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Genesis members, others respond to LDS racism statement

Published: Tuesday, March 6 2012 7:34 p.m. MST

Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group at a lecture provided by Darius Gray on genealogy for African-Americans at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, Feb., 6, 2010.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

MURRAY, UTAH – Over my head I see trouble in the air

Over my head I see trouble in the air

Over my head I see trouble in the air

There must be a God somewhere

James Sheppard's powerful voice seemed to lift everyone in the packed LDS meetinghouse Sunday night to his or her feet. He didn't lead the singing of the "Gospel Song of Praise" in the way that is traditional for Mormon choristers: standing behind a music stand and beating out the measures with a waving, wandering hand to swelling organ accompaniment. Instead, he stood at the podium, the microphone pulled close to his mouth, and with passion and power in his soul-stirring baritone voice, he led the congregational in a cappella singing like a good shepherd leads his sheep.

"Here I go," he seemed to be saying with his heartfelt phrasing of the old Negro spiritual. "See if you can keep up."

Over my head I see glory in the air

Over my head I see glory in the air

Over my head I see glory in the air

There must be a God somewhere

By the time they were singing the song's fourth and final stanza, the congregation – consisting mostly of black Latter-day Saints – was standing and swaying as the spirit of the moment moved them. A few raised their hands heavenward, waving them in time to the music. Others ad-libbed harmonic vocalizations that made the song sound wonderfully rehearsed, even though it was the first time singing it for most of the congregation. Tears trickled down a number of faces. And as the last strains of music reverberated through the chapel, thunderous applause broke out, along with at least two "amens."

James smiled and nodded his approval. As he told the crowd before the start of the singing, "President got permission to raise the roof."

James was referring to Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, an organization created by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a way to serve the unique needs of black Latter-day Saints. The meeting was the group's regular evening meeting on the first Sunday of the month, featuring songs, prayers, a special speaker and, if time permits, spontaneous expressions of faith by members of the congregation.

What was unusual about this meeting is that it was held the Sunday after a story in the Washington Post focused national media attention on the status of blacks in the LDS Church. Statements in the story attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott were considered by many to be inaccurate, patronizing toward black Latter-day Saints or even racist. The story prompted both a response from the church disavowing the comments and a second church statement condemning racism, "including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."

From about 1850 to 1978, the church did not ordain black men to the priesthood. Both church statements last week said the origins of the priesthood restriction remain unclear and any attempts to explain it are speculative and not church doctrine.

Neither Harwell nor Elder Stephen B. Allen, the LDS Church's area Seventy who presided at the Genesis Group meeting Sunday, specifically mentioned what Slate's Max Perry Mueller called "the most significant dust storm concerning Mormonism and race in 30 years." But when the time came for the "testimonial" portion of the meeting, it was clear that some group members were anxious to talk about it.

"It's been an interesting week," said Thom Reed, who said he has been following the story and its aftermath on the Internet. But rather than talk about the story or any of its elements during the meeting, Reed used his time at the microphone to testify of his faith in the LDS priesthood.

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