First, I’d like to express how humbled I am by many of your favorable responses to my past columns. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined so many people being positively influenced by what I write — because, to be honest, my wildest dreams don’t involve me writing.
So now that we’re practically family, I have a confession to make.
I miss feeling the full effect of being the black man I am because I live, work and play in an overwhelmingly LDS culture that exists in a predominantly white area of Utah.
Please hear me out before you start calling me racist or overly ethnocentric.
Remember, I am a black man who was raised mostly in the South, and my true self stems from that upbringing. I prefer R&B music over country. I say “hey,” “y’all” and “what’s up, man” instead of “for sure” and “you bet." And I’d prefer to hang out with other black males, a k a “da brothas,” rather than anyone else. Again, it comes from my upbringing.
After more than two decades in Utah, I still find it particularly hard to be the only black man in the vast majority of situations I find myself in. And while I love living where (and with whom) I do, I sorely miss being my whole self, because being one of “da brothas” was and remains such a big part of who I am — just as big a part of me as being LDS.
Consequently, for me “Mo’” means both “more” and “Mormon”!
One more thing about me: I dearly and unconditionally love Vai Sikahema.
A few weeks ago, while back East for job-related purposes, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in the greater Philadelphia area. It satisfied my yearning to be in a place where I could see, and feel, African-American culture all around me. I also got to spend quality time with Vai and his family. It was one of the best and most fulfilling weekends of my life.
I first became aware of Vai during my BYU Law School years when he was an integral part of the Cougars’ 1984 national championship football team. We both left Provo in the summer of 1986; Vai to start his NFL career after being drafted by the then-St. Louis Cardinals, and me to start my Navy JAG career after graduating with my law degree.
Floyd Johnson, the BYU athletic department’s beloved equipment manager, had taken some interest in me after learning that I was soon to become BYU’s first black law graduate. Before our departure, he made arrangements for Vai and me to speak at a fireside somewhere along the Wasatch Front. Unfortunately, due to an unavoidable conflict that arose for me, I never got to speak with Vai as planned.
I didn’t personally meet Vai until our paths crossed at the LDS Business Conference in Park City this past April. Vai gave a moving presentation that inspired me to boldly introduce myself to him and leave him a copy of my newly released book with my contact information. Not long thereafter, Vai called me and we began having late-night conversations on his way home from his 11 p.m. sports broadcasts. We learned that even though our backgrounds had little in common, we were kindred spirits with similar interests and gospel-related goals. After finishing my book, Vai graciously laid the groundwork for me to get involved with Matt Sanders and Deseret Connect, which led to my current opportunity to write for DeseretNews.com.
I had been trying to find the right time and circumstance for a trip to the Philadelphia area so I could spend time with Vai and the Saints there. Providentially, a young LDS bishop living in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia contacted me after reading about me in Mormon Times. Dalyn Montgomery, a native Utahn, introduced me to some of his writings on Philadelphia and race — I highly recommend his most recent piece — while making me aware of some of the issues he and his flock face in inner-city Philadelphia. Having served most of his mission within the heart of Atlanta, Bishop Montgomery possesses great spiritual insight regarding many of the struggles inner-city Saints encounter daily. He, too, invited me to come to Philadelphia.
Before long my new job as a civilian attorney with the Air Force presented me with two weeks of legal training at the Army JAG School on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville. I informed Vai and Bishop Montgomery of my good fortune, and they subsequently made arrangements for me to speak at a Sunday night fireside in Philadelphia and a Saturday evening gathering at Vai’s home in Mt. Laurel, N.J.
After arriving at the Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia and picking up my rental car, I drove three hours to Philly to spend the night with the Montgomerys. I was warmly hosted by Dalyn and his wife, Kahalia, a lovely and intelligent black woman and LDS convert from Georgia, at their modest but comfortable home.
Later, after Kahalia went to run a few errands with their two daughters, Bishop Montgomery and I were joined by Iyowana Cookey, a black LDS convert and native African who serves as branch president of the Frankford Branch in northeast Philadelphia, along with a white LDS dental student studying at Penn. The four of us proceeded to have a very thoughtful conversation about race, the church and the denial of the priesthood to blacks prior to the 1978 revelation. The Holy Spirit clearly made its presence known during the discussion. My heart was full and my spirit edified.
In the morning I drove to Vai’s home. As I crossed the Betsy Ross Bridge, I felt the bittersweet emotions I’ve always felt whenever entering the Garden State. It was in Trenton where I forged some of my happiest memories while a young child living with my family. It was also there that my mother and father died, when I was 6 and 14 years old, respectively, providing me with the two saddest occurrences of my life.
But the bitter side of my emotions was quickly swallowed up in the joy of arriving at Vai’s home. After meeting his wife, the divine and delightful Keala, and two of their sons, the home became busy with activity as Vai and Keala made final preparations for the “home fireside” they were hosting. During the afternoon Vai’s nephew, former BYU football player David Tafuna, came over and the three of us went into Philly to get authentic cheese steaks at a spot not far from the TV station for Vai which works as sports director. We then watched Vai substitute for the weekend sportscaster on the 6 o’clock news broadcast. I was impressed seeing Vai so comfortably do his thing, especially when he ad-libbed a Jimmer Fredette reference into a story about Philly favorite-son Charles Barkley’s latest golfing antic.
Vai lives in a home and neighborhood — and world — that are almost polar opposites to those of Bishop Montgomery’s. Yet the Christ-like spirit within their abodes was equally similar. Vai, a modern LDS “everyman,” arranged for a very eclectic gathering at my event in his home. I met area LDS leaders and members as well as persons not of the Mormon faith. I met blacks, whites, Polynesians and Hispanics. I met lawyers, doctors, successful businesspersons, blue-collar workers, and college and high school students. I even met former University of Utah football standout Bryan Rowley.
A sweet spirit of unity and brotherhood was palpable in the Sikahema home that Saturday night as I made several new friends. Vai had to leave to do the 11 p.m. sportscast, and while he was gone, the family and I had an enjoyable yet poignant conversation about navigating life within the LDS culture as minorities. That night I gained more insight and understanding into the Tongan and Polynesian cultures — Kaela is Hawaiian — than I had in all my previous days on earth. It was past midnight when Vai returned, yet we all stayed up and visited some more.
By the time Vai and I went to bed, we had truly become “Bros.”
Sunday, I went with Vai to several different church meetings in the Cherry Hill Stake. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Stake President Ahmad S. Corbitt, to whom Vai serves as a counselor, because he was out of town. I served in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission with President Corbitt, although our time as missionaries only overlapped a few months and we were never companions. It was interesting to note the physical breadth of the stake, especially for someone whose stake boundary is about the size of Vai’s neighborhood.
That night, after hearing Vai and his son Leonard Trey fulfill some speaking assignments in sacrament meetings, we went to the fireside at the Broad Street LDS meetinghouse in North Philadelphia, where Bishop Montgomery’s Independence Ward meets along with the Logan, North Philadelphia and Germantown wards. President Cookey’s Frankford Branch meets in a building in northeast Philly.
Bishop Montgomery’s ward boundary covers downtown Philly (where the Liberty Bell is located) up to North Philadelphia. Most of his ward is black and within the low-moderate to low socioeconomic strata. There was a good representation of whites and other non-blacks at the fireside, but the vast majority of the attendees were black, including my new friends Andrew and Audrey Cleveland, who came from Vai’s part of New Jersey.
Maybe it was just me, but for some reason I felt a different type of spirit in the meeting than I had ever felt in all previous LDS meetings in which I had attended. As I stood before that congregation and delivered my talk about our need to see each other as God sees us and to love one another as God loves us, I felt a strong impression that those and other inner-city black members were modern-day Anti-Nephi-Lehies, and that the church there in Philadelphia, both the organization and the physical structure, was like unto Jershon for them.
After the fireside was over, I felt the need to personally thank each person in the chapel, black, white or otherwise, for coming to hear me speak. The vision they provided me as I gazed over the pulpit at them had blessed me beyond measure, and I just wanted to touch their hands or hug their necks and tell them so.
As I left the parking lot of the chapel to start on my way to Virginia, I imagined what it must have felt like for Ammon as he left the Anti-Nephi-Lehies — his people — in the land of Jershon to return to his home and family in Zarahemla. He had labored among and served them for more than 14 years, and he had witnessed their miraculous conversion, great faith and undying commitment to God while enduring great adversity. My 56 hours among the Saints and African-Americans in Philadelphia and its Jersey suburbs provided me a very brief taste of the joy Ammon knew from having been among those who would be known to our generation by his name.
And those 56 hours helped me better realize the worth of souls and that all are alike unto God, whether we be “Mos,” “Bros,” “ Brothas” “Mo Brothas” or others.
Attorney 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.