Vai's View: Vai's View: Shattering racial myths about Mormons
There have been a number of recent articles in the Deseret News about LDS myths and misunderstandings about our faith that drew my attention. So much of it is race related: namely, that it's a lily-white, Intermountain West church with little minority representation.
Perhaps those perceptions are why I secretly revel when I see them being shattered with little more than a simple glance. It happens when I'm knocking on strangers' doors with the missionaries. I'm a local celebrity in the Philadelphia area and though many people know I'm LDS, I can instantly see the surprise on people's faces that I'm standing on their doorstep with a young, white, Mormon missionary. Or when my black stake president and I visit a Jewish synagogue, as we did recently, and people do double-takes because we're not what they expected as "Mormon ministers."
A few weeks ago, our family hosted my friend Keith Hamilton over a weekend. Keith is our newest columnist and I'm proud that the Deseret News brought him on because of my recommendation. Keith has already written three columns as an introduction that were warmly received. Suffice to say, Keith, or as I call him, "Special K," is a trend-breaker.
I'm fascinated with figures like Keith, whom I largely view as modern-day pioneers. He's a pioneer among his family, his peers, childhood friends and, frankly, his people. My wife and I hosted a fireside for Keith in our home and we bought a box of Keith's book for those interested. It was wonderful for all who attended, but especially for those black families and individuals in our stake who came to see and hear someone who shares their experience, their culture, and is successfully living the gospel.
The following evening, I took Keith into Philly to speak to an inner-city ward where there were even more blacks — Africans and African-Americans. A chapel full. Keith encouraged them to be faithful in their commitment to the church, as it will bless and lift them from their circumstances. I was amazed watching and listening to Keith speak so eloquently to an audience made up largely of his own people. This clearly isn't your father's LDS congregation and based on continuing misconceptions, it's still not widely known how successful our missionary efforts are in the urban areas of America's biggest cities.
I played in the NFL with guys exactly like Keith. Black, smart, spiritual, bust-your-gut hilarious, family-oriented and, of course, athletic. Yes, some were profane and philanderers. To me, those were personal failings but didn't have any bearing on my personal relationship with them as teammates and friends. To this day, I've remained close to many of those guys — the religious and the ungodly.
I learned from Keith that he was acquainted with some of the NFL pros who came from his alma mater, North Carolina State, like former Vikings running back Ted Brown, former New England tight end Lin Dawson and former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick. Quick was a Pro Bowl receiver in the '80s who still lives in Philly and is the team's current radio color analyst. Mike Quick is a good friend, who interestingly was once married to an LDS woman from Hawaii and had been through the missionary discussions at least once. Occasionally he accompanied his then-wife to her LDS ward, but never joined the church.
A week ago, I ran into Mike at Eagles training camp and asked if he remembered a campus-radio DJ from his college days named "Special K." It had been 30 years so I didn't expect him to. Instead, Mike stood for a minute squinting into the sun and then said, "Special K? I don't remember him as a radio personality but didn't he DJ frat parties?"
"Yes! That's him! You really remember him?" I asked.
A HUGE smile crept onto Mike's face as his memory seemed to clear. "Man, Special K was THE man. He was HUGE on campus because he DJ'd all the parties with the best music. Whatever happened to Special K?"
I filled in the years for Mike on Keith Hamilton's conversion to the LDS faith and how he served a mission to Latin America, became the first black to graduate from BYU Law School and was a bishop in the church.
"Wow," Mike replied. "That's awesome!"
We gave each other the man-hug that bruthas give one another and parted ways. Within a few minutes my cellphone rang. A quick glance showed it was Mike.
"Hey, it just dawned on me," he excitedly said. "Another brutha from North Carolina State who was there during our era also went to Utah and joined the Mormon church. Do you know Thurl Bailey?"
I laughed. "No, I don't know Thurl," I answered. "Just know of him. But he actually wrote the forward on a book 'Special K' recently wrote about his experience as a black convert to Mormonism."
"This is funny, but I got in my car and guess who's CD is in my player?," he asked. "Thurl-freakin-Baily! Can you believe that? Now, where can I get a copy of Special K's book?"
"I'll send you one."
It won't help sales, but this afternoon, Mike Quick, the former NFL Pro Bowl receiver, received a FedEx of "Thoughts & Reflections of A Black Mormon: Last Laborer" by Keith Hamilton.
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