SAN ANTONIO — Two months after a joint press conference that signaled a historic new partnership between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the budding collaboration took a practical turn on Sunday night.
The two organizations plan to launch a joint education and employment initiative on the East Coast this fall, according to an announcement made at the 109th NAACP Annual Convention by Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Public Affairs Committee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Our unified vision is not only equality of education and income," Elder Gerard told the Deseret News, "but, perhaps more importantly, equality of influence."
He made the announcement during the convention's opening mass meeting at San Antonio's Henry B. González Convention Center, where an LDS gospel choir earned a standing ovation, winning over many in a large crowd that included some who vocalized surprise and skepticism over the new partnership.
"It's still a relationship that is developing and in progress," Leon Russell, chairman of the NAACP national board of directors, told the Deseret News. "We believe we should be in communication and partnership with any faith group on the issues on which we have common ground, and we have common ground with the LDS on equality, human rights and civility in public spaces. In all of those places, we can work together."
Elder Gerard said church members in Baltimore, Atlanta and Camden, New Jersey, will work side-by-side with members of local NAACP branches to provide training in personal finance, entrepreneurship and seeking better jobs through education.
Baltimore is the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Elder Gerard said it made sense to reciprocate the group's May visit to Salt Lake City and invitation to its convention by starting the new initiative in its backyard where the church already has established strong relationships with pastors and reverends of local black churches.
The training will be built on the framework of courses in the church's globally tested self-reliance program.
"We understand these tools," Elder Gerard said. "We know they work. This is the very same training our church has used for years for our own members with good results. We will work in harmony and learn from each other to significantly increase opportunity among our brothers and sisters whom we identify and invite together at the local level."
In May LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson held a news conference in Salt Lake City, where they jointly called for civility, greater racial and ethnic harmony and the elimination of prejudice.
President Nelson also said the two groups would explore opportunities to work together in areas like education and humanitarian services.
Sunday's announcement is the first evidence of the work that's been done in the past 60 days.
"Instead of just focusing uniquely on our members," Elder Gerard said, "local stakes can provide self-reliance training in combination with the NAACP. They will learn our self-reliance tools and use them to advance the interests of the African-American community."
The May summit between LDS and NAACP leaders surprised many, including some in senior leadership at the NAACP. In a speech Sunday night, Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, said she was a skeptic when she learned in February that Russell had scheduled a quarterly board meeting in Salt Lake City for May.
She said senior LDS leaders won her over.
"I learned there was common ground to be had in partnering with the Mormons around social justice issues," she said.
At Russell's personal invitation, the LDS singers performed a rousing rendition of "Calvary" before his speech on Sunday night.
The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir had performed for 45 minutes Saturday morning at the grand opening of the NAACP Experience exhibition. It also provided the musical prelude to Sunday morning's prayer breakfast.
A solo by Pleasant Grove's Tierra Custer drew numerous calls of support and joy from the crowd.
Bonner, an African-American who has been a Latter-day Saint for 35 years, said she is excited about the partnership of her faith with the human and civil rights organization. She enjoyed a personal meeting with Russell.
"He was very grateful and very excited about the new relationship with the LDS Church," Bonner said. "He was grateful for their efforts to help with civility and to try to end racism."
Bonner hoped the new LDS/NAACP collaboration will make LDS Church members more aware of ongoing struggles experienced by black Americans and more sensitive.
"Dialogue is starting now where dialogue has not been before," she said.
Bonner said the church's welfare program, which includes the self-reliance courses, is different.
"They really teach you to fish," she said. "They help you with education and jobs and training to help yourself. The program helps you subsist until you're able to do so on your own."
Gerard said the church and the NAACP will start small before building out the initiative nationally.
"This measured approach will give our combined team the opportunity to learn and improve processes and results before replicating and scaling," he said.
Russell said NAACP leadership told the church's First Presidency while in Salt Lake City in May that an LDS leader was invited to join their convention.
"This is a very significant sign of respect and of a shared relationship," Elder Gerard said. "We will work in harmony and learn from each other."
A previous version of this story misidentified the vice chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors. Her name is Karen Boykin-Towns, not Theresa Dear.