The year was 2003. The place was Southern California. It was a pleasant Summer Sunday, and the wife and I were attending our weekly church meetings. On this particular morning, we elected to sit closer to the pulpit than usual, planting ourselves right in front of the Bishop, but a few rows back. As the meeting began, I chatted with the wife, made faces at the child sitting in front of me and doodled on the hymnal. Pretty standard, forgettable stuff.
My calling in the ward was Ward Mission Leader. In that capacity, I did my best to help the missionaries shepherd their investigators towards the waters of baptism, and hopefully, toward full fellowship in a community of saints that would support them in their trials and tribulations, and help them navigate the doctrine and culture of Mormonism. Perhaps my calling made me extra sensitive to what was said in our meetings, and how it was said. There was always a risk, particularly the first Sunday of every month, that somebody would say something freakishly weird, and then I or the missionaries would have to do damage control (while wishing we’d waited a week to invite our investigators to church). But most of the time, the talks and testimonies were heartfelt and meaningful, and at worst only boring or slightly odd. Nothing to be embarrassed about for the most part.
On this particular Sunday, Fast and Testimony meeting began as it always did, with several ward members arising and approaching the pulpit to speak to the congregation. Others soon followed, and none of the testimonies were particularly notable or memorable. But about 15 minutes before the meeting’s end, an elderly Korean woman in my ward took the stand to bear her testimony. “Sister Soh” was a regular fixture at our testimony meetings, so her presence at the pulpit was no surprise. She got up to speak virtually every month, and she always talked about some pointless, trivial recent experience in her life that contained enough sordid details to make half the ward uncomfortable. However, she also had a thick Korean accent that was difficult to understand. If you made a conscious effort to try to decipher her ramblings, there was either no payoff or you found yourself offended, so most members decided that it wasn’t worth the effort.
Sister Soh’s testimony started off no different that usual. I was, as always, ignoring her ramblings, thinking about what I’d soon be having for lunch. But after a few minutes, I couldn’t help but notice the ever-increasing volume and strident tone of the Sister’s testimony. Strange as she was, she didn’t usually seem this belligerent. So I broke with my usual habit of tuning her out and decided to actually pay attention.
I started to get this queasy feeling in my stomach. (Have you ever had a premonition that something really bad was going to happen right before it did?) And then it happened: Smack dab in the middle of her “testimony,” Sister Soh blurted out the “N-word.” Once. Then twice. Then three times. Then again. And again. And again. I think I lost count at about 17. I was in shock. Given my calling, and given that ours was a very ethnically diverse ward with a number of African-American members and regular African-American investigators, I quickly scanned the chapel, hoping and praying there were none that day. Everyone in the congregation had mortified looks on their faces, but there were no Black people in Church. Thank God (literally).
But it gets worse. It wasn’t just that Sister Soh was using the “N-word.” It was the context in which she was using it. She was telling a story about a recent ride on a public bus, during which she had an altercation with another (presumably Black) passenger. They got into a heated argument about whether or not it was O.K. to use the “N-word.” She maintained that it was. He thought otherwise. He became irate at her insistence that such language was appropriate. She became even more incensed as she zealously defended her word-choice. In short, we didn’t just have to hear the N-word over and over again from the pulpit as part of some incoherent racial tirade; we were treated to an actual sermon about “Why it’s O.K. to Use the N-word,” even when talking to African-Americans.
Why didn’t the Bishop immediately get up and put a stop to it? How could he possibly have allowed this to continue? It’s an easy question to ask in hindsight. But at the time, I think I understand what he was thinking: Once the “n-word” (or any word, for that matter) is uttered, it’s a thing of the past. What’s done is done. Getting up and removing the speaker from the pulpit isn’t going to undo the damage. It’s just going to make even more of a scene. I suspect the Bishop was probably hoping and praying that she’d just stop of her own accord. Each successive racial epithet made that decision regrettable, but it didn’t necessarily change his calculus on a going-forward basis. I mean, she had to stop sometime, right?
But Sister Soh just wouldn’t stop. She was the White (er… Korean) Supremacist Energizer Bunny. She kept going and going and going and going and going. Finally, the Bishop couldn’t take it anymore. He approached the stand, leaned over into her ear, and asked her to finish her testimony immediately. She turned her head toward him and from where we were sitting, the wife and I could plainly see a big, cheesy grin on her face that seemed to say “I have no idea what you’re saying to me cause I’m from another planet!” She ignored the Bishop and kept on talking. She managed to let fly a couple more n-words. The Bishop arose a second time and asked her forcefully to finish up and take her seat. The Sister then briefly wound up her remarks without further incident, and sat down.
Everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. At least it was over. And there were only 3 or 4 minutes remaining in the meeting. But two other members of the ward had meanwhile placed themselves on the stand to bear their testimonies: An elderly white gentelman, and a heavy-set dark-skinned woman. As the brother got up to speak, our well-meaning Bishop leaned over to the sister and said, “Sister So-and-So, I am soooooo sorry about what just happened.” The meaning of his comment was unmistakable. It was as if to say “On behalf of the entire non-African American LDS Church membership, I want to apologize to you personally and to all your fellow African-American members generally for the horribly inappropriate verbal tirade that you’ve just been subjected to.” It was a nice gesture. Better than nothing, I guess. Alas, there was one small problem:
The Sister was not African-American. She was Hawaiian.