Watching this summer’s protests opposing systemic racial inequality play out against the backdrop of COVID-19—a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the same communities for which the protests demand change—has revealed that we as Americans are still grappling with the issue of race. As I think about how racism continues to influence our lives and institutions, I am forced to reckon with how it has shaped my experience as a Black woman within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: a church that still struggles with the issue of race. As I reflect on my place within the religion, I am confronted with the following questions: What do I tell Black people who are curious about the faith? What do I say to Black Church members who are ready to leave?

For me, the traditional methods to encourage conversion and retention feel inept. Not in regard to what they teach about Christ, but more so in regard to what they don’t say about how the Church navigates race and the impact this has on the Black Latter-day Saint experience. My aim here is to provide some guidance to those Black individuals contending with their place within the faith by offering tools to frame and manage its uncomfortable realities in a way that safeguards their testimonies.

The impetus for this article came from a request by Savannah Eccles Johnston, a regular contributor to SquareTwo. She and the editors of the journal, in an effort to authentically cover the protests in their fall issue, decided that they needed Black contributors. I applaud their efforts to secure diverse perspectives for their publication, and I also acknowledge the variety of reasons why there is a dearth of viewpoints from POC (People of Color) in journals on the Latter-day Saint experience.

Contemplating what to contribute here has surfaced a lot of hurt that has been boiling in my heart. Consuming the onslaught of images of police brutality on Black bodies has always been difficult. But the addition of watching the global protests, coupled with listening to the dialogue around their efficacy, legality, and justification—in addition to commentary as to why they sometimes descend into riots—while simultaneously managing COVID-19 in a family of Black and Brown health-care professionals and essential workers, has required Olympic-level mental gymnastics.

I am drained. Mustering the nerve to frame these feelings and their cause in a religious context has been a momentous challenge. With gratitude, I have come to recognize the opportunity before me, that is, a global interest in the Black experience and how to improve it.

It is hard to write about religion, as Savannah states here. The task becomes even more complex when considering the intersection of race relations. There are fears of appearing to speak for people who look like me; I do not. There are concerns around making reductive generalizations that come across as dismissive. Here I may be guilty, but this was not done intentionally—it is the consequence of needing to be concise. Forgive me. Worry sprouts as I wonder how my fellow parishioners will perceive me: What will they think? What will they say? What won’t they say? How will my Latter-day Saint parents feel about my actions?

Hanging heavily in the forefront of my mind is the desire that Black people both inside and outside of the Latter-day Saint community do not perceive me as an apologist (or dare I say as an Uncle Tom) as I reflect on being a Black member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It makes me anxious. I am perplexed at the thought of being considered a traitor to my race. My membership in the Church often elicits concern and suspicion when new people learn this personal fact. Years of hearing, “You know that Mormons don’t like Black people, right?” from those who fail at keeping their intrigue to themselves, have left me both cautious and wary of describing my experience in a public forum.

The answer to their question is “No, but … ” No, the Latter-day Saints I encounter, for the most part, don’t just like Black people; they love them as their own. My life is filled with these people. People who woke up at 5:00 AM, picked me up from my house, and drove me to early morning seminary, five days a week. People who after long days at the office opened their homes up to me so I could get help with my physics and calculus homework. People who took interest in my spiritual, academic, and sometimes folly-filled pursuits. They created spaces for me to build my testimony and hone the skills necessary to grow it. Along with my parents, their actions would spark many of my religious experiences, creating a strong foundation for me to build upon. To say that I feel loved by them and am eternally grateful to them is an understatement.

At the same time, I have encountered racism as well, sometimes from the same people who sought to uplift me. One draft of this essay was simply a list of the microaggressions and out-right racist attacks I’ve encountered at the hands of my fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The list captures injustices from as early as five, weaving its way through my time in Primary, and as a Beehive, Mia-maid, and Laurel. It highlights instances from stake conferences, girls camp, institute, and seminary. It peaks around my time in singles wards and holds steady after I untangle my social life from my Church membership. I quickly realize that the list is as lengthy as it is trite. It is also washed in the privilege afforded to me by my light skin, racially ambiguous features, and hair that changes curl pattern at will. I am embarrassed by it.

The embarrassment swells when I think of some of the racist experiences my cocoa-skinned mother has shared, and ponder the sadness contained in those instances she has chosen to keep to herself. I am keenly aware of how our different phenotypes have created divergent earthly experiences. Due to the effects of white supremacy on modern society, her skin color increases the odds of her getting the shorter-end of the stick. It means she will be mistreated and judged unfairly at a higher rate, even within our chapel halls. It means that I can be hurt and puzzled by a Bishop’s wife’s decision to tell me that everyone thought my mother was a drug addict; but I’ll never fully comprehend how my mother felt to be vilified by her sisters in Christ because of the conclusions they made about her based on skin color. For the record, my mother is a nurse who has never taken illicit drugs and is even critical of prescribed pain medication. This fact simultaneously gives the mischaracterization a sense of levity (she would never do this), but also increases its capacity for harm.

This is what it’s like to be Black and a Latter-day Saint. It is to be strengthened in the love of Christ, while simultaneously leaving yourself vulnerable to microaggressions and out-right racist attacks from people who would and should otherwise mean well. The insidiousness of it all is less rooted in White members wanting to remove people of color from their places of worship and more so in the Church as an American creation, thus having white supremacy woven into its DNA. [1]

I have to admit, my decision to exclude the list lays less in my embarrassment and more in my understanding of its ability to deafen people to my aims. Microaggressions are a double-edged sword when alerting people to the plight of minorities in America. As much as they can paint a vivid picture and help drive empathy, the fact that they hinge on the subjectivity of perspective deafens their impact. They leave the target vulnerable to victim shaming which often appears in the form of dismissal and or denial of their experience. [2] The dilemma has little to do with the recipient. Those who take umbrage are primed to be more upset with their decision to share than by the context of their pain. Contending with the limitations of my choice, I have decided to pivot.

A fated missionary experience would guide me to my topic. While speaking with a Black investigator this July, I had a nagging feeling that my simple testimony of “I believe that the Church is true” failed to fully convey my complex feelings about the realities of being a Black Latter-day Saint. Yes, the Gospel is true, and for me—a person whose family dynamics have given her extensive exposure to the Pentecostal, Catholic, and Baptist faiths—the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is my preferred framework for accessing truth. But, the Church is not a place of refuge from racism. Due to the Church’s history and its mostly white U.S. population, membership in Latter-day Saint faith demands that you will have to navigate racism within the religious community.

I look back on that experience and add it to the long-running dialogue I have with myself regarding the pros and cons of staying within the faith. The list of cons becomes more blatant when I think of raising my future children as Latter-day Saints. Do I leave the Church and share with them only those aspects of the religion that I love, essentially depriving them of the blessings and joys that come from participating in a Church community in an effort to eliminate another access point for racism to interrupt their lives? Ideally, this would limit their interactions with racism to social, academic, and professional settings. Or do I stay in the Church and allow white supremacy and bigotry to eat away at the spiritual foundation I am building for them?

My answer lies somewhere in the middle ground between the two options. At this point, I am choosing to stay. Yet, I stay with my eyes wide-open to the realities of the situation and create tools that protect my spiritual and emotional wellbeing as I interact with the white supremacy embedded within the fabric of the Church.

The rest of this piece outlines the six steps that I use to build moats around myself and my testimony. The steps link together to form a map that allows me to navigate, comprehend, and shape the path before me. I share this guide not to prove that I have all the answers, but as a means of supporting those who, like me, find themselves participating in organizations tainted by white supremacy.

Step 1: Decouple the Gospel from the Church

First, decouple the Gospel from the Church. Separate the Gospel of Christ from the Church that has been entrusted with sharing it with the world. The Gospel is the pure love of Christ, while the Church is made of people. As a result, as much as it tries to be, the Church is not perfect. It suffers from the limitations of the men and women who are tasked with driving its goals and aims. Those limitations include racism and white supremacy.

Step 2: Acknowledge the Church’s Achievements

Second, recognize that the majority of members are striving to accomplish the task of being facilitators of the Gospel to the best of their ability. In doing so, they have accomplished many amazing things including: drawing people closer to Christ, building chapels and temples, supporting the youth, creating a robust missionary program, deploying an effective welfare/ charity program, and managing a pandemic. But there are some places where the Church misses the mark. One area of opportunity for continual improvement is its treatment of issues on race. This includes the discourse on how it mishandled race in the past and the subsequent impact this had on Black people. It also encompasses the lack of information—and rampant misinformation—on racial topics as they pertain to Gospel teachings that circulate among its members.

There are those who would argue that everything the Church does well outweighs what it does not do well. This argument fails to see how what the Church lacks impedes and dismantles the efforts around its most important goal, which is to bring saints unto Christ. Simply put, if white supremacy is allowed to continue to swell within the pews, how will the Church grow and maintain its Black membership base?

It must be said that the Church has made improvements on the race issue, from lifting the Priesthood ban in 1978, to disavowing the reasons for the ban in 2013. It has also made serious investments in the championing of diversity, including the creation of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, building ties with the NAACP, advancing the genealogical work of victims of the transatlantic slave trade [3], and releasing timely and valuable statements on the current protests. Most recently, during the last session of General Conference (the semiannual gathering of Church members) the Prophet, Russell M. Nelson, acknowledged the racism faced by Black people around the world, and then called for members to abandon actions and attitudes of prejudice. [4] Other senior members of Church leadership have gone so far as to declare the contentious phrase, “Black lives matter” [5] when discussing the importance of ending racism. [6] Despite all this effort, racism continues to rear its ugly head within our Church community. One can assume that this is mainly because the Church exists within an American context.

Step 3: Recognize that the Church, like other American institutions, struggles with effectively rooting out racism

The Founding Fathers’ decision to continue slavery in an effort to unite the country had myriad consequences. The most damaging repercussion is the legacy of devaluing Black and Brown lives in the pursuit of “greater goods.” This has left the mark of racism on all institutions that exist within the paradigm of the United States. For example, we see this occur within the judicial system, where despite being egalitarian in its aims, prejudices have muddied its application. As a result, effort has to be constantly exerted to guarantee that its aims are applied to all people equally. Such is the case with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: While the doctrine welcomes all, a legacy of racist practices limited certain groups from full participation. Despite those barriers being removed, issues stemming from them persist within the community and undermine the work.

The perpetual need for enforcement is due to the failure of both institutions to a) take full responsibility for its exclusions, b) perform acts of restitution to hurt parties, and c) actively root out and eliminate every semblance of those racist practices while simultaneously reinforcing why change is necessary. While members of the Church are actively engaged in these three things, we come up short when we try to execute the third piece.

The Church’s failure takes on many shapes. In its grossest form, it surfaces as members cleaving to white nationalist ideals [7] and leveraging scripture to support those beliefs, even after the prophet, leader of the Church, has chastened such behavior. [8] Such was the case with Rebecca Taylor’s article, “Why Latter-day Saints should be concerned about Social Justice Ideology,” [9] which was published this August, after the prophet’s, “ … call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.” [10]

While the contents of the article are disheartening, more alarming was Meridian’s decision to publish it, the 12,000 “likes” it garnered, and the numerous people in the comment section championing the piece. At the very least, the article and its reception points to traces of white supremacy within the larger LDS community; at most, it shows that after all the resources the Church has poured into teaching the tenets of Christ, members and their cultural enclaves still fail to grasp who He was and what He stood for.

I would love to offer a more thorough analysis of Taylor’s failure to see that Christ is the embodiment of social justice, but that must wait for another time. I am still tempering my sentiments on the situation and cannot add eloquent commentary to the current discourse on the matter. Until then, I offer James C. Jones’ rebuttal [11], which does an excellent job of refuting Taylor’s argument.

Our failure shows up in pop-culture, where movie references deem members of the faith as “super religious white people.” [12] It also appears as a gray cloud over the BYU experience as concerns mount around the weaponization of the Honor Code against the school’s Black population. [13] Equally as damning is the response from the student body in attempts to create dialogue around these matters. [14]

Our inability to root out racism shows up in violent attacks on Black missionaries who are called to serve in Utah [15], the Church’s headquarters, and where 62% of residents are LDS. [16] It is also evident when we look at the voting record of the state Utah. In 2016, 45.5% of the state voted for President Trump. In 2020, after four years of the president’s glaringly racist proclamations and policies for immigrants and POC [17], 58% of Utahans voted for his reelection. [18] These data points indicate that voters in a state with a high Latter-day Saint population do not see racism as a disqualifying attribute for the nation’s highest public office. The electorate’s tolerance for that type of behavior serves as a lubricant for the wheels of white supremacy, making them willing participants within that system.

The Church’s failure to root out every semblance of racism is seen in its guidance around musical instruments that are deemed appropriate for sacrament meetings and those that are not. The Church handbook dictates that brass and percussion instruments, with the exception of the piano, project “less worshipful sounds,” and as a result are not suitable for Sunday meetings. [19] This guidance actively alienates those who come from cultures outside of the Western European religious tradition. It has the potential to be very off-putting for members of the Black community, for drums and brass instruments play a large role in traditional religious expression. [20] The lack of scriptural evidence [21] supporting this policy leaves it vulnerable to criticism that its origins likely stem more from cultural preference than from heavenly revelation.

Our failure to rid ourselves of racism also appears in the LDS cultural preference for women to stay in the home, a preference that is echoed in countless general conference talks, firesides, Relief Society, and Young Women’s lessons. Here we see a lack of consideration for the socio-economic realities of women, particularly for women of color, for many of whom working outside of the home is necessary for the survival of their families and is an integral part of their respective histories. [22]

The Church’s failure to adequately deal with racism morphs and weaves itself into messages from Church leadership that are meant to uplift and support not just LDS members who are Black, but the larger Black community. Such is the case when looking at the prophet’s June memo about the protests. [23] His comments reflect how far the Church has come on matters of race and just how far we have to go. In the statement, he condemns racial prejudice, calls for unity, and the equal treatment of all people. He then closes his comments by denouncing looting and violence. It is here that the failure appears:

Any nation can only be as great as its people. That requires citizens to cultivate a moral compass that helps them distinguish between right and wrong.
Illegal acts such as looting, defacing, or destroying public or private property cannot be tolerated. Never has one wrong been corrected by a second wrong. Evil has never been resolved by more evil. [24]

I agree—rioting is wrong. But I believe that White Americans spend too much time focusing on actions, and not enough on the root causes of unappealing behaviors. The prophet’s statements blend into the larger narrative perpetuated by the news media that the protests are unjust because they sometimes devolve into looting and violence, and suggests that the protection of property is greater than the demands of those who have taken to the streets to air their concerns. Media researchers refer to this as the “protest paradigm,” [25] which occurs when journalists engage in the problematic framing of “protests through the lens of those in authority and [focus] disproportionately on episodes of violence.” [26]

A simple tweak would have made President Nelson’s comments more expansive and impactful. He could have leveraged other Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, and explored how and why “violence is the language of the unheard.” [27] This would have revealed that condemning the riots, without acknowledging the conditions that led to them is “morally irresponsible.” [28] I find it hard to argue against granting compassion to the person that breaks a window because the gruesome death of George Floyd brought them to a breaking point. (Especially considering how this event adds to the strain of bearing the weight of over 400 years of mental, physical, and economic oppression.) Over those 400 years there have been numerous instances of race massacres that border on genocide, perpetuated by Whites against Black bodies. Events like the Tulsa Race Riot give us a description of their horror and destruction. In 1921, fueled by economic uncertainty created by WW1, a group of White people marched into “Black Tulsa” and pillaged its residents and businesses. Some estimates place the loss of Black life at 300. [29] It would take over a decade to rebuild the region’s economy. Any consideration of this atrocity and the countless other events like it would have changed the tone of the prophet’s reproach.

This examination of the root causes of violence would also have shed light on instances of violence within Church history. [30] It would have also forced people to think about how grievances in Church history align with the grievances of recent protesters. Finally, coupled with this exercise, a quick scan of videos of the riots would show that the violence was often incited by people who aimed to paint the protests in a negative light. [31] [32] As a result, the reprimand issued would have been inclusive of all guilty parties. Frankly, had any of the above been leveraged by the prophet and his PR team, the distance between the memo and its mark would have been closed.

I recognize my tone here may seem harsh, and I am in no way discounting the efforts of the prophet. I am in awe of his progressive approach to leading the Church and do not doubt his commitment to making it a more welcoming environment for all people. Yet I will not shirk away from offering a critique of the execution of his aims. Reading the last few lines of the June 2020 memo caused me to question my place within the Church. In a time of deep anguish, instead of offering me peace, it just confounded matters. I wonder how other Black members feel? The fact that it was co-signed by the NAACP did not ease the tension I felt. Instead, it provided another example of how respectability politics [33] can limit our perceptions and do more harm than good.

The prophet’s handling of the protests has set a precedent of aligning one’s self with anti-racist sentiments while concurrently denouncing the actions of the victims of racism. This leaves room for people to question where the Church actually stands on the matter. Such is the case with Elder Oaks’ recent comments on racism during a devotional at Brigham Young University. [34] In his statement, he proclaims that Black lives do indeed matter, but cautioned against endorsing reforms that would help to safeguard Black lives. Reforms such as systemic changes within policing and the removal of statues that glorify racists.

If I’m being honest, the entire statement is rife with issues. Issues range from cautioning against the removal of systemic and physical symbols of oppression to the failure to acknowledge racism within our own Church history in a Church talk on racism. The issues are cemented in the use of Winston Churchill—a racist—as an example of the benefits of not dwelling on the past. Churchill, while saving Britain from demise in World War II, allowed his prejudice to contribute to the death of over 3 million Indians. [35]

Oaks’ use of Churchill and my reception to it actually illustrates the divide between where the Church is in dealing with racism and where I, and others like myself, want it to be. His comments illustrate how the Church is committed to distancing itself from racism, but has not fully divorced itself from racist vestiges of the past. It is willing to take the good with the bad, which is why Oaks can comfortably cite Churchill as a hero, and call for BYU students to relinquish their demands for the removal of racist symbols that exist on campus. [36] Holding on to these symbols is frustrating for people like me, who wish for the Church to rally behind new heroes and symbols that are more inclusive and representative of the rich global diversity of its membership base. It becomes even more perplexing when you consider that the tithing dollars of this global base subsidize the cost of BYU. [37]

I comprehend the inherent difficulty in walking away from these heroes and symbols—one person’s racist is another person’s cherished leader who held prejudices that were reflective of their time. [38] The discourse on the discarding of monuments is complex. Granted, I believe that to fully reckon with racism we have to evaluate if these emblems serve the aims that we have aligned ourselves with. In the case of having statues of racists on a Church funded college campus, there is a blatant conflict of interest. Yet, I am wary of cancel culture and its demands for perfection from imperfect people.

I think a more ample solution is to leverage context when invoking our “problematic favorites.” [39] For example, while I am forever indebted to Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, I would not invoke him when championing marital fidelity. Similarly, I would reference Winston Churchill when offering examples of bravery and fortitude, but not on matters concerning racial equity and justice. This framework allows us to recognize a person’s contributions and helps us resist the urge to make them the standard for all things. With this application, we may consider moving BYU’s monuments of heroes with racial prejudices to museums, and replacing them with emblems that are better representative of the Church’s mission.

In venting my frustrations to my father about how the manner in which Church leaders approach current heightened racial tensions, he suggested that because the prophet and the majority of Church senior leadership do not share our Black skin and heritage, they may not fully grasp the hurt that is currently rippling through our community. I take his comments in stride while wishing that the commentary from President Nelson and Elder Oaks had included a commitment from the Church to put the full weight of its resources behind extinguishing white supremacy, similar to the influence it displayed for Prop 8. [40] While I did not agree with nor participate in its efforts, the manner in which the Church rallied its members around its goal was impressive. I write this with the constant longing that the same vigor will apply in attempts to fight racism and white supremacy, especially as we see their adverse effects play out in 2020.

Step 4: Remember that all religions operating within the US have not solved the issue of racism.

Fourth, acknowledge that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the only religion that has a troublesome past with racism. Sunday services in the United States are one of the last bastions of segregation. According to the National Congregation Study, 8 out of 10 American church-goers attend homogeneous congregations. [41] The LDS Church aims to counter this by assigning members to congregations by geography. While not a perfect solution, it ensures that wards are a reflection of their communities’ demographics. “The Church’s lay ministry also tends to facilitate integration: a Black bishop may preside over a mostly white congregation; a Hispanic woman may be paired with an Asian woman to visit the homes of a racially diverse membership. 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.” [42]

Other Christian institutions don’t fare as well in this arena. Many attribute this to the fact that the churches themselves play a role in upholding white supremacy. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Institute, writes, “White Christian churches have not just been complacent or complicit in failing to address racism; rather, as the dominant cultural power in the U.S., they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy. Through the entire American story, white Christianity has served as the central source of moral legitimacy for a society explicitly built to value the lives of white people over Black people. And this legacy remains present and measurable in the cultural DNA of contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast.” [43]

Religion as a means to support racial inequality is not just a Christian issue, but impacts any religion that is trying to establish itself in America. For example, “The distinction between the African-American Muslim experience and that of their immigrant co-religionists has long been a source of racial tension in the Muslim community, but since the election, things have gotten both better and worse. While some Muslims seem to be paying more attention to racism because of Donald Trump, others fear that any sign of internal division is dangerous for Muslims in a time of increased hostility.” [44]

Step 5: Commit to becoming stewards of Gospel Doctrine and Church History

Fifth, commit to knowing the doctrine. Immerse yourself in it. Familiarize yourself with primary sources that contain the core tenets of our faith. This will allow you to know with full confidence that the Gospel preaches unity. This knowledge is the most essential tool for safeguarding your testimony from racist folklore that has no basis in truth and that is constantly being repackaged as a means to help flesh out a Sunday school/seminary/institute/BYU lesson or talk. Arguments that the Book of Mormon values whiteness will be disproven. Theories that the mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham are justification for the mistreatment of Black peoples will be debunked. A close study of the doctrine will reveal that any narrative leveraging it as justification for the mistreatment of groups of people is a falsehood, a type of priest craft, a sin.

Next, become a steward of Church history. Chart the evolution of the Church’s stance on the parameters of Black membership. You will learn that blame for the Church’s issue with race does not rest squarely on the shoulders of Brigham Young, though in my opinion, he should carry the bulk of the load. Rather, it starts with Joseph Smith, who waffled on the slavery issue, sometimes claiming that slavery was the plight of the Negro, other times self-identifying as an abolitionist. [45] His anti-slavery rhetoric would be a factor in his assassination, and serve as fuel for persecution aimed at members of the early Church. Brigham Young would take the reins and establish the Priesthood Ban in 1852, prohibiting Blacks from holding the priesthood, and limiting their access to the temple. Many would contest the justification for the ban. Their efforts would be thwarted by Church leaders who would cling to the practice on the basis of popular misinformation used to justify the persecution of Black people. The ban would not be lifted until 1978. For 126 years, the Priesthood ban would limit the Black experience within the Church, effectively hindering the spiritual progression of African descendants for generations.

We are told Prophets lead for their times: “ … 17 men have served as the president of the Church. Latter-day Saints consider each of these men to be prophets who received revelation from God. Each man possessed unique talents and gifts that helped the Church progress during that time and set the stage for future growth.” [46] I think about this often when I ponder the rationale for Young’s declaration. Under his leadership, the Saints completed their trek West, established Salt Lake City, built temples, and were admitted into the Union. He also tethered the Church to racism. Does the latter cancel out the success of the former, or is the latter the cost of achieving the former?

I’m inclined to offer Young grace as I consider what issues he might have been weighing. As a custodian of this new faith, he probably felt immense responsibility to ensure its survival. At the time of his leadership, Latter-day Saints were “othered” within American society. Their penchant for polygamy, abolitionist attitudes, and ability to influence politics because of their large numbers drew ire from those outside the religion.

In Missouri, there was an extermination order that absolved anyone for murdering a member of the Church. The law would remain on the books well into the 1970s. It’s likely Young’s actions were driven by his need to remove hurdles threatening the new religion. By placing restrictions on Blacks he would align the Church with popular sentiments of the time and move it closer to “whiteness.” [47] Whatever the reason, he remains a racist, whose attempts to ensure survival of the religion, continue to hinder its mission. I am glad that I am not responsible for administering the justice required here.

Another added benefit of knowing your history is that it allows you to see yourself in places where others might try to erase you. There were Black members of the Church from the very beginning. They met Joseph Smith in the east and packed their bags and marched westward with the other pioneers. Their sweat and sacrifice nurtured the soil from which Salt Lake City grew.

The roster of early Black members includes Hark Lay Wales, Oscar Crosby, Green Flake, and my personal favorite, Jane Manning James. [48] James was a free Black woman from Connecticut, who—after hearing Smith preach—decided to commit herself to the Gospel. She would become a devoted follower of the faith and a close confidant of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife Emma. Even though Young’s Priesthood ban prevented her from fully participating in temple ordinances, she would carve out a space for herself within the Church’s history. She became known for her extensive charity work with the Relief Society, the Church’s women’s organization. Ironically, she was also a champion of temples, contributing financially to the building of the Logan, Manti, and St. George temples. She accomplished these things while constantly lobbying Church leadership for the right to fully experience the religion on her own terms. Her example sits at the forefront of my mind as I negotiate the intersectionality of being a Black, feminist, immigrant woman within the Latter-day Saint faith, and I consider her a personal role model. Like her, I too must be actively engaged in claiming a space for Blackness within the Church. It is from here that I take inspiration for the last recommendation.

Step 6: Claim Your Space within the Church

As a member, do not shy away from driving change within the Church. We read in our scriptures that in heaven above our Father has many mansions [49], and as a result, on earth we must take on the task of claiming them. This requires being engaged in the work, attending Church meetings, taking on leadership opportunities, and taking full advantage of access to the temple. Most importantly, show up as your full Black self as you participate in all these efforts. I’ve struggled here. I have succumbed to the pull to assimilate into Whiteness. It manifested itself in what I wore, how I fixed my hair, and the topics I broached in front of my fellow parishioners.

It wasn’t just one thing in particular that led me to change, but a multitude of events that caused me to realize that I need to be the change I wish to see. I need to speak up when I see something unjust within our religious community. I need to raise concerns about inclusivity. I need to be a bearer of the truth of the Gospel and of our Church’s history. I need to help shape how we move forward. I need to be present. I need to be here.

I am grateful for other Black Latter-day Saints who have set the standard for being “here.” The work of the early Black pioneers, and the recent efforts of the BYU Black Student Union come to mind. Gladys Knight’s successful attempt at lobbying Church leadership to allow her to remix popular hymns so that they fit into the traditional forms of Black religious expression is also an invaluable contribution.

Less famous, but just as impactful, are the efforts put forth by my parents. My mother, to her credit, has always told me that I would not have the same experience as my White counterparts and encouraged me to live the Gospel on my own terms. My father’s commitment to missionary work and to creating an inviting environment for people of color within our local Church community stands tantamount to the aforementioned examples.

This work is not easy, and if you choose to participate in it, I urge you to build a deep toolbox of resources for self-care. My reserve consists of a diverse list of allies inside and outside of the Church. It’s filled with books and articles that help me frame my experience. It includes making space to be actively engaged with my Black community as often as I am with my religious one, and relishing those opportunities when they overlap. It is constantly recommitting myself to reading the scriptures and practicing daily prayer when nothing else offers any peace.

As I think about the guidance I offer you above, I recognize its imperfections. First, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Second, it only addresses the victims of racism and not the perpetrators. I accept the consequences of the first argument as my offering stems from my lived experiences and those of my immediate circle. As for the latter, I have made the conscious decision not offer any guidance to my fellow White members. What can I say that has not already been stated in the canon on racial equality? All I can offer is my experience as a tool for making the most of the time we have as we wait for the perpetrators to finally have the change of heart that is necessary for eradicating white supremacy.

I leave you with my testimony. I know this Gospel is true and I am grateful for the ways it has shaped me. I shudder at the thought of what my life would be like without this grounding force. As I contemplate all the ways in which the Church can improve, I recognize that fixing those areas where it falls short is part of the work. Some of those areas include how we receive and treat members of the LGBTQ community, our attitudes on the role of women, and last but not least, our approach to tackling racism and white supremacy. It is my hope that by highlighting the opportunities for improvement and creating solutions we will be more successful in fulfilling our mandate of sharing the Gospel and perfecting the saints. [50]


[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/09/mormons-race-max-perry-mueller/539994/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[2] https://theconversation.com/the-trouble-with-microaggressions-71364
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[3] https://kutv.com/news/local/lds-church-donates-2-million-to-create-african-american-genealogy-museum --- [Back to manuscript].

[4] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[5] https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/10/elections-republicans-black-lives-matterbacklash-389906 --- [Back to manuscript].

[6] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-oaks-byu-devotional-october-2020-talk#_ftn2 --- [Back to manuscript].

[7] https://universe.byu.edu/2020/06/03/lisis-384-final/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[8] https://religionnews.com/2017/08/15/lds-church-rebukes-mormon-white-supremacists-who-rebuke-the-church-right-back/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[9] https://latterdaysaintmag.com/why-latter-day-saints-should-be-concerned-about-the-social-justice-ideology/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[10] https://medium.com/@Ch_JesusChrist/locking-arms-for-racial-harmony-in-america-2f62180abf37 --- [Back to manuscript].

[11] https://medium.com/@jamescjones/re-why-latter-day-saints-should-be-concerned-with-social-justice-ideology-25434858d478 --- [Back to manuscript].

[12] https://religionnews.com/2019/07/08/stranger-things-sees-mormons-as-super-religious-white-people/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[13] https://deadspin.com/the-truth-about-race-religion-and-the-honor-code-at-b-5791461 --- [Back to manuscript].

[14] https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php --- [Back to manuscript].

[15] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/utah/articles/2020-02-25/3-more-arrests-in-attack-on-black-mormon-missionary-in-utah --- [Back to manuscript].

[16] https://kjzz.com/news/local/new-figures-show-lds-members-a-minority-in-salt-lake-county --- [Back to manuscript].

[17] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/06/trump-racism-comments/588067/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[18] https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2020/11/03/trump-has-lead-utahs/
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[19] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1985/01/i-have-a-question/what-kinds-of-music-and-musical-instruments-are-appropriate-for-use-in-sacrament-meeting?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[20] https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195176674.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195176674-e-036 --- [Back to manuscript].

[21] http://www.scielo.org.za/pdf/vee/v37n1/38.pdf --- [Back to manuscript].

[22] https://www.epi.org/blog/black-womens-labor-market-history-reveals-deep-seated-race-and-gender-discrimination/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[23] https://medium.com/@Ch_JesusChrist/locking-arms-for-racial-harmony-in-america-2f62180abf37 --- [Back to manuscript].

[24] https://medium.com/@Ch_JesusChrist/locking-arms-for-racial-harmony-in-america-2f62180abf37 --- [Back to manuscript].

[25] https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/06/its-time-to-change-the-way-the-media-reports-on-protests-here-are-some-ideas/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[26] https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/07/news-coverage-of-violence-in-protests-is-more-complicated-than-it-may-seem-new-research-shows/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[27] https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[28] https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[29] https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/tulsa-race-riot-1921/
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[30] https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/24/opinion/a-utah-massacre-and-mormon-memory.html --- [Back to manuscript].

[31] https://www.complex.com/life/2020/07/minneapolis-police-identify-viral-umbrella-man-inciting-riots-as-white-supremacist --- [Back to manuscript].

[32] https://www.ibtimes.sg/boston-police-caught-truck-full-bricks-are-they-planting-them-incite-violence-46144 --- [Back to manuscript].

[33] https://religionnews.com/2020/06/03/the-white-privilege-of-u-s-mormons/
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[34] https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-oaks-byu-devotional-october-2020-talk#_ftn2 --- [Back to manuscript].

[35] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-53405121 --- [Back to manuscript].

[36] https://www.sltrib.com/news/education/2020/07/18/byus-black-student-union/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[37] https://www.deseret.com/2016/8/19/20594317/byu-adjusts-honor-code-policies-for-students-who-leave-lds-church --- [Back to manuscript].

[38] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[39] https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/problematic-fave/#:~:text=Taken%20together%2C%20a%20problematic%20fave,discussions%20of%20pop%20culture%20figures. --- [Back to manuscript].

[40] https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/15/us/politics/15marriage.html
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[41] https://www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637552132/integrating-sunday-morning-church-service-a-prayer-answered --- [Back to manuscript].

[42] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[43] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/07/white-christian-america-needs-moral-awakening/614641/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[44] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/muslim-americans-race/519282/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[45] https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-oliver-cowdery-circa-9-april-1836/2 --- [Back to manuscript].

[46] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2020/03/the-lord-leads-his-church-through-prophets-and-apostles?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[47] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/church-history/article/negro-problem-the-mormon-problem-and-the-pursuit-of-usefulness-in-the-white-american-republic/0E2B1AEDC6F329A667B545C735DF7FB7 --- [Back to manuscript].

[48] https://religionnews.com/2019/06/13/black-mormon-pioneer-jane-manning-james-finally-gets-her-due/ --- [Back to manuscript].

[49] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/new-testament-student-manual/introduction-to-the-gospel-according-to-st-john/chapter-26-john-14-16?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

[50] https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/event/three-fold-mission-of-church?lang=eng --- [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Walker, Krystal (2020) "“Building Moats around My Testimony”- A Black Woman’s Guide for Navigating the Racism Embedded within the Latter-day Saint Religious Experience," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 3 (Fall 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleWalkerBuildingMoats.html, accessed <give access date>.

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