“History in the Making,” New Era, Feb. 1998, 28
“You’re history.” Generally speaking, that phrase is bad news. It’s the kind of thing you might hear from a friend gazing at your less-than-stellar report card. Maybe the third-grade bully muttered it just before he punched you, a mere first grader, in the nose.
History, the kind you study in school, gets a bad rap, too. After all, history is full of bad news: war, disease, persecution, that kind of stuff. But Latter-day Saint youth in Pensacola, Florida, are discovering that history means more than playground fights or memorizing the dates and places of wars, elections, and inventions. It’s a great tool for making friends. And they know that if you really try, you just might be able to make a little history of your own.
Troy Schoonover is a priest in the Pensacola Second Ward. He is one of just a handful of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at his high school, so he works hard at being a member-missionary. He shares his testimony with others, especially his friends on the football team. But still, he says, there are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a member of the Church.
“A lot of people around here don’t know any Mormons,” says Troy. “They just know what they’ve heard, and most of it usually isn’t true. If they can meet us and get to know us, things change fast. Knowing even one member of the Church can knock down a lot of walls.”
Melissa Hatchett, a Mia Maid, is in Troy’s ward. “A lot of people think that if you’re a Mormon, it means that husbands have more than one wife. For a long time, African Americans didn’t have the priesthood, so some people feel that they’re not accepted. It’s hard to get out the message that everyone is welcome here.”
Margaret Dean knew all about the misconceptions people had about the Church. As an African American, Sister Dean had friends who wondered if she would be discriminated against when she became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But she knew better, and she wanted others to know better, too. So Sister Dean set about knocking down those walls that Troy, Melissa, and all the rest of the members of the stake came up against when they tried to do missionary work.
Under the direction of the stake president, Sister Dean set about organizing a Black history celebration to be held at the stake center. She enlisted the help of the youth and youth leaders in the stake, and she also asked local leaders from other churches to participate. That first year no one really knew if it would work, or if anybody would even come. But by the fourth year, the last year that Sister Dean would be alive to attend the program, the celebration was filling the stake center to capacity and providing countless missionary opportunities. One highlight for Sister Dean—who has always loved music—was the 60-member choir comprised of youth from the Pensacola stake and the nearby Mt. Zion, John the Baptist, Mount Lily, Zion Hope, Greater Union, and Greater True Vine Churches.
April Reisinger, a Laurel, was a member of that choir. “I think that something like this helps you get to know each other. In the choir not only did we learn to sing together, which was a challenge since there were so many of us; we also prayed together at rehearsals. There was always a good feeling there.”
Although Sister Dean has died, the program she worked so hard to develop lives on. Every year, the crowd at the stake center grows larger. And every year, Latter-day Saint youth get a chance to share in the heritage of their community and to make friends who are members of other faiths.
“We have a lot in common,” says 12-year-old Beehive Andria Hatchett. “We all keep the Ten Commandments. We’re all commanded to love our neighbor, which is what this program is all about.”
Seventeen-year-old Maurica Roland is a member of the John the Baptist Church, where her father is the pastor. Maurica has been blessed with a beautiful voice, and she shares her talents as a part of the celebration. Singing, she says, is a way for her to share her testimony of the Savior, whether she is at her own church or visiting someone else’s.
“Everyone here [in the stake center] has been very friendly,” she says. “I think that if we all believe in Jesus Christ, we can expand on that. Having a universal theme, no matter what our religion or our race, furthers our understanding of each other.”
The Black history celebration is now a firmly established tradition in the Pensacola stake, and the youth are a big part of its success. Each year the theme of the program is slightly different, but there is always music, there is always a presentation about the outstanding contributions made by African Americans throughout history, and there is always a final talk about the life of the Savior and his meaning in the lives of everyone, no matter what their race or nationality.
The missionaries are available to answer questions at the conclusion of the program, while people socialize, eat refreshments, and look at displays of inventions made by African American inventors. (Peanut butter, potato chips, the ironing board, and the elevator, just to name a few, were all invented by African Americans.)
George Dodge, a priest, has invited his American history teacher to attend and chats with him about what it means to be a Mormon. Other youth mingle with the youth groups from visiting churches, talking about gospel subjects and other things they have in common, like school, family, and sports.
African American history is full of stories of people who succeeded despite amazing odds. Slavery and segregation were huge hurdles for African Americans of the past. Many of the hardships were made bearable only because of strong faith in Jesus Christ. LDS history is also a story of periods of hardship. Forced from comfortable homes in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the trek west was difficult for many people, but reliance on their testimony of the Savior carried them on weary legs through steep mountains and snow.
The stories are different, but the underlying message is the same: faith in the Savior gives great strength. It is that chance to bear their testimonies of the Savior, the chance to be heard, that has the youth in Pensacola excited.
Rebecca Swanston, a 12-year-old member of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church, had a speaking part in this year’s program. She participated with two LDS boys, Jean Gonzalez and Jason Godwin. Rebecca’s lines were about the lives of prominent African Americans and their contributions to society. Rebecca will remember those important facts, but she will also remember her new friends.
“I probably wouldn’t know Jason and Jean if we hadn’t done this program,” she says. “We’ve had a great time. I can’t wait for next year’s Black history program.”
Despite the new friendships, the many missionary contacts, and the general feeling of goodwill that is present at the program, it will probably be quite a while before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well understood in the community at large in Pensacola. But one day, maybe not so long from now, the youth in the Pensacola Florida Stake will be able to look back and realize that those walls Troy talked about—the walls that separate friends and neighbors from one another—have all but disappeared.
In fact the way things are going, pretty soon they’ll be history.