Cathy Stokes is describing her first brush with death.
She leans forward in her chair in a sunny corner office, closing and opening her hands. Her white hair is pulled back in a neat bun on the crown of her head. The skin around her eyes is soft and creased. Her voice commands attention on this quiet afternoon. She pauses often. Each word is chosen carefully.
"I knew I was going to die, because the most important thing in my life was going to school and getting an education."
She was 10 years old, slowly making her way through inner-city Chicago, back home to break the news to her parents that she had been expelled from school.
"I just thought I was going to die — evaporate. Poof!"
She made the most of the walk, buying a bag of candy for her last meal. She had questioned her teacher's pronouncement about who went to hell. Her curiosity was not well received.
When she got home and told her papa, to her own amazement and joy, she did not die. He said he thought it was about time for her to move on from Catholic school anyway.
"At that moment I knew, there is a God," Stokes recalled. "And he loves me."
The experience set a pattern for her life. "I always got in trouble for asking questions. Still do."
Stokes' willingness to speak her mind has shaped her career, her relationships and her faith. In Chicago or Salt Lake City, as a public health professional or a volunteer, within her LDS congregation or right here, in this sunlit office, Cathy Stokes knows exactly who she is.
"That's where the rubber meets the road," she says, sitting back contentedly. "The belief that … you volunteered to come (to earth) and be black and female. It's a hard job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?"
Stokes stays busy volunteering and keeping tabs on the many families she's adopted over the years. She is 75 and can't always make it up the hill to get to the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, where she mans the front desk. She is a black Mormon woman in a state where blacks make up 1 percent of the population, in a church whose history of racial attitudes has provoked a media firestorm.
But "it's a wonderful life here in Salt Lake City," she said. "Honey, if it were any better I'd have to pay somebody. Life is good."
Failure 'not an option'
Stokes is still relatively new to the Wasatch Front. She arrived in 2006 from Chicago, where she'd lived and worked most of her life. Her earliest years were spent in Mississippi, growing up the youngest daughter of sharecroppers during a time when much of the black community in the South moved north for greater opportunity. When Stokes was just a toddler, she went with her great-aunt and her husband as their daughter.
"I was the lucky one. I got to go to school," Stokes said.
"Failure was not an option when I was growing up," Stokes continued. Apart from her face-off in religion class, she loved school and excelled at it. She went on to earn her bachelor's of science in nursing at DePaul University.
She worked her way up Chicago's public health ladder, eventually overseeing the inspection of hospitals throughout the state of Illinois.
The job, she explained, involved telling hospital staff, "'These are things you will want to do better so that you will be in compliance with a certain standard.' " The work suited her: Stokes is not afraid to, when necessary, tell it like it is.
"She has no problem telling anybody what she thinks they need to know," said Christel Green, Stokes' longtime friend. "She is very authoritative, too. I can imagine her going into a hospital and seeing procedures that are incorrect … and changing it on the spot."
"She could be very tough, you know," added Gary Green, Christel's father. "She was not afraid to use salty language, if that's what it took."
A piece of cake
The Greens knows Stokes' directness — and her compassion — well. They lived in the same LDS congregation in the early 1980s in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.
"(Cathy) was basically my grandma," said Christel Green. She described sleepovers at Cathy's house, a brownstone with a baby grand piano, curved windows and wood decor. "I just remember feeling really comfortable there. It was like a second home to me," she said.
Her father said Christel and Cathy's friendship began when his daughter was just one year old. Stokes herself was new to the congregation and new to the Mormon Church in general. Her first introduction came on a flight to Hawaii when her pilot recommended his passengers visit the new LDS temple there.
She went to explore, and after a pair of missionaries at the visitor center failed to adequately answer her questions, she filled out a green slip to request more information, expecting "a magazine and a request for donations."
Instead, at her door, "I got two little white boys late in the evening, for which I scolded them for being out," she recalled.
This first pair, and many others, came and talked to her about the Book of Mormon. She in turn taught them about the Bible, because she usually knew more than they did. For Stokes, accepting Mormon doctrine was not a far cry from accepting Christianity, which came as a surprise to some of her Protestant friends.
"Do you believe in the virgin birth?" she would ask them. "Being a medical person, after the virgin birth, Joseph Smith was a piece of cake. God only had a conversation with him. That thing with Mary was a bit more complicated."
Once she joined the church, the LDS congregation in Hyde Park was energized by her presence and her urgings to sing hymns with some verve. But Stokes admits to struggling a bit with the cultural shift she encountered when she moved to Salt Lake City. Members of the church here are less likely to question anything, she said. She sees corruption of power in the state legislature. And she knows people in the church who cling to "old beliefs."
Black and Mormon
Some of those old beliefs were on display recently when BYU religion professor Randy Bott told the Washington Post that black members of the church didn't receive the priesthood because of 'the curse of the black skin.' His comments were condemned by the church leadership in what Stokes called "a beautiful statement against racism." But she is upset by an attitude she has witnessed in response to the incident. "There are a lot of people who tell me if the first presidency doesn't sign it and it isn't read over the pulpit, it doesn't count.
"Why should we need the first presidency (of the church) to say, 'Don't be a racist?' Jesus already told you. God told you in that second great commandment. How can being mean-spirited, destroying families, disparaging certain racial groups — how can that be loving your neighbor as yourself?"
Stokes' daughter Ardelia has felt estranged from the Mormon church of late because she heard a lesson in Sunday school that echoed Randy Botts' interpretation of doctrine, and no one challenged it.
Stokes' own frustrations are mitigated by the force of her faith. "In the final analysis, if you have something good that needs to be done, you can count on the Mormons," she said.
Gary Green said Stokes has often been an ambassador for the church to black communities. "The church has looked to her to represent them in certain things," he said.
'One of a kind'
By all accounts, Stokes can be counted on to do good. She volunteers with the African-American Genealogy and Historical Society of Utah and is a member of the Utah AIDS Foundation board of trustees. Twice a week, she sits at the front desk of the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, greeting patients and directing them where they need to go, a task she's devoted to.
" 'Miss Cathy,' as we've come to call her … just brings this great energy to the information desk," said Blanca Raphael, patient and family resource manager at the Huntsman. Raphael mentioned Stokes' particular gift with children, putting them and their parents at ease.
"Little kids generally will respond to me," said Stokes cheerfully. "I see my job at the Hunstman as to try to get a smile from everybody who enters, especially our patients and their families" she said.
Her warmth is not just reserved for children but dispensed liberally to the adults who once toddled around her Chicago brownstone. She keeps tabs on them all, visiting them all over the country and sending them holiday jelly bellies.
"Ties bind with that woman. It's just remarkable," said Tyler Cole, one of her long-ago adopted Hyde Park children, who is now in his 30s and works for the Department of Defense. "She is one of a kind for sure."
Christel Green has stayed in touch with Stokes as well. When Stokes first met Christel's boyfriend (now husband), she made her protectiveness clear.
"She may have said the exact words, 'What are your intentions?' " said Green, laughing a little ruefully. "I think she thought he was a little too comfortable. She was not going to be charmed. I think she saw it as her job that he was worthy of me. Since we've got engaged, she's been very, very supportive."
Stokes flew to Washington, D.C.. for their wedding just weeks ago.