Black Mormons Talk About the Challenges of Belonging to a Predominantly White Religion

Joseph W. Sitati of Kenya, one of the highest-ranking black Mormon leaders, at a university conference in Salt Lake City on Friday. Credit Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
Joseph W. Sitati of Kenya, one of the highest-ranking black Mormon leaders, at a university conference in Salt Lake City on Friday. Credit Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Black Mormons discussed the challenges of belonging to a predominantly white religion during a university conference on Friday designed to address the status of blacks in the faith. 

Darius Gray, a pioneering black Mormon, commended church leaders for publishing an essay in 2013 that disavowed a previous ban on blacks in the lay priesthood. The essay offered the most comprehensive explanation from church headquarters about the ban, which was in place until 1978. Still, Mr. Gray noted, only two in 10 Mormons have read the essay, limiting its impact.

Many of those attending the conference at the University of Utah said discussions about race in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not happen enough at congregational levels.

“There is a level of fear in exposing the truth behind the racist history of the church,” said Paulette L. Payne, an African-American Mormon and television talk show host in Atlanta, who moderated a panel on race and Mormon women. “When you fear something, you don’t necessarily want to expose it for what it is, because it then becomes a reflection of you.”

Panels of academics and Mormons book-ended a lunchtime speech by Joseph W. Sitati of Kenya, a member of one of the church’s Quorums of the Seventy, which are second-tier governing bodies.

Mr. Sitati, 63, said he had come to peace with the former ban when he joined the faith in 1986 by studying scripture and teachings. He added that other African Mormons were not preoccupied with it, either, and that the increase in Mormon membership in Africa — to 449,000 in 2014 from 7,600 in 1978 — was evidence of that.

Issues of race and diversity within the Mormon faith bubbled up after the church selected three white men last weekend to fill vacancies on a high-level governing body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The top 15 leaders of the religion — including the president, his two counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — are all white men. Only one, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, is from outside the United States. He was born in what is now the Czech Republic and raised in Germany.

There are no blacks in the next-level leadership group, the seven-member presidency of the Quorums of the Seventy. But there are two minorities: Ulisses Soares of Brazil and Gerrit W. Gong, an Asian-American.

In the body of the first Quorum of the Seventy, there are two black members: Mr. Sitati and Edward Dube of Zimbabwe. There are no black leaders from the United States.

Though most Mormons respect the belief that top leaders are chosen through divine intervention by the church president, considered the prophet, there is still concern over the lack of black leaders.

“It’s important for us black people to see ourselves in this church in leadership capacities,” said Ms. Payne, who was drawn to the church in part by hearing the conversion story of the singer Gladys Knight.

The Mormon Church, based in Utah, does not provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of its members, but scholars say blacks make up a small portion of the 15 million members worldwide. The church works to convert faithful around the globe, adding diversity to its rank and file.

About 3 percent of Mormons in the United States are African-American, the Pew Research Center estimated in 2009. About 5 percent of all worldwide members are of African descent, said Matt Martinich, a church member who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.

Maybelline McCoy, an Afro-Latina originally from Panama, expressed dismay at how few students at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University are black: 288 out of 30,000 in 2014. Ms. McCoy said she did not want her three young children to feel like outsiders when they grew up, as she often did during her time at the university after she came to Utah from Texas.

“I refuse for them to walk through what my husband and I had to at B.Y.U.,” said Ms. McCoy, a photojournalist who lives in Washington.

Source: The AP