I was born into the Mormon church, baptized at eight. I received a patriarchal blessing and worked hard to be a faithful Latter-Day Saint. I planned to attend Brigham Young University and expected to marry a returned missionary to build a family. I was continuing a faith tradition my family had worshiped in for over a hundred and fifty years.
As a teenager, I began questioning certain church principles. The vastness of the Divine seemed unlikely to only reside in one faith. Over time I noticed I no longer believed the Mormon church to be the only true church.
After high school graduation, my plans changed, and instead of going to Brigham Young University, I moved to Boise, Idaho, to attend college. In moving, I decided to leave the Mormon church behind. Although I risked damnation and knew I could be labeled a Jack Mormon and apostate, I looked forward to forging a new relationship with God. I felt free.
That was almost thirty years ago. About four years ago, the turmoil in our nation was a wake-up for me to begin searching into my racial ideas’ origins. Instead of only pointing outward at “those bad people,” I came to understand I needed to look internally as well. In doing so, I realized the negative impact the Mormon church beliefs had on me.
The Mormon church had an official ban on black people for over a hundred years. Black men, women, and children could join the church but not enjoy its full opportunities and blessings. Reasons for this second-class status included black skin as a curse and sign of wickedness or laziness.
Although the ban officially ended when I was in high school, the ideas and teachings did not disappear. The damage done to hearts and minds like mine did not instantaneously go away. I am ashamed to admit their stance on race was not a reason for my leaving. Like generations of my family before me, I didn’t question the validity of a person’s value coming from the melanin in their skin.
Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes are intelligent and outspoken black Mormon women who call themselves “Sistas in Zion.” On their Facebook page they share their thoughts. I was always curious why black people chose Mormonism. “Don’t you know what they said about black skin,” I would think to myself? Although staunch Mormons, Tamu and Zandra believe anti-racism work is holy. They are working to change the church from within it.
I wonder how different I might be if I had heard voices like theirs when I was growing up. I was trained never to question church authority. Whereas Tamu and Zandra feel it is their right and responsibility to question, even those in leadership.
Recently Zandra talked at length about how bringing up the church’s racial past is helpful today. A religious version of the question, “Why keep talking about race?”
Zandra shared one of the church’s values is perfecting the saints as individuals and a church body. She asked, “How can we perfect something we don’t fully acknowledge?” Instead of facing the church’s racist history and how it continues today with intention, many want to sweep it aside.
Church members are not alone in their desire to move away from painful wounds before they are fully healed. We do this in ourselves, our families, schools, communities, and the nation.
Another church value Zandra referred to is redeeming the dead. Redemption is the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. Mormons believe life continues beyond this life. As a teenager, I was saving souls when I got baptized at the temple for those who died without having the opportunity to accept the gospel.
Zandra believes the church leaders and saints who upheld these racist beliefs during their lifetimes want saints living now to repair the bigotry woven into the church’s practices and culture.
In one video, Zandra spent two hours meticulously detailing the church’s racial history. She hoped to fill in the missing pieces of what the church does not teach. Facts like there were black Mormons from the start of the church or that the ban on blackness wasn’t always a church belief. And some Mormons brought slaves with them to Utah, and later Utah voted to become a slaveholding territory. Church leaders said that death was preferable to mixing the white and black race. And more.
Towards the end, it was clear the emotional toll it was taking on Zandra as she tearfully said, “I believe we can be better. It is the only thing leaving me hanging on by a thread. We live in a world that needs healing, change, and restoration desperately.”
I am trying to do this in the book I am writing, “My Grandfather and I: A Story of How Good Racists are Made.” For generations, my family members lived their entire lives soaking in the lies about race, which they passed on to future generations like mine.
Like Zandra and Tamu, I believe I am honoring my ancestors by speaking out. We can love someone while at the same time hold them accountable for their words and deeds. Being vocal has not come without a price. For it has made some people angry. But by walking through the valley of truth, even in its ugliness, I believe healing, change, and restoration are possible.
Here is a link to the,”Sistas in Zion,” Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=sistas%20in%20zion