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.