Towards the end of my mission, I was assigned a companion who was of mixed-race heritage (her father was African American, her mother white). (I am of stereotypical Mormon pioneer stock, a mix of the UK, Scandinavia, and a couple of Cherokees from over a century back. I looked remarkably white, and remarkably American, in the Latin American country where I served.) This companion, on the other hand, looked very like many of the people who lived where we served, and her physical appearance opened doors. For the first time on my mission, I was not asked with suspicion about race and the church. Also for the first time, both investigators and members talked openly in front of me about the complexities of being a racial minority in a church led primarily by white American men.
I think I’m probably similar to many people who are too young to remember the priesthood ban. I grew up going to church with family friends of various races and ethnicities. My very first babysitting job was for a family in the ward, good friends of my parents, whose family included a white mom and a black dad. No one ever said anything about it – no one ever talked about race at all. My father had served a Spanish-speaking mission and would often talk to and translate for local immigrants from different countries in Latin America. When I heard about the priesthood ban, it was always a story with a happy, faith-promoting ending: people described the feeling of joy they experienced when it was finally lifted. Not only had I literally never heard any of the folk stories (à la the infamous Prof. Bott scandal of last year) about the reasons for the ban, but I was 18 by the time I learned that prominent LDS leaders had once spoken out against miscegenation, and that some people had described black people as “fence-sitters” in the pre-existence – both of which sounded so crazy to me that I paid no attention. I say all of this to illustrate my profound ignorance of the ban and its implications. In my mind, before my mission, it was a historical blip; a deviation; an embarrassing product of its time that was corrected in due course. My mission challenged this view.
Back to my companion: One evening we went to a member home for dinner. This was an unusual couple for the area – both husband and wife were highly educated and had lived for most of their adult lives in the U.S., only moving to Latin America relatively recently. As often happened, that night the conversation turned to race and Mormonism, and the body language in the room shifted, reminding me subtly that in that group I was an outsider and a listener, privileged to hear about the experiences, thoughts, and faith trials of embodiment of people whom I, because of my skin, could at best only serve as an ally. The husband was a recent convert to the LDS church who spoke English with a strong New York accent. He had been an activist during the Civil Rights movement, and had converted to the Nation of Islam in the 60s. Though he was a light-skinned Latino (not someone who would be considered black or Afro-Latin) he was moved by teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (a splinter group of the Nation of Islam that teaches, among other things, that God is the Asiatic Blackman). That night and the handful of other times we went to their home he would smile broadly and describe with fondness his time as a “five-percenter” and his work with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. At church on Sundays the other missionaries, a set of Elders, would report (with what seemed a mix of frustration, shame, and fear) that he and other men in the ward – many of whom did identify as Afro-Latin – would regularly debate the meaning and continuing implications of the priesthood ban during Elder’s Quorum.
I recall sitting in his home – a home crowded with books, unlike most of the homes I entered – and feeling the dissonance of it all: a Latino man who had been involved in some of the most controversial elements of religious Black Power, now contentedly exploring the spirituality of Mormonism, a religion that had excluded black males from priesthood until 1978.
Dissonance in faith seems inherent; axiomatic; definitional. If there weren’t causes for doubt – if everything were certain – there would be no need of faith. This man sat in the dissonance, never justifying the ban, but instead thoughtfully parsing its complexity. He didn’t ever explain it away or offer me an explanation for it other than white racism, but his ability to embrace Mormonism despite our racially-charged history has become increasingly significant to me, and has led to some questions.
How should we respond to faith trials, especially faith trials of embodiment; faith trials posed by being excluded from something because of our genetic endowment? How should we respond to others’ faith trials of embodiment? What is the best way to approach our history of shifting exclusionary practices and their problematics, especially the perpetuation of “folk doctrines” that are, because of the fluid nature of theology in a system of living prophets, notoriously difficult to separate from “real doctrines”? And the most basic question, the most important in my mind – and forgive the half-formedness of these thoughts; I’m eager for reader responses – how are we to negotiate theologies of the body and their relationship to faith – active, living, quotidian faith?
- 19 November 2013