Facing the Racism in Mormonism
Guest post by Molly Hogan
Years ago, I attended an after church choir practice. Our choir conductor, Cathy Stokes, was attempting to teach a small group of multigenerational white Mormons the proper way to sing, “How Great Thou Art.” You see, Cathy was the kind of choir conductor that would stop a congregation mid refrain to remind them that, “‘Do What is Right’ is to be sung fervently! Start over!”
Raised in the deep South as a Baptist at the height of segregation, Cathy converted to the LDS faith after she realized the positive influence that investigating the church had had on her life. Her silver years found her in Salt Lake City, and yes, she is the first to crack the token black jokes. Cathy is one of those formidable faithful types. She will be the first to tell you where you’re going wrong and the first to tell you where you’re going right. By all definitions, a true friend.
As we sat that day on the cushioned chairs of the Relief Society room, doing our best to put the soul into the song, she lovingly and patiently tolerated our mediocrity then told us exactly where we were lacking. It was after she had given some instruction, that a young married man unexpectedly turned and verbally accosted her, citing scripture from the Book of Mormon to prove that he was somehow superior to her because of the color of his skin. I still don’t understand what provoked this comment. As I sat stunned, anger and disbelief filled my heart. Then Cathy did something I will never forget.
She bent down slowly, took his face in her hands and said, “All things bright and beautiful, baby.”
It was as if she were chiding a favorite grandson who had picked up some bad language at school. The effect was immediate. He was left with nothing more to say and seeing that she could continue teaching, the practice went on.
She continued unfazed but I did not. Inside I was furious, frantically trying to process what I had just heard and letting precious minutes tick by without opening my mouth. The practice ended and everyone left. As I walked home, I thought about what she had said. Her response was perfect for so many reasons. He had taken scripture and misused it to intentionally hurt my beautiful friend. While I sat there fuming, she never skipped a beat. She saw an opportunity to teach with gentleness the gospel truth that “all are alike unto God”–All things are bright and beautiful in His eyes. And she taught that she belonged there, as our beloved choir director, teaching and giving us a greater appreciation of music.
I walked on feeling inspired by her response but also ashamed that I had witnessed an act of blatant racism at church and said nothing. Likely, what I would have said would have distracted from her pitch perfect response. But there I was–still regretting my silence. You see, she didn’t need my help. She handled it beautifully and I am a better person because of her example. But for me, for the kind of person I wish to become, I should have said something. I should have opened my mouth and called him out for it, not because she needed me to, but because in that moment, my silence weakened the foundation of my moral character.
That was nearly seven years ago. During a recent phone conversation with Cathy, I brought up the incident. Of course, she didn’t remember anything about it. She has no need to retain such comments and is an excellent example at putting things “in the stupid box.” Yet, as I related the details of the story from my perspective, I unexpectedly broke down in tears. I hadn’t realized the burden I carried had been so heavy.
“I should have said something,” I kept repeating. To which she responded, “Let it go.” “Do you know why he had nothing to say back?” she added, “I didn’t respond in kind.”
A lesson for the ages.
Within the LDS faith we have a history with racism. Yes, I said it. It’s real and we must face it. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do and there are very real consequences for ignoring it. We need to take a long hard look at what we really believe and let go of historically racist comments that seem to be immortalized and resurrected periodically through internet memes.
Today, I find myself fuming and heartbroken in light of what happened in Charlottesville, VA. One of the scheduled speakers at the Unite the Right rally was to be a young Mormon mom. I am once again angry that a doctrine that I love is being twisted into something so hateful. I stop, take a breath, and remember those lessons from my friend, Cathy.
I am not under the illusion that I will persuade this Mormon mom to my way of thinking. No, I am not writing this to her. I am writing this because of people like her. I write to my friends within the Mormon faith who have been led to believe that they are somehow superior to others because of the color of their skin. Perhaps it’s a conscious decision, more than likely it’s subconscious. Either way, it’s racism.
Words are powerful tools. They can unite and mend or tear apart and demean. I use my words now to oppose the actions and words against those I love, my neighbors, my friends, my brothers and sisters, and especially those marginalized by narrow definitions of worthiness. I speak up now to ask us to stop using historically racist comments from individuals in the church’s past as current and accepted doctrine. I stand against opinions on segregation, privilege denial, and exclusion.
As communities, we are stronger and healthier when we choose to love our neighbors unconditionally and inclusively. There is a better way and there is enough doctrine and good in this world to prove it.
Molly recently moved from Salt Lake City to Alexandria, Virginia with her three daughters and husband. She currently co-leads for the immigration committee for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. When she’s not cooking mountains of pancakes and spaghetti for her girls, she’s reading, advocating, or exploring the nation’s capitol.