LDS Afro-American Symposium
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“LDS Afro-American Symposium,” Ensign, Aug. 1988, 77

LDS Afro-American Symposium

Commemorating the tenth anniversary of the revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy male members of the Church, hundreds of people gathered at Brigham Young University on 8 June 1988 at the LDS Afro-American Symposium to hear speakers and panelists discuss the revelation’s significance and the changes it has brought about in the Church. The event was sponsored by the university’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve was the keynote speaker. He said there are some events in life so significant that we retain an indelible memory of where we were when they happened, and the revelation received ten years ago was such an event for him. “I cried for joy,” he said.

After speaking of the revelation itself, Elder Oaks discussed its effect on the Church’s worldwide growth, particularly in countries with large populations of blacks. “The most significant initial enlargement was in Brazil, where we were already established, and in the Caribbean islands.”

He recalled that in 1979, missionary work also began in Nigeria and Ghana. Since then, Church membership in west Africa has grown from 136 to 14,347. Growth has been “deliberately cautious,” Elder Oaks said, “so that we can train local leaders to preside over and direct the activities of the Church in the cities and villages. Last month, in Nigeria, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve organized the first stake in the Church in western Africa.”

Elder Oaks added that Brazil has the greatest number of members of African ancestry in the Church today. Of the 250,000 Church members in Brazil, more than 40 percent are of mixed race, 6 percent being black.

Alan Cherry, a black member who heads the Afro-American Oral History Study for the Charles Redd Center, gave insightful and often humorous observations from his more than twenty years as a member of the Church and now as director of the oral history project. Brother Cherry and Jessie Embry, oral historian at the Center, have interviewed 225 black members.

One of the many interesting views from the study, according to Brother Cherry, is the report from black members that they generally have richer, more meaningful relationships with whites within the Church than with those outside it. He expressed hope that the symposium might be a means of education, where all who attended—both black and white—might learn to see “through this unique window of Afro-American experience together” and live differently, more interdependently, regardless of skin color. He pleaded for all Church members to set aside cultural differences and to look beyond skin color as they see and serve each other. “If [we] could forget being exotic and become generic, losing ourselves in the gospel,” he said, “the Church would be stronger, and the world will be better for it.”

James Walker, a black nonmember who founded the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, gave a stimulating address on the importance of family history as a means of coming to know who we are and what our families are all about. He urged black members to keep histories and to pursue their genealogy.

Several panelists also discussed such topics as “Experiences of Black Latter-day Saints” and “Outlook for the Future.”

Burgess Owens said he appreciates the years he played professional football with the Oakland Raiders so he could meet Todd Christensen and learn of the Church. He has learned what it means to be a worthy patriarch. “I appreciate the example of worthy priesthood holders who have shown me how to lead my family back to Heavenly Father,” he said.

Robert Stevenson of Georgia agreed, pointing out that although much of American black culture has been matriarchal, “the Church has provided us with the patriarchal model God wants us to live. We must live worthily so our wives can respect us and trust our leadership.”

Nathleen Albright, a mother and homemaker, spoke of her gratitude for a sense of place and belonging among people who strive for the same purpose and share the same values. Johnnie McKoy of North Carolina agreed and commented on the importance of associating with others who share his faith.

Jerri Harwell capsulized a view expressed many times in the symposium: “A child of God is a child of God. I am not a black child of God; I am just a child of God.”

Cleeretta Smiley, from Washington, D.C., stated that improvement has been made in the relations between white and black Church members, but she hopes that black members can become more visible.

Emanuel Reid of Georgia learned as a missionary that the better we get to know each other, the more we see our unity as children of the same God.

Catherine Stokes, from Chicago, agreed. “Love and service bridge all differences,” she said, “whether cultural, emotional, or racial.”

Symposium panelists included, from left, Johnnie McKoy, Robert Stevenson, and Cleeretta Smiley.