Well-intentioned Racist

blackjesus

After I was mugged, nothing was the same. The next morning, my eye was swollen, but it wouldn’t turn black and blue for two more days, my jaw was tight and tender along the ridge where I had been punched, and the back of my neck and head, where I had been punched repeatedly, were stiff and rigid, leaving me unable to turn my head for several days.

Elder Donner tried talking to me about things, but I was furious with him and felt like it was all his fault, so I  just avoided the topic, going silent, which only provoked more anger from him. In another two weeks, I had already been told, he would be transferred, leaving me in Philly for even longer, but that was fine with me, I just wanted Donner gone. I stopped praying for a time, unable to open up the doors of pain inside myself.

I didn’t tell anyone at home that I was mugged and knocked unconscious. I knew it would make them worry, and I didn’t want them to worry. I could just tell them after I got home. The mission president knew, but he just made sure I was okay and didn’t need medical attention, and then I didn’t hear much more about it. It became yet another thing in my life that no one really talked about.

The day to day life of missionary work continued. I had been in Philadelphia for six months at this point, and I had grown to love many things about living there. I could easily navigate the busy streets and public transportation, and I had cultivated many relationships in the local Mormon branch that I attended on Sundays. I could seamlessly help conduct sacrament meeting, teach classes, or sit in on bishop council meetings. The members trusted me, and I had formed many friendships.

Culture often clashed in the branch, which was half made up of Utah-born Mormons who had moved out west for college (most young, white, and new parents) and local converts to the church (most black, and of various ages and cultures). Among my first sacrament meetings in the branch, the new branch president, a 25 year old dental student from Utah who was overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, stood up.

“Brothers and sisters, I am humbled to be called to this position. I’m grateful that the Lord has entrusted me with these new responsibilities, but I am humbled and scared as well. I have no doubt that I will be richly blessed in my needs as I devote myself to the Lord, who has blessed me so much in my life thus far.”

A row away from me, a tall, fit black man from Jamaica stood up in the pew and shouted, loudly, with his arms raised in the air. “Pass some of those blessings on to me, bruddah!” Several black people in the congregation clapped their hands, and muttered ‘Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!” as the white converts looked confused and horrified, Mormon sacrament meetings generally being starkly silent except for the sounds of babies.

I had learned to love the spirituality of those converts. Instead of silent distant prayers, they often joined hands and gave heartfelt passionate prayers. My prayers were consistent and patterned. “Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this day and for this food. Please help it to nourish and strengthen our bodies and do us the good that we need. Please bless the missionaries and the prophet. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen” felt very different than “Oh great Jesus in the sky, we praise your name! In your grace, we live, Father God, and we are thankful, yes, Amen, for all the many rich and powerful blessings you grant us with, oh Father God! We serve you, God, with joy and love and we pray, oh God, oh Father God, praise Jesus, that we may do thy work this day, yes, God, in the name of your only begotten son who died for us, God, Amen!”

These stark differences in methods of worship were jarring to me at first, but I grew to love them. There was so much heart and love in the prayers, in the methods. The spirit to me, in Mormonism, felt comforting at times, judgmental and starkly defensive at others. In Philadelphia, to those there, it seemed to feel like a celebration, a spirit of love and community, of gratitude and deeply felt resonance. It thrilled me.

During these dark months, I found the final convert of my mission, although I still had five months left. While knocking doors weeks before, Elder Bourne and I had found a beautiful young black woman named Nyoka. She was 22 with rich mahogany skin, thick curly hair, and a lithe elegance about her. She was stunning, with her own sense of style, including horn rim glasses and African print dresses and turbans, though she often wore simple t-shirts and jeans. She lived with her mother Patrice, her grandmother Creshaw, and her mentally disabled uncle Jerome, and she balanced going to school with work and helping take care of her family members, while Patrice also worked full time.

Hanging prominently in their living room was a painting of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, and both of them were beautiful, muscular black men. Next to that, a beautiful black Jesus with a crown of thorns, looking heroic and masculine. They shared their theories that Biblical figures were black, and I didn’t argue, though I had been taught they were white. I loved their ability to adapt the Bible to their own culture and heritage, and their arguments seemed sound and valid. We taught the family about our religion and perspectives, and they asked many critical questions, things I had given very little thought to in the past.

“So, elder, tell me how did Joseph Smith and the early Mormons treat slavery? What side did they take in the Civil War? What does the church teach about slavery?” And “Why has there never been a black leader in the Church? We know about Gladys Knight, but is that it?” and “We’ve read that the Church didn’t allow black Priesthood holders until nearly 1980. Is that true?”

I provided them with canned answers, based on my own understandings, but the truth was I simply didn’t know much about these topics, as they weren’t taught in my gospel education thus far. I taught them how after Cain had killed Abel, God had cursed Cain with dark skin, and that his descendants bore that mark. I taught them how, in the Book of Mormon, God did the same thing, letting the righteous Nephites keep their natural white skin while cursing the wicked Lamanites with dark skin. I told them that all people could be made righteous through following God, and that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young taught that all people with dark skins could become white in Heaven through righteousness. I taught them that while I didn’t know why God waited so long to let black men have the Priesthood, that God works on his own timeline and that he revealed that truth through his prophets when he felt we were ready for that truth. And I told them, truthfully, that I knew nothing about Mormons and slavery or Mormons and the Civil War. I taught them that God created all equal and that he was no respecter of persons and that he loved all of his children the same.

In a lucid moment one day, Creshaw told me, “Elder, you mean well and you have a good heart, but sometimes you’re a little racist, even if you don’t mean to.”

The family was justifiably skeptical, but I convinced them to come to church and see for themselves. They did, and they saw black members of the congregation and connected with them. Although the three older members of the family had no desire for baptism, Nyoka had never been baptized, and she wanted a fresh start on her life. And so on a beautiful Saturday morning, I took her to the church and I performed my last baptism. When she rose from the water, the white Mormons sat silently while her black family and friends cheered raucously.

Busy with college, Nyoka never returned to church, nor did her family. I visited them several more times while I lived in the city. I told Patrice about getting mugged and she drew me in for a long hug, telling me to be safe and that she’d pray for me. After I left Philadelphia, I never heard from the family again, and they never heard from me.

But they taught me many things. They taught me a new definition of family, a new way to worship, and a new perspective from which to view history. And they taught me that, as much as I knew about my church and its history, there was much more I had to learn about the world.

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