This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A year after the LDS Church published a landmark essay about its past priesthood ban and amid a nationwide uproar over police shootings of African-Americans, many black Mormons yearn to discuss, debate and defuse racial tensions.
They do so in school, at work, on the Internet.
One place, it seems, they don't come near the topic: in church.
And that, some say, needs to change.
"We have to use the gospel to fight against how blacks are treated in America and in the church," says Kevin Mosley, a longtime black Mormon convert in Pittsburgh. "God expects it."
For rank-and-file Mormons, though, conversations inside the church about race seem off-limits. Many members refuse to wade into that debate because it is so inescapably entwined with their faith's own painful past, an embarrassing chapter that many feel is better left alone.
That's where the groundbreaking essay comes in.
One year ago Tuesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly acknowledged that its former prohibition on blacks entering the faith's all-male priesthood resulted more from racism than revelation.
This recognition was posted on the faith's official website in an essay titled "Race and the Priesthood," which traces the ban from its 19th-century beginnings to its 1978 conclusion.
The policy apparently was not established by church founder Joseph Smith, who ordained several blacks to the priesthood, but came into being under his successor, Brigham Young, who was influenced by racial attitudes of the day.
None of the notions given to defend the exclusion came from deity or doctrine, the piece declares. "Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."
Black Mormons cheered the essay, and many hoped it would prompt wide-ranging and candid conversations among Latter-day Saints about their faith's tortuous racial history.
That hasn't happened.
Since the article's release, however, seething tensions have erupted across the United States, triggered by the killing of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white cop in a St. Louis suburb. As other cases surfaced including in Utah with the shooting of a biracial Darrien Hunt by two white Saratoga Springs police officers many U.S. religious leaders have joined protests, expressing outrage and solidarity with black Americans.
The LDS essay captured headlines in major media outlets but made little splash inside the 15 million-member LDS Church.
That's partly due to the way church leaders released it, along with a general reluctance inside the faith to tackle tough topics that might spur contention. Mormons tend to be conflict-averse.
"We can't talk at church about Michael Brown and other unarmed black men being shot by police," says Mosley, a retired Pennsylvania trooper, "because it's so hard for members to talk about race at all."
But Mosley and other Latter-day Saints see discussion of race even when it is uncomfortable as healthy.
"Recent events, while tragic, will be a benchmark in history," says Jennifer Borget, a black Mormon journalist in Austin, Texas, who blogs on parenting at babymakingmachine.com. "Now people are really starting to have these difficult conversations that need to happen for us to make progress."
It can, she concedes, be exhausting yet remains essential.
A step forward • Acknowledging human error rather than divine direction as the root of the priesthood ban which also kept black women out of LDS temples was "extremely important," says Marguerite Driessen, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and former women's Relief Society president for the Genesis Group, a support organization for black Mormons.
"The church decried all racist attitudes," Driessen says, putting supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups on notice that they "couldn't hold those views and be in full fellowship with the church."
To Driessen, the fact that the essay came out before "this epidemic of shootings" seems prophetic.
"Some are angry that it [the essay] doesn't contain an apology," she says, "but look what it does say."
The problem, some Mormons argue, is that LDS leaders did not widely publicize the essay nor order it read from the pulpit to churchgoing members. In short, a lot of Mormons don't even know it exists.
Young believers may not learn about the ban and its controversial origins in their high school seminary classes. They rarely hear about it in Sunday school. And would-be missionaries headed to urban centers with largely black populations typically have little idea about the previous prohibition or any of the now-debunked folklore used to defend it. They are largely ill prepared to answer questions from potential converts who have read about it on the Internet.
Tamu Thomas-Smith, co-author with Zandra Vranes of "Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons," has tried to school the faithful.
Working with LDS authorities in Provo, Thomas-Smith organized an evening for regional Mormon leaders, bishoprics and potential missionaries especially those bound for regions with large black communities to discuss the essay and the faith's history with blacks.
"It is embarrassing for outsiders to know more about our history than we do," she says. "We always have people with one foot in the church and one foot out because we don't talk about it. And if they find it on their own, they often leave and take others with them."
Most of the attendees that night seemed grateful for the information, Thomas-Smith says. "They seemed especially interested in the fact that Joseph Smith ordained black men."
It was, she says, "the first time many had an out-loud, structured conversation" about race, history and the church.
But are such discussions happening throughout Mormonism?
Not so much.
"I have been astounded at the silence that is coming from the Mormon conservative base," says Janan Graham-Russell, a graduate student in religious studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., "but also from Mormon progressives."
Neither group appears willing to draw on Mormon teachings, she says, for a fuller exploration of themes such as social justice, mercy and forgiveness.
In the faith's signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, for example, the light-skinned Nephites weren't always the good guys.
"Let's look at what happened when they weren't in God's favor," Graham-Russell says. "Only then can we create a theology that is more understanding and empathetic to those who are oppressed."
Besides, the faith's essay makes clear that the church "disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor."
Not far from Ferguson • Writer Rosalynde Welch lives just outside St. Louis and attends a largely white Mormon ward.
"Open discussion of race and racism in LDS congregations is stifled by a double layer of taboo," Welch says. "Among educated white people, it has become delicate to say anything about race in public settings beyond acknowledging white privilege and, for the time being, many of our LDS leaders are going to be educated white people."
On top of that, she says, "there's a strong taboo against addressing controversial topics across the pulpit in LDS chapels, especially a topic on which our own history is vexed. Because there is so little consensus among white St. Louisans on the causes and solutions to class- and race-based inequalities, virtually any statement on the topic will be controversial to some members of the congregation."
Still, Welch says, she regrets that some Mormon congregations "are unable to speak directly to the moral issues at stake."
A nearby LDS ward, though, did take up the subject.
A month after Brown's death, a black man was killed by a police officer in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood, which is more racially and economically diverse than Welch's town. Some Shaw residents claimed the victim didn't have a gun, but an investigation showed he did.
Greg Erekson, a white Mormon bishop in Shaw, presumed, like other whites, the police narrative was reliable. He thought his black friends and neighbors, who were attorneys, would share his perspective.
"I thought we had a similar outlook on life, similar background, but we saw this issue so differently," Erekson says. "It was sobering to hear how distrustful they were toward police."
Erekson began seeing unkind online comments by fellow Mormons about protests and riots going on in Missouri and decided his congregation needed to have a dialogue about the racial divide over policing. It was set for a fifth Sunday meeting of the ward's men and women.
The Saturday before, the bishop gathered a small group of black and white Mormons, with varying levels of church experience, as well as a nonmember to discuss how to present the issue. After batting around some ideas, they decided to focus on empathy and listening to the black community, which is hurting.
"As Mormons, we know what it feels like for others not to listen to us, like people telling us we are not Christians," Erekson says. "That's like us telling blacks there's no problem rather than really hearing their perspective."
The session was tense at times, but overall seemed cathartic and helpful, he says. The church's priesthood ban did not come up.
Moving forward • Mosley, of Pittsburgh, who observed racial profiling firsthand during his two decades in law enforcement, now uses social media to engage with white Mormons.
"We have these lived experiences that you don't," he tells them. "Listen to what we're saying; don't preach to us."
Borget, the Texas journalist, says she doesn't always want to be a spokeswoman for black Mormons.
"Sometimes I have to decide if I have the energy to discuss the race issue," she says. "It is complicated and hard."
She is married to a white policeman and the couple have two children.
She worries about her kids, who, she fears, will face discrimination because of their race.
But she also believes people overgeneralize about law enforcement and are too quick to judge police actions.
"I like to keep church [worship] about my relationship to God," Borget says. "I don't like to point fingers at other people, and don't want to go to church to judge people but to celebrate our differences."
After all, she says, God created us this way. He is the author of diversity.
"No man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the church of Christ."
Then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley in 2006