SUNSTONE PAGE 62 OCTOBER 2003 THE LONG-PROMISED DAY? AT LAST, I FELT LIKE PART OF SOMETHING By Annette Daley
WHEN I CONVERTED to Mormonism in 1982, I had minimal knowledge of the Church’s past policy of withholding the priesthood from men of color. I was a naïve eighteenyear- old and did not make the connection that this policy would have affected my ability to receive temple blessings had I come to the Church a mere five years earlier. Indeed, in 1984 when my former husband (who is Caucasian) and I were going to be sealed in the Swiss Temple, I prayed to Heavenly Father that my first experience in the temple would be uplifting and memorable. I knew it would not be without challenges, for I would almost certainly be the only person of color among a sea of white members wearing white temple clothing. I was sure to stand out noticeably! I was pleasantly surprised to find that one other person of color attended the Swiss temple that day, a woman from Denmark, of all places! I attended that temple monthly for several more years, and I was never again privileged to see another person of color there. I knew that Heavenly Father had interceded on my behalf to assist me in what could have been a separatist experience.
I had lived in Germany for some six years previously, living and working among neonazism. I had even dated and seriously considered marriage to a blond-haired, blue-eyed German, but his desire to remain in Germany did not mesh with my need to escape the suffocation I felt living among such narrow-mindedness.
I chose instead to marry a brown-eyed, long-haired G.I. whom I had met at an LDS singles dance in Germany. Two years later, my husband received orders to serve at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This was to be our first home in this new land. Having no family nearby, my husband and I decided it would be best for me and our newborn son, Ryan, to stay with some military friends in Maryland while he found a home for us. (Although I had come across the bridge at Niagara Falls some eight years earlier with my high school band, this was my first official trip to America.) While finding our new home, my husband had received a dinner invitation from members of the ward which was to be kept when his family joined him. However, the offer was quickly rescinded when I showed up at church—a black woman with a beautiful brown baby in her arms. They were just not ready for it.
Following our stay in Oklahoma, we spent five years in a great and partially integrated ward in Kentucky, where I still have strong ties. While living there, we took a trip to the Atlanta Temple. I recall most vividly seeing all the people of color in the temple parking lot and grounds, and my mouth fell open when I realized their destination was indeed the House of the Lord. Upon entering, my mouth and eyes opened wider to see that many of these precious brethren and sisters were not only temple-goers but also temple workers! Tears glistened in my eyes. After years in the Church, I no longer felt like a minority. My husband gently whispered to me to close my mouth, for to look at me, I appeared dismayed, when in reality, I was really just shocked and overjoyed to see so many of my people in this sacred, holy place, performing work for our kindred dead.
During our time in Germany, I had attended a stake conference and there met my first black LDS family. They had joined the church in the early 70s, withholding of the priesthood notwithstanding. Their strength of conviction amazed me, and I had a lengthy conversation in the parking lot with the mother as she detailed how both she and her husband had known they were doing the right thing and that God would some day hear their prayers. Would that my faith were that strong! A couple of years later, fate brought this family to our stake in Kentucky, where the wife sorrowfully told me that while her children were accepted by the youth of the ward, due to the color of their skin, these same youth shunned them at school.
Wherever we moved during our fifteenyear marriage, my husband and I caused a ripple among ward members, as we were generally the only interracial couple. The exception was in Kentucky, where there were two other mixed marriages. My husband often joked about starting a club called “the mixers.” While people could not, or would not, understand what drew the two of us together (the Gospel), they unanimously agreed that our biracial children were indeed beautiful to behold.
IN 1999, after my husband began pursuing an active homosexual lifestyle, we divorced. I then decided to move to Utah. I had been offered a job at which I would make enough money to support myself and my children, and I knew the Church was strong there and I would have a network to assist me in rearing my teenage sons in this troubled world. But Zion was not all what I expected. My children felt alienated, not just because of the color of their skin and because there were no other members of color in the ward for them to follow as role-models, but because Utah Mormons seemed to be so foreign. I even mentioned in passing to a brother I met at the Genesis group that I was considering taking my children to participate in Calvary Baptist Church’s youth programs. He confided that he had done the same thing for his children so they might have experiences with youth leaders who look like them and so they might be in a youth group with several people of color.
Because the narrow-mindedness, provinciality, and intolerance among many Utahns was simply too much for him to overcome, my oldest son chose to move in with his father. The discrepancies he saw among members had caused him to begin to identify himself as not being “one of them.” I am now raising two teenage boys, and my former husband is raising the other two boys in Michigan.
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Ever since my conversion, I had heard of the miraculous Salt Lake Temple, and I was overjoyed when after years of struggling due to the collapse of my temple marriage, I was able to obtain a temple recommend and attend that sacred, historic temple. Yet, once again, I stuck out like a sore thumb. It reminded me of years before when I would attend temple sessions with my former husband and people would be shocked to see us unite in the celestial room after performing an endowment. Still, I very much enjoyed attending the temple and was impressed with the beauty and majesty of the surroundings. And I finally did find the peace I had so desperately sought since the heart-wrenching breakup of my marriage!
I now live in a diverse neighborhood in Taylorsville and attend the Genesis branch whenever I am able. It is ironic to me to see the numbers of white Mormon families in the Salt Lake area who choose to adopt children of color and rear them in the most homogeneous of places, where they will likely never see another member of color in their whole lives, except on television or at a Genesis meeting. I see how hard my children struggle to be accepted, and they are fortunate to have a black mother who looks like them, who is available to answer their many questions regarding race and acceptance. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be for an adopted child of color growing up and not interacting with other people of color in daily life.
Last year, I joined a progressive Mormon group called MESJ—Mormons for Equality and Social Justice. As such, I participated in a “brown bag” discussion at the University of Utah where we discussed race in the Church. It was there I met Darron Smith, who encouraged me to write about my experiences for this SUNSTONE column.
I procrastinated writing for a few months, until now, shortly after my experience during the celebratory weekend commemorating the priesthood revelation. The culmination of my experience as a black LDS woman came during the Tabernacle celebration of the June 1978 priesthood revelation when dear Sister Gladys Knight and her lovely choir, Saints Unified Voices, filled the Salt Lake Tabernacle with songs of praise and worship.
I had been raised in England in an Anglican church; hence loud church services had never been a part of my life. Yet something stirred deep within my soul when I heard Gladys and her choir sing their arrangements of many black spirituals and sacred hymns of Mormonism. The Tabernacle was bursting at the seams, and members clapped as she and the choir sang beautiful praises to the Lord. For the first time since I had joined the Church twenty-one years earlier, at last, I felt like part of something. I was not the only person of color in a crowd—there were many. With God’s blessings, I will continue to feel like a part of the crowd. Though I seriously doubt it will happen soon, I still hope that an increasing number of people of color will be brought into the fold in Utah.
Do I have a dream? Absolutely! It is that I can continue to live in Utah among the stares, feelings of isolation, occasional overt and blatant bigotry where I have to try harder than ever to give people grace for their mistaken beliefs that all people of color are either basketball players like Karl Malone, or rap singers, or, worst of all, gangsters. While my dream is far from a reality, that does not mean that it will not be so one day. The next time I attend a regional conference in the new Conference Center and see that among the approximately 25,000 members, I am one of only a handful of people of color, I will think back to that glorious June 2003 Sabbath day in the Salt Lake Tabernacle when I felt like part of something.
I even mentioned in passing to a brother I met at the Genesis group that I was considering taking my children to participate in Calvary Baptist Church’s youth programs. He confided that he had done the same thing for his children so they might have experiences with youth leaders who look like them and so they might be in a youth group with several people of color.