Empty seats: Black, White, and Mormon Conference

bwmormon“Make sure to get there early and save me a seat.” I texted my husband.

See, I figured that a free conference on the important and sometimes controversial topic of Black Saints in the Mormon fold would have filled the Utah Museum of Fine Art auditorium.

Turns out I needn’t have worried so much. And in a conference full of heartbreaking stories, the fact that there were so many empty seats ranked up there as the saddest thing I witnessed.

But we can change that. We must change that. We can virtually fill those empty seats and sit back and listen and learn from our Black Brothers and Sisters because the Tanner Humanities Center just released the videos to the conference.

Why is this important? Because these men and women are, as they explain “speaking truth” and opening their mouths and hearts in the most vulnerable ways and giving us a glimpse at shared and individual past pain so that we can work together to do what we can to avoid future pain.

And we must do it quickly. Because amidst the spiritual power, the eloquence, the laughter, the anger, the intellect, the creativity, I witnessed something else:


I really can’t speak to it, but I try to imagine telling my stories over and over again and being met with indifference, anger, shrugged shoulders, and, what I saw at the conference, justifications that danced on the edge of damaging dismissal. What would it be like to have worked so hard like Darius Gray for more African American student to attend BYU to only find out that the numbers are the roughly the same as forty years ago? (Visual representation of this from the BYU 2015 Homecoming video here. Note the ironic line “we come from all over the world.”) These men and women continue to be told “well that’s not my experience…..” with an easily construed implication of “so your experiences are not valid.”

Instead we should be mourning with those who mourn. Having hands outstretched. Making room at the pond. We may not ever understand, but that doesn’t mean we don’t encircle them as they are of our fold. There stories are part of our Mormon heritage. They are us. We are them. We are Saints together.

So I feel an urgency to share these videos and plead with all those who see this to watch them. To make the experience more real to how it happened, please check out this storified version of the Tweets. Watch real-time reaction to Elder Sitati’s talk. Or to the BYU and the Ward conference. Or everything. It’s all important.

Listen and learn and virtually fill those empty seats so that we don’t have more seats emptied.


  1. Mormon Heretic says:

    Emjen, it was good to see you. At least the Lester Bush presentation was packed Thursday night. It is harder for people to take off work during the day on Friday. But yes, I too was surprised that turnout was much lower on Friday than Thursday. I came to the Friday morning sessions, but had to got to work in the afternoon. I got lunch, but had to leave before Elder Sitati started speaking.

  2. I wish I had been able to go, but not living in Utah puts a damper on my being able to attend most of the interesting LDS events that get put on. Thank you for linking all the videos here.

  3. I’m delighted these videos are available; I was hoping they would make the sessions available digitally. I’m with Mormon Heretic on the weekday scheduling thing. The scheduling of conferences on weekdays suggests the academic establishment talking to itself rather than putting on a public “performance” for an invited audience. I had lunch with a black Mormon the Wednesday before this conference and we were both bemoaning how we’d like to go… if we didn’t have to work.

  4. Sorry, there are a myriad of reasons why people who really wanted to attend couldn’t attend and I understand that. Or maybe this the first time some are hearing about it. Heck, the reason I had my husband save me a seat was because I couldn’t get to the conference until closer to mid-morning, pretty much missing the first two sessions. Hopefully my main point is that through the wonders of technology we can listen now. It’s not like we are like those in the mid-nineteenth century who missed a church leader’s talk and would have to wait until the 21st century for LaJean Carruth to use her talents to unravel the shorthand as that was the only record taken.

    But I was seriously surprised that such a hot button topic didn’t entice more people. From what I understood at the conference (and I don’t know how exact this is) only 20% of American Mormons have even read the Blacks and the Priesthood essay. If this is true, as a church we aren’t reading, not listening, and we can change that.

    Although I’d also like people to listen to Elder Sitati’s talk to see if I am misinterpreting his words. From my understanding, he spoke for the African Saints in explaining that they are not bothered by the priesthood and temple ban, have made their peace with it, although some only become bothered when others explain all their reasons for being bothered about it so we just need to move on. But again, I maybe misinterpreting.

  5. I would be very surprised if the number who have read it is anywhere near 20%. I’m in a large ward and I’d be surprised if any more than 3 or 4 members of my ward have read it, if even that. Any idea where the 20% comes from?

  6. Not So Molly Mormon says:

    It was interesting to see such a lack of interest in the conference. Sunstone also runs during the work week, however, the attendance numbers always seem to be significant. Of course, Sunstone has been around for some time, but as a Black Saint, it makes me wonder what the priorities are of academics and non-academics alike who claim to be progressive and those who are conservative.

  7. Good post, and it was an excellent conference, from what I could attend. Real life intervened, unfortunately. No-so-molly is right to point out the question of priorities overall.

  8. Maybe it’s because it came on the heels of General Conference, and the placement of three white Utah men for the Quorum of the Twelve. Many African-Americans have voiced feeling unseen and unimportant to the church after this decision, so it’s understandable for this such a conference to be low on their list of priorities.

  9. the other Marie says:

    I was at Bush’s Thursday night lecture, but had to work on Friday and had been assured by the administrator of the Black, White, and Mormon Facebook page that the Friday sessions would be available online after the conference. If Sunstone were willing to put all its sessions online for free within a week of their symposium, I bet attendance would plummet.

  10. I came down from Rexburg to attend and it was a worth every moment. It was such a spiritual feast to hear their testimonies alongside the stories of pain and dismay. Thank you for linking all of the videos in one place. I truly hope the have it again next year.

  11. Most important conference I’ve intended in quite a while. Thanks for posting the links.

    The STMP conference was going on at BYU on the same days, which involved a lot of my friends who ordinarily would have come to a conference like this.

  12. Er, SMPT.

  13. Besides watching the conference and re-reading the essay, what can I do to help my fellow black brothers and sisters? I’d really like some ideas.

  14. I, too, was dismayed at the ow attendance. I enjoyed the conference very much. I have never understood why blacks are treated differently, either before or after the priesthood revelation. I have had black friends who weren’t even members of the church and I didn’t treat them any differently than I did my Mormon friends. Thanks for the link, as I did want to revisit some of the sessions. And I found out about the conference too late to sign up for the luncheon, so didn’t get to hear Brother Sitati. I tried to sit at the back and listen, but the acoustics in the room were such that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, so I left and visited with Cathy Stokes in the gift shop..

  15. Thank you so much for including the video links. I was able to watch a few of the videos and appreciated the open dialogue as well as the testimonies of those on the different panels.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I haven’t tried to double check, but as I recall seeing it somewhere what Darius said was that only 20% had heard of it, and of those only 20% had read it, which works out to more like 4%. But even that number to me seems generous.

  17. Thanks, Kevin. That sounds a lot more realistic, unfortunately.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    I just tried to watch Lester, but the sound was so deficient I gave up. That was an unfortunate technical glitch.

  19. I suspect advertising is an issue. I know it was with SMPT (where I was.)
    I sat in Steven Peck’s presentation on evolution and what kind of body god might have. It was held on BYU campus, and half the seats were empty. Only six people on campus interested? Not a topic of interest? Really? Lack of curiosity? Or what?

  20. Daniel asks what else we can do. There could be many answers. One small idea I’ve been considering is to somehow honor some of the music that some African Americans might enjoy singing or hearing in church. I don’t mean to paint every black person as having the same musical interest, but I was thinking about how our music would come across to a black investigator. Our ward is rural Midwest — a blend of conservative and sort of loose cannon/unaware. We’ve have guitar and harmonica musical numbers; why not some spirituals? Who has suggestions on how to *begin* to diversify music at the ward level?

  21. Kevin, looks like they reloaded the video with better sound here.

  22. I would think that a good starting point would be to know our own history and own our own prejudices. Stop pretending that race is an issue of the past in the Church. Stop hiding the essays on LDS.org. Recognize that we did wrong by black members for generations and that we’re still loaded with folklore and we’re still a very white church. Recognize that we have exceptionally poor representation of people of color in our church-owned academic institutions. And that’s not even really *doing* anything, it’s just waking up a little to the world we live in and the traditions we’ve inherited.

  23. “But we can change that. We must change that. We can virtually fill those empty seats…”

    My following response may initially seem off-topic, but it’s as short as I can make it and still make my point.

    In early 2007 my yet-unborn son was diagnosed with a rare major congenital heart defect, so for the past eight years I have been an active member of what is colloquially called “the heart community.” The community generally includes all heart defects, but is most useful for those with major defects that can only be palliated and not fixed, including HLHS (hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and other single-ventricle conditions.

    As the HLHS community has grown in size due to advances in medical treatment and technology, it has been an excellent example of advocacy done right. Here are some of the major forms of outreach.

    1. Informal parent support groups providing day-to-day support to families. These are mostly on Facebook.

    2. Foundations started by heart families including Sisters By Heart, Mended Little Hearts, and ACHA. Sisters By Heart sends care packages to newly diagnosed families; the other organizations provide education and networking. One of the organizations recently secured funding and produced an excellent online guide for new families. The CDC recently published an inaccurate write-up about HLHS, but due to immediate clear feedback from these groups, the webpage was fixed within days.

    3. Celebrity outreach. This includes musicians Paul Cardall and Matt Hammitt, football player Greg Olsen, and others.

    4. Organizations such as the American Heart Association that tend to be fairly useless for pediatric or congenital issues, but still have a place in the public consciousness.

    5. Local support groups and parent/patient advocacy groups within hospitals.

    6. The National Pediatric Cardiology Quality Improvement Collaborative. This is “a network of providers and families collecting longitudinal data, conducting research, and using quality improvement science to decrease variations in care, develop and spread best practices, and decrease mortality.” A recent variable-controlled study showed that the efforts of the NPC-QIC has reduced mortality by 40 percent since its inception. The NPC-QIC conferences are attended by medical personnel and parents who are fed into this organization from the Facebook groups, Sisters by Heart, etc.

    This comment is getting long, but my point is that if you are involved in advocacy, you need to be clear what type you are doing.

    I would assume that the main purpose of #BWMormon2015 would be similar to the NPC-QIC conferences: to assemble the people most interested in public advocacy. Bring together the bloggers, the journalists, the church leaders, the academics, the historians. Get them all in the same space and make sure they all know who is doing what. Figure out what the problems are in the United States and what the problems are in Africa. Figure out the differences between race in America and elsewhere. Network and plan. Is blacklds.org in need of support? Figure out who can provide it. Do the Gospel Topics essays need more coverage? Plan lobbying and public relations. Do white Mormons feel race is not an issue anymore? Plan media and celebrity outreach to educate them. Has outreach been done well? Give people awards. Spark ideas. Educate.

    I have some idea of how much effort it takes to organize and run a conference, and kudos to Paul and others for surviving the experience and producing such great results, but I hope the magnitude of the effort or the empty seats shown here do not prevent the conference from happening again, since getting the thinkers and planners together every year could form a valuable cornerstone for addressing racial issues in the Church.

  24. Who was the target audience of the conference?

  25. Online streaming would have been great to reach an international audience.

  26. LACK OF ADVERTISING!!!!! I am even subscribed to the MOA webfeed and NEVER got an announcement of this presentation. This is a MAJOR complaint about virtually every department at BYU. No one advertises anything, either on campus or off. Sorry about the rant, but I get so irritated when again I hear about a symposium or lecture AFTER it happened.

  27. I am a convert to the Church. Am Indian by ethnicity, though I live in the US now. I am definitely a minority in our Church. But, I choose not to share Emjem views, and I dont feel slighted by the Church’s previous history, or by the fact that the 3 new Apostles were white men. I think, it is that some members try to bring the affirmative-action model that seems to be the model for academia to become the dominant paradigm is how the Church conducts its affairs.

  28. I agree Sid I am Mexican and not offended in the least that three inspired men were called by God…regardless of skin color. The only thing I can come up with for a rationale for why skin color would be an issue comes to my understanding of liberalism…which is that liberals hate themselves; and therefore hate all like them.

  29. Rask, not the most solid understanding of liberalism I’ve ever seen. BTW, this post was about the skin color of the apostles. It was about a conference. Not sure why you and Sid are bringing it up here. And for the record, of course they were called by God. Has anyone here suggested otherwise?

  30. @Joanne re: changing music in the Church

    Unfortunately this is harder than it sounds. My husband grew up in an insanely musically talented family, his mother was one of the editors of the current Primary Songbook. She had a majorly vested interest in music and was outspoken and adamant about the role music plays in bearing testimony and helping people feel the spirit.
    Sadly, not even she with all her knowledge and even dare I say power was able to get a more “diverse” musical offering in Church.
    My husband has lobbied hard to even have a choir in our current ward to no avail.
    In our last ward our Bishop had a mandate that said that if the song wasn’t in the Hymn book it could not be sung in Sacrament. Which by common sense is absurd as new numbers and arrangements are sung even in General Conference.
    My point here is that sadly, musical selection comes down to 1. Culture, 2. Your Bishop.

    Both things are very very hard to change, not impossible, but difficult. We would love to have a more musical ward with special numbers and differing types of presentations, but culturally people complain if the music isn’t standard MoTab.
    Ask me how I know.


  31. I am hopeful that Elder Oaks’ funny story at President Packer’s funeral about Packer setting strong rules about musical standards in the church was a hint that this will be changing.

  32. “Which by common sense is absurd as new numbers and arrangements are sung even in General Conference.”

    What makes you thing General Conference is more holy and sacrament meeting? Is it a mistaken form of prophet worship? Clearly, sacrament meeting is the holier meeting. I do think in general patterning the music after MoTab is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean everything MoTab does (even in Conference) would be appropriate for the sacrament meeting.

    Cramming 300 choir members into a sacrament meeting with intricate loud organ numbers detracts from the ordinance itself. Likewise, having a sacrament meetings speaker dim the lights, and direct the congregations attention to a video presentation in the middle of their talk is a bit distracting.

    In general, the goal as I see it with the sacrament meeting and the rules around it, have been to promote more attention and reverence to the ordinance of the sacrament, not to fill sacrament meetings with things that are more entertaining.

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