The Soapbox Pulpit and Sacrament Meeting

Yesterday, I had the privilege of watching a confirmation for four beautiful new members of the Church. I was present in the lesson with the Sister missionaries when the whole family was invited to be baptized together. Everyone has received them with open arms, and they're making tons of new friends. You can hardly get close to them because of how often people come up to them to express their love and appreciation for their decision.

This family just happens to be African American.

Their confirmation was beautiful. The bishop offered blessings to the mother, whose warmth and radiance is already such an example to me of everything I have always wanted to be. She was promised choice blessings by our Father in Heaven. She then watched, with tears in her eyes, as each of her children were similarly blessed. Each of them were promised they would be sealed in the temple. I rejoiced with them, and I was privileged to feast in the Spirit together with them.

Now to contrast, I want to comment on something that happened in that same Sacrament Meeting.

The closing speaker stood up, and opened her remarks by confessing that in college she had been a Mormon Feminist. She talked about that experience in some detail; how she gradually came to the recognition that she was being alienated from the Spirit and her leaders, how she didn't like the person she was becoming, and eventually separated herself from that association. Then she mentioned that yesterday was Wear Pants to Church day, and I didn't tune in again until she was talking about blacks and the priesthood restriction.

The point of her talk was about the importance of respecting priesthood leaders, which made me think of this.

I tried to concentrate on the Spirit, then finally gave up and doodled hearts all over the paper on which I'd previously been taking notes.

I will mention that she was wearing a lovely skirt.

Why do I tell you this story today? 

To compare these two events from Sacrament Meeting, and ask some simple questions.

Whose actions had a greater spiritual impact on the meeting? Whose example brought people closer to Christ? Whose devotion helped to deepen the lasting conversion of the congregation? Who was truly in harmony with the purpose of Sacrament Meeting?

Then consider this observation from Preach My Gospel:

“True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior.”  
President Boyd K. Packer

I understand that there is a faction of very vocal people who consider themselves activists, or I suppose reformed activists in this instance. They've been deeply impacted by the Church's past, and they feel an obligation to present the members of the Church their experiences with those issues. They want to make their cause visible to others, and many of them believe that Sacrament Meeting is the venue in which to do this.

They see the pulpit as a soapbox from which they can voice their views, even to twenty minutes past the actual end of the meeting.

What is most ironic to me about their attempts is that if they would only teach the gospel of Jesus Christ with sincerity, then bear a fervent testimony from their hearts, this would change behavior in the Church faster than anything else they could do. If they want to end racism, sexism, or any other -ism not in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they need to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Nothing else they can do will ever have the same impact.

I fear many of these well-intentioned "activists" have no idea how their actions actually impact the  people who have come to worship there.

I can think of another investigator who is currently attending services in our ward. He's a wonderful single father who is discovering the beauties of the restored gospel. I have loved talking to him and watching him as he cares for his new baby throughout the meetings. Surely he came to the meeting searching for the Spirit.

I think of the ill and ailing members of our ward. It is not easy for them to come to Church, and they only do so because they have sincere desires to find strength to continue facing their illnesses.

I think of my dear friend, whose mother recently passed away. She is still hurting intensely. I've been up with her past 1 in the morning twice already this week. My heart longs to know how I can help her, even though I already know that I can't. She's walking a hard road where no one can truly go with her except our Savior.

When I think of these and other good people, and how their spiritual growth was interrupted in this small way by the Mormon Feminist agenda, it upsets me. I recognize that the sister in my ward was speaking out against this agenda, but even that endeavor will never invite the Spirit.

Why? Because it's contentious, and the Spirit does not like contention.

The Mormon Feminist agenda was an unnecessary interruption to the Spirit which should have been ours in that meeting. And it wasn't just in our Sacrament Meeting, it was in Sacrament Meetings all across the Church. What some call, "shaking things up," or "making people uncomfortable with the way things are" is really just someone successfully chasing the Spirit away.

Considering the Mormon Feminists have frequently chosen to interrupt the spirit of some of the most important meetings in the Church, I have seen all I need to see of their position. Their behavior speaks for itself.

Sacrament Meeting is not the place for political agendas, current events, trending topics, or pet causes. Sacrament Meeting is the place designated by the Savior for His people to renew their covenants with Him. It's the place where disciples are helped and healed by the Savior in reverent peace. It's a meeting which should be totally dedicated to worshiping Jesus Christ--not the Tea Party, not the Mormon Feminists, not ObamaCare, or any other ordinary crusade in which our members take part.

As I once heard Queen Latifah say in a movie, "I don't want want to hear you. I want to hear God through you."

The members of my ward are especially distracting in this regard. And I admit, it has made me angry more than once. For that, I know I should repent. Which is why the last note I wrote on my paper was something I've heard the bishop's wife say many times in the few months we've lived here. It's something I can't be reminded of too often.

There is something I can love about everyone.

And more than anything else, I think back to the wonderful baptism and confirmation we just had in our ward, how strong these new members are and how much I already love them. I've asked myself whether or not I should try to mention the priesthood restriction to them at all. But my experience on Sunday shows me I don't need to do that.

Explanations and discourses on history won't change the Church, or the past, or the hearts and feelings of those who feel hurt by the past. And it certainly won't encourage the members of my ward to let it go. Only love can do that. Out of all the things I can do, the best thing would be to love them unconditionally and be their friend.

I know our Heavenly Father loves all of his children. I know that His love casts out all fear. All of the pain we experience in life is swallowed up in the love and sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our perfect example, the source of our salvation. I love them. I worship them. And I know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is their church on the earth today.

Even in all of our weaknesses and imperfections, there's no other church I'd rather be a part of, because I know God has the power to bring us all into perfect unity with Him. I know that reverence in our church meetings is essential to our salvation and to the salvation of those around us. When we seek this together in our congregations, God's Spirit will be among us, and bind up the broken hearted.

I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

More than a Shadow: Black Saints and the Priesthood Restriction

Recently the Church posted a statement on its website in the Topics section, a statement I was pleasantly surprised to see. It is called Race and the Priesthood, and it's the most direct official statement I've ever seen from the Church on this topic. But that could also be because it's the only statement I've ever seen, aside from Official Declaration 2.

To succinctly state the reality I want to address today, I'll borrow from the newly-published statement:
"Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly integrated faith. 
Despite this modern reality, for much of its history—from the mid-1800s until 1978—the Church did not ordain men of black African descent to its priesthood or allow black men or women to participate in temple endowment or sealing ordinances."

If you're unfamiliar with the history of this issue, I highly recommend you read their statement first. It provides a foundation for the rest of my post. Also realize that having read it, you will have received more information in regards to the priesthood restriction than I did in my 6 years as a member of the Church.

My Experience: A Gradual Discovery

The issue of the priesthood restriction didn't catch my attention until my mission to Brazil. My Brazilian companions asked me about it. People we spoke to in the streets, many of them from other churches, would ask us about it. I spoke to active members who remember when the ban was lifted and they received the priesthood. We found someone who was baptized as a young woman in the 70's, fell away when she discovered the restriction, and hadn't been back to Church in more than 30 years.
Jane Manning James
First African American to settle
in the Utah Territory

All I could say to them is racism existed all throughout the world, not just in the Church, and 1978 was the time appointed for the entire world to change. Extending the priesthood to all worthy males was an invitation for the world to change, not just the Church. Many false things were taught as doctrine--the curse of Cain, the "less valiant" in the pre-existence--and we maintain today that these theories are false.

But it's hard to convince someone (in a foreign language) that you're telling the truth when those same theories are still being parroted around as doctrine by active native members of the Church.

Theories as to why the ban existed, including many views full of false doctrine, continue to be circulated throughout the Church in Brazil. The more I saw of the restriction's impact, and genuinely grew to love the Brazilian people, the more I wanted to help them understand one undeniable reality:

The Church unequivocally condemns racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church
-Public Church statement, 2012

But it wasn't until I came home and discovered my grandmother's heritage that the priesthood ban took on a personal meaning to me.

The Priesthood Ban Affects All of Us

Whether you realize it or not, the priesthood ban affects all of us. The wonderful children of God who won't join the Church because they're black and they see no or few black faces in our congregations. The members who are inactive because they witnessed all of this history, or learned about it after the fact. You may even be closer to it than you think: you may have family members or ancestors that were directly impacted by the priesthood ban because they were black.

And you may not even know it.

That munchkin in the baby picture is me, but I'm a lot darker than that today.
The older couple to my left are my grandparents.

My grandmother's heritage has always been a mystery to us. Looking at her, you can tell she isn't white... but you can't tell what she is. Growing up, her ethnicity was never discussed. And it wasn't until I came home from my mission that I knew for sure that she is black. She comes from a long line of black Canadians from Halifax, Nova Scotia, as well as sailors from Barbados and Jamaica.

I have loved discovering my black heritage. I feel like a missing part of who I am has been filled in at last. And it was only once I was preparing their names for the temple that I finally clued into what was really taking place there. Race just isn't something that I immediately notice about people.

My black family members were alive when the priesthood ban was still in force. Even though all races were still allowed to join the Church and be baptized, they never would have received the priesthood or ordinances of the temple during their lifetime. I'd be surprised if missionaries ever set foot in that part of Halifax because the area surrounding the harbor where they lived was predominantly black.

By extension, whether I would have been allowed to enter the temple would have been in question because of my heritage. I learned while I was in Brazil that I would have had to submit a genealogy to show if the restriction applied to me or not. I don't know how far removed that heritage had to be. But for all intents and purposes my husband and I could have been considered a biracial couple in the eyes of the restriction, and I may not have been allowed to be sealed to him.

That, more than anything else, is what disturbs me about trying to imagine myself in that position.

So What Does all of this mean to Me?

Now that I can imagine how it feels to be excluded from what means so much to me, what insight does that give me into why this history matters? And how does this change my perception of the issue, and my relationship with the Church?

First, it doesn't change my relationship with the Church at all. I don't blame my Church or its leaders today for the shortcomings and weaknesses of previous generations. I decided a long time ago I would never do that. I don't think it's Christ-like. I have no right to judge others, or to read malice into their motives. But I have a responsibility to forgive, and to strive to see the hand of God even when it appears invisible. I trust God enough to allow Him to correct the failures of mankind in His own time.

I'm grateful I can be the change for the members of my family. I feel more than ever how much my ancestors depend on me to do their temple ordinances. I feel their eagerness to be received into the kingdom of God, and that eliminates all doubts I might have had on this issue. If they can find it within themselves to let go of past hurts and wrongs, so can I. And I feel privileged to be the one to offer the temple blessings to them. I feel responsible to know their stories, and to take learning black history more seriously because it's also my history.

First black Elder and Seventy
Ordained in 1836 by Joseph Smith

I have a more intense interest to learn the history of black pioneers in my church. I want to learn their stories, and share them more in my lessons and in my talks at church. I never realized how much I was ignoring the black history of my Church, for fear that it would lead to explaining the priesthood ban. But now I see we lose so many valuable stories by doing that. Hiding from our past doesn't allow many members to heal.

Our white church history comes with all sorts of baggage, but we sing praises to it all day long. It never occurred to me that the black history of the Church should be no different. To see them publishing this statement makes me feel like they're owning this part of our history. I pray this will lead to greater knowledge of the black Saints of our past; stories of their valiant faith and sacrifices to build Zion.

More than anything else however, I feel the great love of my ancestors, and their gratitude that I'm not ashamed of them. Some in my family have been ashamed that they exist, as if being black was something to be embarrassed about. But I'm not embarrassed. And no matter how messy their stories become, I know I can hold onto two irrefutable facts:

  1. All the unfair things in life are healed and made right by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
  2. The wisdom and strength we gain by surviving terrible things is worth more than any innocence we had before.
I'm using this new section of the Church's website to build up my testimony of the Church stronger than it was before. I know I have the responsibility to do this. All that will come after this now will be better than anything else before it--which is not only the definition of true learning, but also of continuing revelation.

I know that God lives. I know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ's restored Church. It was brought back to the earth through a living prophet, Joseph Smith. The power and authority he received continued to his successors throughout the history of the Church. They were men called of God, and even in their imperfections God was able to use them to do His work. We have a prophet today, Thomas S. Monson. The priesthood power he holds is exactly the same as it was in Christ's day.

The priesthood is available to all worthy men who will receive it, and women are free partakers of those blessings, regardless of the color of their skin. We enjoy blessings for which we did not work, and we must all remember that we drink from wells we did not build. Jesus Christ has established true order and equality in His Church today. Let us go on rejoicing, inviting everyone to come and see his miracles and partake of His restored gospel.

This is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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