Choosing the Only Option: A Radical Inclusiveness
Reading Farris Blount’s essay was a sobering and soul-stirring experience. I am especially grateful to Farris for sharing his heart, in describing the inherent pain and frustration associated too often with being a black Christian.
I was born and raised in the southern states and consequently encountered racism and bigotry very early on in my life. I remember, for example, one occasion when our family drove from our home town (Baton Rouge) to New Orleans to spend time on the beach and at the amusement park. After several hours of rides and cotton candy and hot dogs, I realized that I needed to make my way to the nearest rest room just as quickly as I could. It was then that I witnessed what must have been all around me for years but which I suddenly saw and felt for the first time: signs that read “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” Only moments later I noticed two different water fountains: “Whites” and “Colored.” As a white kid who simply hadn’t paid much attention to my surroundings (I suppose I was six or seven years old at the time), my eyes were suddenly opened to a phenomenon that seemed to me at the time to be so very, very wrong. I asked myself, “Why?” I later asked my parents why there would be a separate rest room and a separate faucet for people with black skins. I certainly didn’t have an answer, and my parents’ answer was, as I recall, not very satisfying.
Segregation was a way of life in the small community where I grew up (about ten miles north of Baton Rouge). I don’t remember seeing one black student in the four years that I attended high school there, although I was very much aware that there were many African American families in our area. In fact, I had no idea where they attended school. When I was about fourteen years old, I remember Mom and Dad and I were coming home from a school activity one evening when I saw what I had never witnessed before—a large cross burning in the front yard of a family that lived only two blocks from our home. It frightened me and my mother, and I remember it angered my Dad; he was really upset. On inquiring what was going on, I learned that a black woman had worked for several years for a white family on that street. She and her husband had become very close friends with the white family and had become social acquaintances whose family members had begun to spend a great deal of time together. The Klan had simply let it be known that such was unacceptable in our community. The whole experience both scared and sickened me.
Mom and Dad were both raised in the Baton Rouge area, and both of them had been brought up by parents who were in so many ways wonderful, caring people, loving neighbors and contributing citizens, but whose negative attitudes and speech toward blacks bespoke an ingrained racism that had persisted through many generations. In looking back, I realize that my folks were much less prone to speak or act in racist or prejudicial ways than their parents had been. Somehow I concluded as a teenager that I would do everything in my power to escape speech, attitudes, and behavior that are not just un-Christian but anti-Christian in every way, so foreign to all that Jesus had taught and embodied.
By the time I was about seventeen years old (1963), racial tensions in our area were hot and heavy. I remember sitting in a meeting held after our main worship service composed of the men and boys in our congregation. The man conducting the meeting reminded us of the racial tension in the air and asked a most unusual question: “What do we do if some black men or women try to attend church in our building?” There was a long and very uncomfortable pause while those in attendance did some pondering on the matter (I have no idea why it took so long for someone to reply to the question). Thank heavens, one of the men, a middle-aged gentleman, responded simply: “Well, we welcome them in, don’t we? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?” I was so grateful to observe that most of the men there nodded in agreement, while I could see and sense that a few were uncomfortable with the idea.
The issue of race and religion has not been an easy one to deal with for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beginning in the 19th century, Brigham Young, second president of the Church, announced that from that time forward the priesthood (the authority to act in the name of God) would no longer be conferred on black members of the Church. Sadly, since it was the 1800’s there was not a great deal of negative reaction to that announcement on the part of Latter-day Saints, given that racist sentiments and actions were rife throughout the nation, particularly in the south. The members of our Church carried that onerous burden for a century and a half, until in June of 1978 the restriction of who could and who could not hold the priesthood was removed by the presidency of our Church.
In recent years, Church leaders have met with and sought to build stronger bridges between leaders of the NAACP and our Church. Russell M. Nelson, 17th President of the Church, stated at the October 2020 general conference: “Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in His eyes. The implications of this truth are profound. Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33). I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments and not the color of your skin. I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”
In an essay written to address the Church’s current position on race, we read the following: “The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation. By definition, this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Latter-day Saint congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community. . . . 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. . . .
“Since , the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans and others of African descent has continue to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.”
Many years ago, I read a book by Philip Yancey entitled The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995). As one who had taught university-level courses in New Testament for about twenty years at that point in time, reading the book was for me a transformative experience, one in which I came to see and understand Jesus of Nazareth in a more profound way. If I may paraphrase something that Yancey wrote, he asked: “What was it about Jesus that drew people to him, especially those on the outskirts and the margins of society—the shepherds, the publicans, the prostitutes, the ‘sinners,’ in general, the disenfranchised? And then he posed the following question, one that sent chills down my spine: “And why is it that those same kinds of people too often feel uncomfortable among us?” Yancey explained that he feared that as a Christian community we had created “a society of respectability,” one that is not as welcoming and loving as the circle that surrounded our Lord.
As Farris Blount stated: “I do not believe we can avoid the fact the Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world.” In that spirit, I have a strong desire to be a part of a counterculture that manifests the depth of the love, acceptance, and inclusion of the only perfect Person to ever walk the earth. And if I truly want to one day be where He is I must actively search for occasions to be as He was and act as He did toward all.
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