What Many Members of Color Seek From Conference 

Phylicia Jimenez is a convert of almost nine years. In her words: “I’m a novice writer, a grad student, a mama to a busy 21 month old, a wife and an activist. I love food, friends and diversity! I have my own blog SamePewDifferentView.com that I just started and hope to write more on. My focus is improving race relations wherever I am, in whatever I am doing. I especially love doing so in the church as to help us overcome our own racist history as an organization since there are still so many effects of it today!”

In April 2015 I had the opportunity to visit an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME church) for a baptism. The AME church has a significant and longstanding history for and in the African American community. It was founded in 1816 after discrimination and racism in St. George’s Methodist Church. Those of African descent left St. George’s and founded their own church carrying the Methodist doctrine with them. They created a place of healing and worship for Blacks during a time when many were not allowed to worship at all. The AME Church also empowered the Black community by teaching school in their churches and raising money to keep schoolhouses open and filled with resources.

The motto of the AME church is “God Our Father, Christ Our Redeemer, Holy Spirit Our Comforter, Humankind Our Family.”

As I sat in the congregation that day with my family I was moved not only by the music of my childhood but also the sermon that spoke directly to us as Black people. I listened to the preacher address the issues of police brutality within the Black Community and the worth of Black souls being equal to all of God’s children, even though the world may say otherwise. He spoke openly and candidly about what was happening and what we needed to do in our homes and how we can prepare our children to encounter police. That day I listened to a sermon that I knew would never be preached at my own church, in my own congregation among those I call my brothers and sisters. I know that race in our history is uncomfortable. Frankly, I know that race period for people in my own church is uncomfortable.

Three months after my visit to the AME church the Charleston Shooting happened. Nine members of the church were brutally shot and killed after welcoming an armed white supremacist (unbeknownst to them) to join them for bible study. When the news broke an overwhelming number of African-American Mormons were frantically searching for safe spaces to share their feelings. Many put together candlelight vigils, where they sang the songs we grew up on in our homes and churches before we joined the LDS church. We looked to each other for healing. For many of us not one word was uttered from the pulpit about the Charleston Shooting. In some places generic statements were made, but nothing concrete about what happened in Charleston and how this directly affected the Black Community; but we were hurting. We were hurting because we knew the history of the AME church. We were hurting because we have desired a safe space to worship since the foundation of this nation and our congregations and places of worship have often been able to fulfill that, until that day. It brought back memories of the stories we heard growing up about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing where 4 young Black girls were killed and several other members were injured. After the bombing two white boys, rode up on bikes and shot and killed two black boys, ages 13 & 14. Fear struck the Black Community everywhere wondering what congregation would be next. We wanted to hear someone tell us that they saw us and acknowledged our pain, but for many of us nothing came.

A part of me was also shocked because of our unique connection to the AME church. Biddy Mason, the former slave of a Mormon member, founded the first AME church in Los Angeles. Biddy’s story is well known because she actually petitioned for her freedom and 13 of her family members. When the Saints were commanded to move West, Biddy’s slaveowner, Robert Marion Smith, a Mormon convert, did not want to free her, even though slavery was illegal in California. Biddy fought and won! She was granted freedom along with her 13 family members consisting of women and children. The AME church founded by Biddy is the oldest African American church in entire city of L.A. Again, with the intertwining history of our church and the AME church, there is something particularly rough about not hearing your own leaders directly address the fears, concerns and pains a large number of their members were feeling, especially when you know other congregations dedicated their entire Sunday to it.

As African-American members of the church, many of who are the only Black member or Black family in their congregation, we are used to this. And because we are used to this, we understand the importance of a connection created by having leaders that look like us and can speak to our particular struggle and pain in regards to racial issues. The Brethren also understand this, which is why they created the Genesis Group for Black members — to be able to share their testimonies and worship in a manner familiar to us. They understand that representation matters. Please don’t misunderstand, leaders do not have to look like us to acknowledge us. Many of us have been blessed with Bishops, Relief Society Presidents and other auxiliary leaders that have acknowledged things going on in our communities. And to them I say, Thank you. We need you. We love you. We appreciate you. We thank you.

After my visit to the AME church and with racial tensions rising I longed to hear these issues directly addressed from the pulpit. When October came and three new apostles were to be announced many minorities in the church hoped there would be some racial diversity. Many of us believed in 2015, and with three callings to be filled, that there would be an Asian, Latino, Polynesian or Pacific Islander, etc., called as an apostle in the Lord’s worldwide church. Please don’t misunderstand. I do not, nor does anyone I know question the validity of the apostles being called. The issue wasn’t who was called. We sustain them and pray for their success as we do with all of our leaders who are called. But for many members it was difficult because we believe that the more diverse the leadership, the more likely mutual experiences would be addressed because there would be some sort of representation. Along with those mutual experiences would come acknowledgement and recognition of certain things happening today. That’s not to say they can’t receive revelation and address them if they aren’t minorities. But unfortunately, every six months I listen to General Conference in hopes that I will hear this personal message. I have always been told to come to conference with a question in my heart. My question has remained constant: “How can we fight against racism if we do not directly address it in the church?”

On my mission we had the pleasure of having Elder Kenneth Johnson of the 70 come visit us. I will never forget him telling us, in what felt like the most simple, yet inspired sentence I had ever heard. He said, “Always remember that information precedes revelation.” He wanted us to know that when we have knowledge of certain things, be it a drug addiction, mental illness, racism, sexism, parenthood, etc., the Lord is able to pour out even more revelation on how to deal with it, especially when it comes to helping those we serve. The Brethren visit members all over the world. I understand this is not an American church. However, we have often heard them address wars, contentions, crises, etc. in several other countries. Right now, the rising racial tensions in America, in the church and many other countries where the church is present are worth mentioning. They are worth speaking about directly. We cannot build Zion if we as members are divided. This conference, like the many others, I will listen and wait for the words that help us as members “be of one heart and one mind.” That is the desire of my heart.

Comments

  1. That quote, “Information always precedes revelation…” is amazing. I hadn’t ever considered it from that angle- but it makes perfect sense.

    I hope there are answers to your prayers; I add mine to the pile to mingle and pray for pressing issues to be addressed directly. I find myself yearning similarly for forthright words from our leaders.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with BCC.

  2. Attending an AME church service is on my bucket list. Thanks for this post.

  3. Kristine A says:

    This was enlightening. Thank you for sharing, Phylicia.

  4. emilyhgeddes says:

    The Sunday after the murders at Charleston’s Emanuel AME church, I attended my local AME congregation to show support, solidarity, offer comfort, whatever I could do. And I left uplifted and spiritually fed by the powerful, Christ-centered sermon and moving, heart-felt music.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, Phylicia. I, too, pray for changes that will ensure all feel welcomed and heard.

  5. Jarhed Peña says:

    My mission president taught us “better information equals betterevelation.” It’s synonymous to what you have shared. I have always looked back at this teaching and have sought differing points of view before even concluding my own perspective. And then when I have finalized my own opinion, I still make sure I am open to the fact that I my perspective may change on the sole reason that I may “new” or “better” information in the future. I feel that this is the exact reason why the LDS Church believes in revelation.
    “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith #8).

    The challenge that Mormons have is the fact that the LDS Church hasn’t been fully transparent on what we should revere as doctrine versus what we should deem as church policy. Doctrines don’t change but policies do. (On a slightly different note, it is interesting to realize that the entire situation with blacks and the Priesthood was a policy issue and not doctrinal as many church members believed since it was something that changed – just as church policies change.)

  6. The General Priesthood Conference message of 4/1/17 was a very clear, albeit too gentle, chastisement of the rich Mormon snots, of West Valley City, Utah who shouted down a homeless man who was trying to help them understand that they are expressing baseless fears of the future drop in property values due to an influx of the homeless. The only way their fears are not baseless is if they are not Christians but owners of overvalued piles of expensive rubble. One of the first things I learned 25 years ago when I became a convert is that Mormons are expected to live in modest homes, drive modest cars etc. Another baseless accusation I heard is that ‘these people choose to become homeless so they can afford their addiction of illegal drugs.’ This seemingly and possibly gave me an idea of how to handle my own financial situation of being better able to manage living on my retirement income that is well below 50% of minimum wage and save for future and present necessities by living in a tent and bouncing around my local national park system. I prayed a few days ago directly about my dire financial situation and I believe this might be a personal revelation concerning that. To the West Valley City, Utah snobs: you may have shouted down a true and rare man of God.
    Stephen Miller, BS: Criminal Justice (Retired) Beaver, Utah – Citizen Journalist

  7. I wish this post gained more traction. We (black mormons) want leader and peer understanding and acknowledgement. Not to be heard or thanked for this contribution of a article….

  8. Jason K. says:

    I hadn’t known the story of Biddy Mason; thank you for that, and for this post. I join with you in hoping for greater awareness of black Mormon experience, and I’ll do what I can in my sphere of influence to make that better.

  9. Cmo, we’ll get it some traction. It’s important.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    I had the same reaction as you when there were three apostolic openings, I thought that opened a door to a little diversity, and it just didn’t happen. Yes, nothing against the men chosen, but it sure seemed an opportunity lost.

  11. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Phylicia. I am currently finishing a manuscript about the experiences of the one hundred enslaved African Americans taken to Utah Territory, and it’s been enlightening to think about Biddy Mason’s life in the context of your comments. Here are a few thoughts.

    Although it’s tempting to tell her story as the tale of what one successful, determined woman can do, and there’s power in that story, Mason’s story gains even more strength when viewed as a story about the power of community, media and government outreach, and mentorship.

    When the small African American community in Los Angeles found that there were about thirty men, women, and children being held in slavery in San Bernardino in the free state of California. The situation reached a crisis point when Robert Smith, who had become disaffected from the Mormon church, made plans to take Biddy and Hannah and their families back into slavery in Texas. In a habeas corpus hearing, Judge Hayes decreed the two women and their children and a grandchild free and put them under the custody of the court until the Smiths left the state.

    What happened next determined the course of Biddy’s life. She, as a single, impoverished mother was taken into the home of African American pioneers, Bob and Winnie Owens. Bob and Winnie mentored her and Hannah and their children and helped find homes and employment for them in frontier Los Angeles.

    Bob and Winnie Owens knew the power of creating connections between the black and white communities. They held elaborate dinners for the newspapermen and politicians in town. Even those not particularly sympathetic to efforts for the black vote could not withstand the charm of one of Winnie Owen’s dinners, and for many years racial relations were smoothed by the ongoing efforts of the Owens family. Mason followed their example and expanded upon it in her own way.

    Mason and others in the small black community in Los Angeles, including some of the other freed slaves from San Bernardino, founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. Mason was never a member; she was a member of the nearby white Methodist church. As she became immensely wealthy through many years of hard and intelligent work, she kept her eyes and ears open in both black and white communities. She led ongoing efforts to help the poor, sick, and imprisoned, and she kept the A.M.E. Church afloat for a number of years until it could survive on its own.

    Her story is fascinating on its own — her life was best covered by DeEtta Demaratus in her book The Force of a Feather and if you’re ever in Los Angeles, don’t miss a trip to the Biddy Mason Memorial Park on Spring Street — but her life also emphasizes the importance of creating bridges between communities, utilizing media (and now social media and blogs), and the power of mentoring and creating and maintaining faith communities. It is always heartening to see this happening within Mormonism, whether it is the work of the Genesis Group, a blog post like this one, the work of Thom Reed at FamilySearch and with the Freedmen’s Bureau indexing project, or many other ongoing efforts.

  12. MDearest says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective. The church massacre in Charleston by the young white male terrorist shocked me deeply and watching the aftermath was a major eye-opening experience for me; I’m both shamed and glad of it. We badly need to improve and correct our history. I believe that God sees and remembers all those things that are overlooked in the service of our dominant culture. Thanks for writing this and publishing it here, I want to learn more of the truth.

  13. Thank you for sharing Biddy Mason’s story. I want hear more of this too, addressed honestly (loved Elder Holland’s talk this conference – plainly speaking​ truth!). Information precedes revelation is a powerful truth as well – we as a church play catch-up with what God wants for us based on our hearts, our knowledge, and our actions. As always, it’s time for us to step up.

  14. Pokemom says:

    I really liked reading this post, and have been following the comments. I appreciated how the post personalized events and made me empathize better with the real experiences of members of color. I have also appreciated the historical comments about the AME and Biddy Mason and Bob and Winnie Owens, and also the insights into how the AME still is a source of help and refuge to POC no matter their official denomination.

    Regarding the post “needing more traction,” there are a lot of really great posts on BCC lately, and it is hard to keep up with the reading, let alone commenting–especially making a comment that is insightful! To me, this post does not seem controversial in any way. It seems like something we should all read, consider, and internalize. Sometimes the posts that “get the most traction” (or comments) are the ones that people take different POVs on.

    In my Utah congregation, there is not usually reference to any events like these, which I find troubling. One reason, I think, is because so many events now are seen as political. The Charleston shootings are not something that should be politicized in any way. However, in my ward, about the time President Obama was elected, a few vocal ultra-conservative members made a lot of comments in church. There is still some of this–mostly generalish comments in Sunday School, priesthood quorums, and Relief Society. These are often about LGBT issues and the general “badness” of the world, especially of the Democrats. They are veiled comments, conservative, and we all know what they mean. But the directly stated stuff created too much tension. The more liberal members, if they ever said anything that was perceived as slightly political, were considered “on the edge” of appropriateness, and sometimes they were sidelined or held in suspicion. Broad generalization: the more liberal members in my ward also tend to want to avoid confrontation–contention is not good at church, right? Anyhow, I think our congregation in general has wanted to avoid a contentious atmosphere, and so there is less and less talk of anything like this (except those generalized conservative things that end up going unchallenged).

  15. Pokemom says:

    Oh yes! On traction! It is also a busy time for families right now–Spring break, General Conference, etc. People just aren’t “in the game” as much right now IMO.

  16. Angela C says:

    Fantastic post. I really appreciate the perspective. I’m often discouraged by the Utah-centricity in the messages we receive since Utah is such a unique place. It doesn’t always translate to other areas. The Biddy Mason story was new to me, so thanks for increasing my awareness.

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