly black areas started at almost exactly the same time that the giant missionary push was beginning. The result was that these areas lacked the ten or more years of gradual, pre-deluge-of-missionaries-and-converts development that other areas have had. Activity and retention rates are systematically lower in predominantly black nations of the western hemisphere than the rest of Latin America; I have to imagine that this timing issue — a direct product of the ban — is of some relevance here.

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