In my introductory article, I introduced readers to my alter ego, “Special K,” while suggesting that I was perhaps “The Most Interesting Mormon in the World.”
So how did I go from a partying frat guy and R&B disc jockey to a faithful Latter-day Saint, returned missionary and former bishop.
Frankly, I was blindsided by the Holy Spirit.
As August 1980 began, I was at the top of my game as an African-American college student in the South. I was 22 years old and legal to enjoy the adult beverages of my choice. My radio program on North Carolina State's college station aired twice a week, and I had a successful DJ business doing dances and occasional nightclub parties and events. Fraternity life was great, and my dream of helping to establish a Kappa Alpha Psi chapter at State was realized during the fall semester.
My best and closest female friend was one of the most beautiful women in Raleigh. I was active on campus as a master of ceremonies for several black cultural events and was involved in other black affairs issues. Best of all, I earned a position as a starter on State's club football team, the school's former JV team before it became a Title IX casualty.
And going into my final year as a fifth-year senior, I only needed a couple of classes to graduate. I looked forward to finishing my last summer at State with a bang before moving on to my final fun-filled year of college.
But things didn’t go exactly as planned, mainly because of two young men from Utah and Idaho.
One afternoon in early August while I was “chillin’” in my duplex apartment trying to beat the heat and humidity of a sweltering summer day in North Carolina, the two elders came to my door. I didn’t know beforehand they were Mormon missionaries. Had I known I probably would not have invited them in. I thought they were salesmen.
As soon as they got to my door I could tell they were strangers to the South, as both seemed unusually bothered by the humid weather. The huskier one, who I later learned had just arrived a few days earlier from the Missionary Training Center in Provo, was sweating like a pig in a bacon factory. So without asking them anything, I immediately waved them in and went to my kitchen to get them some ice water. While preparing it, I yelled to them, “Hey, what are you selling?” In response, I heard “Jesus Christ,” something I was not expecting and did not want to hear.
I took them the water anyway, and as I gave it to them one of them told me they were representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Because I often played the church’s "Homefront" series public service announcements on my radio show — they were the best PSAs out at the time — I knew they were “the Mormons!” Based on rumors I had heard about the church and its feelings toward blacks, I thought they would drink the water and quickly leave.
I was surprised when they asked me if I had time to listen to a short message. I couldn’t lie and say I didn’t have the time, so instead I tried to dissuade them by saying that I thought Mormons didn’t recruit blacks into their church. The apparent lead missionary told me that had "changed a couple of years ago.” I agreed to hear their message, but not before getting my frat brother/roommate to join me as backup.
I won’t go into the details of that first discussion (it’s covered in my book), but I wasn’t favorably impressed. In fact, I thought it was the most absurd religious message I had ever heard: All kinds of beings coming from the heavens (including God and Jesus as supposedly separate personages in the form of man, and John the Baptist — with his head intact!) to the most common of boys with the most common of names; gold plates hidden in a hill in New York, inscribed in an ancient and unknown language, yet somehow translated by the nearly illiterate boy into a book considered by Mormons as scripture similar to the Bible; prophets and apostles living on the earth today. Yeah, right!
When they finished their lesson, testifying of its truthfulness “in the name of Jesus Christ,” my frat brother hastily darted back to his room while giving me a look which clearly conveyed to me that I owed him that 30 minutes of his life back. I couldn’t wait for the young men to leave and let me get back to my hot summer day. I definitely was going to need a “cold one” after that experience.
As I helped them gather their things in an attempt to quickly get them out of my residence, the lead guy asked if they could return another time to teach me more. I didn’t say what I was truly thinking — that they should go back to their blacks-discriminating, multiple-wives marrying, God-forsaken desert lands out West and leave us true Christians alone. Instead, I told them they could stop by “anytime they were in the neighborhood.”
After giving them that blank check, the two were always “in my neighborhood.” Eventually, I warmed up to Elder Keven S. Burton from Talmage, Utah, and Elder Michael G. Higley of Fruitland, Idaho, and within two and a half weeks of meeting them, I was baptized into the church.
In the upcoming second part of this story, I’ll relate why and how I formed a sincere heart and the real intent, to go with the faith in God I already possessed, that led to the prayer experience that altered my final year at NC State and changed my life forever.
Until then, “Stay faithful my friends!”
Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU Law School and former chair of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon" (www.lastlaborer.com).