Editor's note: Noting the 30th anniversary of the 1978 priesthood
revelation, this is the fourth in a series of profiles on black Mormons
and their families. Next week: Kevin and Lita Giddins.The first time Alan Cherry met a Mormon, it was in an unlikely place.
He and another serviceman became acquainted while at a confinement
facility on an Air Force base in Texas in 1968.
The young Mormon had been jailed for drunken and disorderly
conduct. Cherry, 22, was confined for disobeying a superior officer's
orders. Despite their circumstances, the young Latter-day Saint played
a supportive role in Cherry's life, aiding him in the quest for truth
that had initially landed him in the detention facility.
Now 40 years after that first meeting, which he regards as an
answer to a prayer, Cherry lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife, Janice,
and three children. He played the role of a freed slave in the film
"Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," served as a stake high
councilor and has found a freedom in his faith that is starkly
different from the restricting environment where he first obtained it.
Born and raised in New York City, Cherry attended Protestant
churches in his childhood, but discovered he knew little truth when he
enlisted in the Air Force at the height of the Vietnam War.
"I didn't quite know what to make of the world around me. There
seemed to be great confusions — ironies, clashes of values, things
that didn't make sense," Cherry said. "In the service I began to be
concerned with my well-being." Although Cherry had had moral, upstanding
friends in New York, he experienced a "terrible tailspin with morality"
after he graduated from high school that left him feeling spiritually
"Although there's an excitement with sin, it's like an elevator.
There's the up thrill, but there's (also) the unavoidable down thrill.
It's like going up in an elevator and then coming down with one where
the cables are cut, and you're in some kind of free fall."
Drawing on his experiences with Christianity, Cherry could see
that so much of what was going on around him was contrary to the basic
tenets of godliness. And his search for goodness, rightness and truth
Every spare minute he had in the military he spent studying,
meditating, and pondering truth. He searched the writings of
philosophers and turned to the New Testament, where he accepted Jesus
Christ as truth.
"(The philosophers) were forever telling you about the truth
without ever giving you an impression that they've been there. All they
could do was tell you about their ideas of truth, but they could never
tell you the street address of heaven," he said. "The thing that Jesus
portrayed to me was that not only did Jesus know the truth, he was the
This devotion to knowledge led Cherry to refuse to attend to his
duties one day so he could study instead, which led to his confinement
and subsequent first encounter with a Mormon. "He was the only person
who endorsed my truth-seeking, who celebrated it, who encouraged it,"
The friend contacted his aunt, who contacted the missionaries,
who gave Cherry a copy of the Book of Mormon — which he read in two weeks.
"I would have read it in two days, but I could only read after
lights out," he said. "I have never been as excited by literature....
It was as if I had come off of a desert.... I was just consuming all
that could be given to me."
Cherry was baptized about a week after he was released from confinement. That was 40 years ago this month.
From the first time Cherry felt impressed to join The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the seeming racial issues within the
church that others were concerned about were not obstacles for him.
"I encountered (prejudiced people), but it was no big deal to me. I had grown up in New York City," he said.
Having attended the march on Washington in 1963, Cherry said he
never saw Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of black and white people
connecting on a deeper level realized, as blacks and whites only
interacted in tightly controlled environments, places like work and
"There was never a time when our souls, our characters could become acquainted with each other."
It wasn't until Cherry joined the church that he was able to connect closely with white people."As a Latter-day Saint, I've been in their homes. I've been in
their hearts. I've seen them in moments of stress, weakness,
vulnerability. I've been roommates, friends, confidants, loved ones,
all over the place in terms of experience.... For the most part I've
encountered people (in the church) who along with me have shared in a
deeper interaction with each other than I ever had growing up."
Having joined the church 10 years before the 1978 revelation
extending the priesthood to all worthy male members, Cherry said the
seeming inequalities concerning the priesthood were essentially
nonissues for him.
"From the very beginning my impression that came from heaven was
I was not to worry about priesthood restriction," Cherry said. "If you
are focused on 'what good I can be and what good I can do,' where you
serve becomes less important than how you serve.
"(Having the priesthood) wasn't about power, pride, prominence,
rank and station, having something else other people didn't have," he
said. "It is my better means to serve." Cherry said that instead of
looking for the inequalities or seeming injustices around them, men and
women need to take a godly approach and be happy for their brothers and
sisters in the gospel.
"Every time there is an expansion of the gospel into a greater
portion of God's family, instead of finding all of the barnacles of
discontent that humans can come up with ... we find out that there is a
great new chapter of tender love opening up."
Cherry turned in his mission papers soon after the priesthood
revelation. He was initially counseled to pursue career and marriage
opportunities, as he was well over the age limit for full-time single
missionaries. His forms were somehow resubmitted, though, and to this
day he doesn't know who made that happen.
Cherry left for the California Oakland Mission in 1980 when he
was 34 years old. "I may have been the oldest, single male missionary
in modern times," he said with a grin.
Meanwhile, in Gulfport, Miss., a young woman named Janice had recently been baptized.
"After the first discussion, I knew," Janice said. "When (the
missionaries) started talking about the plan of salvation, it was like
music to my ears. It was like the spirit said 'This is it. This is the
A sister missionary in Cherry's mission knew Janice and
recommended they meet. Seven years later, Cherry and Janice met while
he was interviewing black Latter-day Saints in the South, and they were
married on Nov. 13, 1987.
Moving to Provo brought its own challenges for Janice.
"It was hard ... I was like: 'What am I doing here? How am I
going to teach my kids their culture? How is this going to work?' But
the Lord just kept working with me, and it all worked out."
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