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It all started with a question.

The Mormon youth simply asked his white Sunday school teacher why the man's Nigerian wife and her family would join a church that had barred blacks from being ordained to its all-male priesthood until 1978. Why, the student wanted to know, was the ban instituted in the first place?

To answer the teen's inquiry, Brian Dawson turned to the Utah-based faith's own materials, including its groundbreaking 2013 essay, "Race and the Priesthood." His research prompted an engaging discussion with his class of 12- to 14-year-olds.

But it didn't please his local lay leaders, who removed him from his teaching assignment — even though the essay has been approved by top Mormon leaders and appears on the church's official website lds.org.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the handling of the Sunday school incident, but reiterated its efforts to spread the word about the race article and its other essays on Mormon history and theology.

The LDS Church "has communicated the value of these essays in many ways, including direct correspondence to priesthood leaders," spokesman Doug Andersen says. "In addition, church-owned media, social-media sharing and Facebook have been effective in making these essays more widely available. The essays are also translated into numerous languages."

Nonetheless, the essay on race, says Tamu Smith, co-author of "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons," is not all that familiar to the LDS faithful and, often, their congregational leaders.

"The majority of the church doesn't know about it," says Smith, who has traveled the country for book signings and speaking events. "My former stake president in Provo would not have known about it, either, if I hadn't called it to his attention."

Despite the essay being included in the latest curriculum for LDS high school and college students, she says, "many seminary teachers [for high school], institute [college] teachers, and even some people teaching at Brigham Young University are blind to it — even when you point things out to them."

It's "great" that the essay is on the church website, Smith says, "but people don't believe it."

It was neither signed nor penned by the governing First Presidency, nor has it been mentioned, alluded to, or footnoted in speeches by LDS authorities at the faith's semiannual General Conferences.

Smith is all in favor of speaking openly about black Mormon history, especially at church meetings, and acknowledging mistakes — even by LDS leaders.

"You would think bishops and stake presidents would have a vested interest in telling the truth about history," she says. "Sometimes, they act like they don't — because they're afraid."

Dawson, however, has no such fear.

A tough question • Last fall in Honolulu, Dawson, a BYU-Hawaii graduate and a returned Mormon missionary, faced a gaggle of teens in his Sunday school class.

He heard the question and took a breath.

You know, he began, we could rely on the personal witness of believing black members, but there is also a church-approved document the class could read together. It's called "Race and the Priesthood" and was published in December 2013 on the faith's own website.

The students eagerly agreed, so the following week Dawson arrived, armed with the essay and several articles from the church's official Ensign magazine about early black Mormons, including Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James and Green Flake.

They learned that Abel was ordained to the priesthood during the time of LDS founder Joseph Smith, James had walked across the Plains and had sought temple access unsuccessfully for decades, and Flake was among the first Mormon settlers to enter the Salt Lake Valley.

All three remained committed Latter-day Saints throughout their lives.

The essay noted the priesthood ban was rooted more in earthly racism during Brigham Young's era than heavenly revelation.

Pointing that out — and that future missionaries should understand this history — was where Dawson's troubles began.

After the class, students told their families about the conversation. One parent complained to Dawson's bishop.

"Anything regarding black history before 1978 is irrelevant," Dawson recalls his bishop saying, "and a moot point."

Then, the former teacher says, his bishop insisted during a February interview that Dawson agree never again to bring up the essay or discuss "black Mormon history" in the class.

Dawson declined — even after believing he would be "released" from teaching the class for disobedience.

"If the [Holy] Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents," he asked the bishop, "who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?"

The bishop replied, according to Dawson, "The Spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents."

And so it went.

Dawson says he reminded his local LDS leader that he simply was responding to a sincere question, not creating some alternative curriculum.

"My emotions were high," he recalls. "I felt confused and didn't know what was going on."

That's when his Nigerian wife stepped in.

A personal stake • With the threat of being dropped from teaching, he and his wife, Ezinne Dawson, asked to meet with the bishop and their LDS stake president, who oversees a number of Mormon congregations in Hawaii.

Ezinne's parents joined the LDS Church in Nigeria in the early 1980s.

The family members moved to Hawaii, where they were "sealed" a few years later as an eternal family in the LDS temple.

As a young girl, Ezinne didn't even think about the now-disavowed reasons for the church's previous prohibition on blacks — that they were "fence-sitters" in a premortal world or that they bore the "curse of Cain' — until she was a teen.

"Even I used some of those reasons," she says now. "I didn't know they were false doctrine."

Ezinne spent her high school years in upstate New York and felt accepted in her Mormon congregation there. As a freshman at BYU, however, she experienced the sting of racism from her church community for the first time.

"My freshman roommate from Pleasant Grove refused to talk with me," she says. "She was uncomfortable being around me."

Today, Ezinne is married with four children — ages 7, 5, 3 and 1 — and finds the church's essay on race helpful at explaining the past.

"Now I have resources," she says, "to teach my children."

That is why her husband's exchange with the bishop was so baffling.

"It didn't make sense to me," Ezinne says. "He was not teaching black history. He was teaching Mormon history."

Eventually, their local LDS leaders agreed that Dawson's materials were legitimate but decided he shouldn't teach them anyway.

It was too much for the kids, they argued, and church was not the right venue for the discussion.

Brian Dawson's term as teacher thus ended — but the conversation about race and the priesthood will continue.

"Our children are going to deal with this," his wife says. "Lots of members are going to have to deal with it."

And talk about it.

"If people open their eyes to LDS black history on their own, they leave the church," Tamu Smith says. "But if we help open their eyes, they stay with us."

She would rather "hear the truth," Smith says, "from someone who wants to keep me in the faith."

Like, perhaps, a Sunday school teacher.

Twitter: @religiongal

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