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Sistas in Zion are voices of humor and faith on stereotypes, misconceptions and all things Mormon

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15 2013 9:10 a.m. MDT

Tamu Smith, left, and Zandra Vranes are Sista Beehive and Sista Laurel, multimedia personalties and founders of a website called SistasinZion.com.

Trent Toone, Deseret News

Tamu Smith is a 40-year-old cosmetologist, wife and mother of six in Provo, Utah.

Zandra Vranes is a 31-year-old paralegal and wife living in Boise.

Both women are African-American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Together, Smith and Vranes, aka Sista Beehive and Sista Laurel, are multimedia personalities and founders of a website called SistasinZion.com, complete with a blog and weekly podcast, where they follow the motto: “A relief from sobriety, where hilarity never faileth.”

“Are Mormons funny? Oh heavens yes!” they write on the website. “This is all about our point of view on all things Mormon. We’re just two Sistas with testimonies in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We love to laugh. We don’t always agree with one another, but we always ‘Love One Another.’ ”

Since they started in 2009, the Sistas in Zion have rarely shared much about themselves. Smith and Vranes recently granted an interview to Mormon Times in which they discussed their backgrounds and paths to the LDS Church, how they became friends and their motives for creating Sistas in Zion.

“We like to bridge gaps. We love being in places where regardless of your faith, there is content that feels good to everyone,” Vranes said. “We want a place where people can come be uplifted, inspired and laugh, no matter who you are or what walk of life you come from.”

Sista Laurel

Zandra Vranes’ parents were living in Georgia when they joined the LDS Church in the 1980s. First her father, then later her mother. Nine kids eventually followed.

Following their conversion, they moved to Utah, where Zandra was born.

“My parents used to joke with me, ‘You were the first black baby born at Utah Valley hospital,’ ” she said with a laugh.

But the family didn’t stay in Utah long. They moved to Trinidad and Tobago for several years and returned to Georgia when Zandra was 6. Wherever they went, the family was active in the LDS Church.

They moved back to Utah when Vranes was a teenager. She wasn’t thrilled about leaving her friends, but she looked forward to interacting more with Latter-day Saints her age. However, there was an element of culture shock, she said.

“Utah was this place with lots of Mormons. I came from a background where I was always the only Mormon in school, so I thought coming to Utah would be a huge party. Wow, that will be cool to not have to explain all the time what your standards and values are,” she said. “Then we got here and wow, we are the only pepper in Salt Lake City. It was unlike any place I have ever been in terms of diversity. That was super shocking and it took some time to adjust. My parents didn’t really prepare us for that.”

That adjustment was aided by attending the Genesis Group, an organization created by the LDS Church's First Presidency as a way to serve the unique needs of black Latter-day Saints and other Mormon minorities.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” Vranes said. “That’s where I met Tamu.”

Sista Beehive

Tamu Smith’s conversion to the church began when her aunt lied to the missionaries more than 20 years ago.

The woman met the two young men in shirts and ties at a Southern California grocery store. When asked if they could come to her house to share a message, she didn’t give her address, she gave them Smith’s grandparents’ address.

“We were taught to never turn down the word of God. If someone wanted to talk about the word of God, you listened,” Smith explained. “But she didn’t want to listen, so she gave them my grandparents’ address.”

Smith, who was raised by her grandparents, was present when the elders arrived on their bikes one hot summer day. Despite learning the aunt didn’t live there, they happily visited with the family anyway.

They weren’t interested, Smith said. The family attended her uncle’s Pentecostal congregation in San Bernardino, but in an effort to be kind, they invited the missionaries in for a cool drink.

A short time later, Smith’s grandmother became sick. The missionaries visited her at the hospital and gave her a blessing.

“She said if she made it out of the hospital, she would visit the LDS Church,” Smith said. “When Grandma got better, we visited for the first time. When we walked in, I felt like I was at home, where I needed to be.”

Smith and her grandparents were later baptized.

After high school, Smith attended Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho, but struggled to fit in.

“I knew the church was true, but people were not acting like my brothers and sisters, so I started some soul searching,” she said. “I felt so lonely. I thought that when I got around more LDS people my age that things would be different, but it wasn’t.”

Fortunately, a professor encouraged her to study church history and learn about prominent black Latter-day Saints. The idea appealed to her and she checked out a book from the library about black pioneers. She enjoyed learning about people like Jane Manning James, an early convert who traveled hundreds of miles on foot to reach Nauvoo, Ill., where she was invited to stay with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s family. She also became the first African-American woman to come to the Utah Territory as a pioneer.

Smith later moved to Utah, where she learned about the Genesis Group and eventually met her future friend and co-host, Zandra Vranes.

“Genesis was able to provide that extended family that I was looking for,” Smith said. “Out of it I got sistas.”

The genesis

The Sistas in Zion admit they are sort of an unlikely pair.

There is a nine-year difference in their ages and initially, Vranes was a close friend of Smith’s sister. They enjoyed their association through the Genesis Group, but Smith was also married; Vranes was not.

After Vranes got married, they became better friends.

“I was always fond of her and her family,” Smith said. “After she got married, we became closer. She would study and eat my Top Ramen.”

As Vranes and her husband prepared to move to Chicago some years ago, Smith suggested they co-author a blog in an effort to stay in touch.

“I was like, NO,” Vranes said. “I didn’t know much about blogging, I just knew people got on the Internet and tell their business. No.”

A few years later, as the friends attended LDS general conference in October 2009, Smith pitched the idea a second time.

“I said OK, but I don’t want to share anything personal,” Vranes said.

“OK, so what do you want to write about?” Smith said.

“I didn’t want to talk about what I did that day, what I fixed my husband for dinner, that is boring. Let’s write about church,” Vranes said.

Soon they were kicking around ideas and came up with “Sistas in Zion,” based after the hymn, “As Sisters in Zion.” To maintain their anonymity, Smith became Sista Beehive and Vranes became Sista Laurel.

A funny culture

The Sistas have a wealth of funny personal experiences within the Latter-day Saint culture to draw from, and it’s good-natured fun. Most reflect stereotypes or misconceptions about the church.

Smith recalled shopping for clothes in Chicago when a salesman asked when Mormons were permitted to begin wearing colors.

“Do you think we’re Amish?” she responded. “If you’ve been to Salt Lake City you know we drive cars and talk on the telephone. I flew here, I didn’t come in a horse and buggy. We’ve always worn colors.”

Once at an Especially for Youth dance at BYU, a young man asked Vranes to dance, but for a strange reason.

“Do you know why I asked you to dance?” he asked.

“I thought he would say 'Because you've got the most rhythm in here,’ ” Vranes said. “But no, he said he wanted to touch my hair. I was like, what?”

It’s not uncommon, Vranes said, for young people just home from an inner city mission to walk up and hug her because they miss seeing “black people.” Sometimes they see her and offer a greeting in a different language.

“Yeah, I speak English,” she laughed.

Shortly after she was baptized, Smith was excited to attend a fireside where actor Gordon Jump was the featured speaker, although she wasn’t sure what people did at a "fireside." She wanted to wear shorts or something comfortable, but her grandma insisted on their Sunday best.

“It was at a church, but there was no fire,” Smith laughed. “Why call it a fireside if there’s not a fire? It was confusing.”

Vranes related a similar misunderstanding when her family invited a nonmember friend to attend stake conference with them.

“He was very grumpy in the car afterwards and my parents were like, ‘Did you not enjoy the meeting?’ ” Vranes said. “He said, ‘The least you could have done is let me stay for the steak.’ ”

Smith still gets confused about things, even after two decades in the church. She felt so special when handed a ticket to the late President Gordon B. Hinckley’s birthday party. She went with the expectation of attending a traditional birthday party.

“I couldn’t wait for the cake. But we didn’t even have cake, it was a concert,” Smith said. “I wondered, 'Are they going to give us cupcakes? Maybe a Twinkie?' Nothing. I went to a church concert I could have watched on TV.”

The end goal is to have fun and make people laugh. There are no inside jokes, and mean people are not allowed.

“People have a perception that Mormons don’t have a sense of humor, but it’s OK to laugh at ourselves, to let loose a little,” Vranes said. “There are things that are obviously sacred and serious to us, but other things are just hilarious, like green Jell-O with (grated) carrots. That’s funny.”

“When people can see that you enjoy your religion, and that you can laugh at yourself, it takes the edge off some,” Smith said.

The show

Four years after launching their website and blog, Sistas in Zion also has a radio show each Sunday evening from 5-7 p.m. Modern technology allows Vranes to call in from Boise while Smith dials up from Provo. Listeners are invited to call in.

Among their many guests are Jabari Parker, a Mormon and one of the top high school basketball recruits in the country, now preparing for his freshman year at Duke; Bryan Kehl, a former BYU linebacker currently playing for the Washington Redskins; and Al Fox, a recent LDS convert and popular speaker often referred to as “The Tattooed Mormon.”

“They’re incredibly fun,” Fox said in an email. “I was impressed with their personalities. They’re funny, but their topics and guests are also entertaining. It’s made for everyone, members and nonmembers.”

The Sistas relish the chance to interview their friends and “Mo-lebrities,” their term for Mormon celebrities.

“We already know guys like Jabari and Bryan. This gives us a chance to get all up in their business, find out what makes them tick and other cool things,” Vranes said.

The Sistas in Zion are occasionally asked to speak at Relief Society retreats, youth conferences and even firesides. They are also in the process of co-authoring a book that will offer insight into “finding what the Lord has for us in our everyday lives,” they said. A publication date has yet to be determined.

Missionaries

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is missionary work, Smith said.

"Every member is a missionary," Smith said, "And the gospel is for everybody."

The Sistas don’t get into doctrine very much. Rather, they want to appeal to people who want to know about the church in a non-traditional way. They also want to appeal to recent converts who feel a little out of place in a new LDS culture, like they did in their conversion process.

“Hey, you can take the good things from that world and marry them to the good things from this world,” Smith said. “You don’t have to give up your heritage.”

When people ask about polygamy, the Sistas acknowledge it.

“That happened, I don’t know why, but let me get you in touch with some people that can tell you,” Smith said. “It’s two guys. They have the information. They are going to personally deliver you a free blue book (The Book of Mormon). … Everyone loves free stuff.”

Speaking of missionary work, the Sistas joked about introducing a few celebrities to the church.

“It’s very helpful, like with Dale Murphy and Gladys Knight,” Vranes said. “I want the missionaries to baptize Taylor Swift so she can finally find a good boyfriend.”

“Yes, we want to help you, Taylor. We can find you a good, righteous, faithful man,” Smith said with a huge grin. “We also need a rapper. If we could get Jay-Z and Beyonce, oh my goodness. The missionaries need to do their job.”

“Yeah, right,” Vranes said, rolling her eyes.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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