Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can serve as "a window of American revelation," said the director of the LDS Afro-American Oral History project at Brigham Young University.
"In a nation still marred by racial tensions, LDS Afro-Americans are a window of American revelation," said Alan Cherry. "They are a part of the untold millions of black Americans who are admirable citizens seeking the best in life, yet do not receive the public attention their stereotypical caricature is accorded. They are a part of the struggle of black Americans to be judged by character rather than race, and thus provide a timely occasion to examine the practice of preached values."Cherry was one of several speakers at the LDS Afro-American Symposium. The daylong conference at BYU commemorated the 10th anniversary of the LDS Church's extending the priesthood to all worthy male members following announcement of a revelation received by then-President Spencer W. Kimball. Until then, black members were not allowed to hold priesthood positions.
Two afternoon panel discussions - "Experiences of Black Latter-day Saints" and "Outlook for the Future" - featured 10 individuals with varying backgrounds, careers and church experience from across the nation.
Concluding the day's program was an after-dinner address by James D. Walker, founding president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, who spoke on the importance of preserving the history and genealogy of Afro-Americans in general.
The symposium was sponsored in part by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, a department of the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences. The center also is sponsoring Cherry's oral history project.
In his opening address, Cherry suggested that more interaction and friendship occur between black and white Latter-day Saints than between the races in non-Mormons. "There is a depth of compassionate communion that can exist among black and non-black members, contrasting the typical American struggles over racial tolerance."
An LDS Church member for two decades, he recalled more blacks starting to join the LDS Church in the 1960s, when "information about policies, opinions and folklore were poor substitutes for uncovering the real-life drama of `what it means to be a black member of the church.' "
The past problem has been Latter-day Saints dwelling on policy concerns - "the Negro problem," as labeled by Cherry - rather than gaining understanding about black people.
"For 20 years, some of my relatives, friends and acquaintances have treated me as if becoming a Latter-day Saint was the apex of tomfoolery. Many Americans called it second-class membership, while a number of Latter-day Saints themselves suggested they'd never trade places.
"All of this was amidst the most glorious personal renaissance I could imagine. While I embraced a level of charity unanticipated and unparalleled in my life experience, while I felt more divine inspiration to lay down my life in Christian service than ever before, here were people feeling sorry I couldn't have priesthood position while I felt ecstatic about the inspiration I received from God daily."
Because priesthood is inseparably connected to principles of righteousness, the righteousness of a person is more important to individual salvation than positions held, he said. "I do know that the purity of repentance, not the perch of position, determines how we fill the measure of our creation and enjoy the blessings of eternity."
Cherry referred to the oral history project and the 225 interviews conducted with black LDS Church members. Most possessed sincere enthusiasm for their membership despite any negative experiences encountered, he said, adding that such awkward, difficult moments are usually the result of cultural miscommunication and not deep-seated hostility.
Cherry in part blamed a "white American mind-set" - a cultural conditioning established by history, education, theater and society. He referred to instances where black LDS members experience offensive remarks, folklore passed on as doctrine, exclusion or demeaning expectations. What might be considered blatant bigotry, however, is unknowing conduct accompanied by genuine charity - the result of conditioning created by the mind-set.
"Supposed perpetrators never realize they are causing hurt," he said. "Moreover, many black members never publicize that it occurs. But miscommunication leads to a fomentation of frustrations the adversary of all love will claim as his lawful prey."