Facing the Racism in Mormonism

Cathy Stokes

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.

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36 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    This is so important and so needed. Thank you!

    (I also sat in a room In SLC a few Saturdays ago on the topic of race. Cathy was present. Among the many meaningful things she said were “Ponder and pray and speak boldly about racism,” “We are still at the bottom. We are still waiting,” “Yes, we are tired,” “Be thoughtful and prayerful and kind as you move to do whatever you are prompted to do,” and “Whether you do a little or a lot, I love you.” She is a woman of so much grace and power.)

  2. Libby says:

    If there were ever a time and a place to stand for truth and righteousness, it is today in the United States. We need to be vocal in denouncing racism.

  3. Wendy Christian says:

    Thank you for this post, Molly. We have so much work to do.

  4. Caroline says:

    This is so good, Molly. And God bless Cathy Stokes.

    How I wish our leaders would speak up and out against racism right now — in our own tradition, in our country at large. Have you seen that photo of religious leaders in Charlottesville that put their bodies on the line to stand against racism? I would have been so so proud to see some Mormon clergy linking their arms with other clergy against hate. In the meantime I take heart in regular good LDS people who are raising their voices against bigotry and racism.

    • Liz says:

      I really wish the church had come out boldly against white supremacy specifically. I’ve seen a few alt-right Mormon types take the church’s statement as validation for their views, perceiving them as condemning counter-protesters as being anti-white. I wish the church would stand up and say people of color have been (and continue to be) systemically discriminated against and harmed by policies and people. It’s a start… but I don’t think it’s enough. I wish we’d had somebody from church leadership standing there, arm-in-arm with Cornel West and the other faith leaders who were there.

      • Ask and ye shall receive. There is now an update on this story on Mormon Newsroom: “UPDATE: Tuesday, August 15, 2017
        The Church has released the following statement:
        It has been called to our attention that there are some among the various pro-white and white supremacy communities who assert that the Church is neutral toward or in support of their views. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the New Testament, Jesus said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39). The Book of Mormon teaches “all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).
        White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a “white culture” or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the Church. ”

        http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-statement-charlottesville-virginia

      • Caroline says:

        Hallelujah! So glad the church has proclaimed its condemnation of white supremacy.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for saying this, Holly. And I love Cathy’s response to the racist comment made by the choir member. Wow, but we white people have a lot of work to do.

  6. MelissaBea says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I am also lucky enough to know Cathy Stokes, and I can hear her voice saying “All things bright and beautiful, baby.”

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Cathy was a rock of the faith back when she lived here in Chicago. Thanks for the story.

  8. Carol Burns says:

    Oh for crying out loud! We are ALL children of the SAME Heavenly Father. It’s pretty obvious that HE like diversity. What is WRONG with the rest of us that can’t see it! I’m thoroughly ashamed of all who buy into this insane garbage. The scriptures teach: black, white, male, female, bond, free–the gospel is for all of us! We are of ONE race–the human race. STOP perpetuating such ugliness.

  9. Jessica Brown says:

    If you think the current church with exclusively older white men as leaders is “gods plan or will” than you have some racist issues

  10. Emily U says:

    I’ve never been in a church situation where a horribly naked racist statement was made. Your story makes me think about how I would react if I ever am.

    But it’s clear that refraining from explicit racism isn’t enough. What can I do besides simply not offend? In Primary I use Desmond Tutu’s Children’s Storybook Bible whenever I can because I like that the artwork depicts people of all colors, including a last supper painting where Jesus and the disciples are black. In my gospel doctrine lessons I try to use stories about people who aren’t just white Americans. You have to put in some real time to find things outside the correlated materials, and I don’t always do a great job of it. But this reminds me how important it is to keep putting in the effort.

    • wilkinsworld says:

      Thank you! One of my struggles is that there is no diversity in the props used in nursery/primary. I was so grateful the other day when our choir director drew Lamen and Lemuel to look like Nephi and Sam, even with blue eyes. It was so small that it shouldn’t have mattered, but I noticed bc it is so rare. Can we portray a family that is anything other than white, even to a primary full of white children? Of course we can…and we should.

  11. Joyce Wilson says:

    I guess if you are criticizing that “older white men” are leading the church you are actually criticizing the Savior that through revelation selects these leaders; and one might also review who all the GAs are.

  12. Diane says:

    I was born and raised in the LDS church and have 58 years of experience. I can honestly say that I have never seen, experienced, or witnessed any racism in the church. Only the complete opposite of love and respect for all races. I can’t imagine that it happens enough to say that it is a problem in the church. We send our sons and daughters halfway around the world at 18 and 19 years of age to teach other races to come into Christ for heaven sakes. My friends and neighbors have left our home ward to serve missions in minority wards and branches and to serve refugees. Of course, like any group of people there will be a few who are racist but to label the church this way does a huge disservice to the large majority who are not racist and the many who sacrifice greatly to serve all of Gods children. It seems to be cool and in style to claim racism these days. We ought to think twice before jumping on that bandwagon.

    • Caroline says:

      I too am lucky that I have never seen overt racism displayed during the three hour block. But I think we do have some hard work to do as a Christian community in terms of recognizing and repudiating racist practices and teachings that were infused throughout Mormon discourse earlier in our history. There’s the famous justification of why black men were not given the priesthood and black women denied temple blessings for so long — that they were fence sitters during the war in heaven. This is an ugly ugly teaching, implying that black people are inherently less righteous than others. There’s the fact that the Book of Mormon portrays dark skin as a curse. There are the strong statements by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and others about the evils of interracial marriage — how dirty and polluting such a thing is. I could name more. These are strands of Mormon thought and discourse that still are alive in our communities today, as this post demonstrates so well. There are, of course, other strands of Mormon discourse that emphasize that all are alike unto God and that God condemns racism. These latter strains are ones we must promote, and our leaders currently do promote, but we still have much work to do in stomping out, utterly and entirely, these other strands that so diminish our community and hurt our wonderful brothers and sisters of color.

      • wilkinsworld says:

        I am currently struggling with how to teach those parts of the BOM to my children. When your 7 year old says, “so I’m bad bc I have brown skin?” while reading the scriptures, it is heartbreaking.

      • RBrown says:

        To wilkinsworld: I had extended family members who were not LDS who were racist, and my mother (a convert) worked very hard to make sure those viewpoints did not take root in her children. A couple lessons I have received… First, the stories in Helaman of the righteous Lamanites and wicked Nephites. God didn’t flip their skin color because one group was living more righteously and the other more wickedly. Second, the only true curse is being separated from the Spirit of God, and that happens individually – not by an entire people. Third, the story of Abish and her righteous father, who were prepared by the Lord before the missionaries ever arrived. They lived worthily, no matter the color of their skin or the circumstances surrounding them. Finally, the story of Samuel the Prophet from the Old Testament finding David. The Lord looketh on the heart. (1 Samuel 16).

      • Andrew R. says:

        ” This is an ugly ugly teaching, implying that black people are inherently less righteous than others.”

        I am not convinced it does that unless you want it to. Unfortunately some did.

        There are many of the “great and noble ones” who came with great hopes who have failed, and will fall greater than any others. Likewise there are those who have grasped this life by the horns, and ridden it for all it’s worth, and who will inherit exaltation – even those denied the priesthood in this life.

    • Julie says:

      Diane, have you spoken to any of your black brothers and sisters about their experiences? Personally, every black member I know has experienced racism at church. Most instances are not blatant as this one, but it is there like a cancer. I think as white members, it can be easy to not notice some of the more insidious, less outrages moments. Personally, I have sat in on lessons where commenters have said that the genocide against Native Americans was justified because the Lamanites turned against God, so their decendants had it coming. BYU is the only place I have ever heard the word Nigger spoken outside of rap lyrics. I have multiple friends whose families made their displeasure about them dating someone black painfully known, to the point of distorting wonderful relationships that would have ended in temple marriage otherwise, or else the decision to cut ties with their racist family members. And I have heard countless people defend the priesthood ban based on racist thinking. During the ban, my parents tell of many church members in their congregations who used it as justification for denying jobs and housing to black people. And I could go on and on. And I grew up in the liberal North East. I know it’s even worse other places. I think you need to consider that just because you haven’t noticed, doesn’t mean it’s a systemic issue. And one that doesn’t get called out when it happens in our wards or social settings.

      • Taurus says:

        Here Here!

      • Moss says:

        So true. We white people seem to think this is a problem for people of color to solve- it isn’t. It’s our problem. I never imagined that racism was present in my wonderful CA ward growing up, but talking to a friend in a mixed-race marriage really opened my eyes. Her stories were heart breaking. Just because it hasn’t happened to us doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

    • wilkinsworld says:

      I don’t believe that it’s jumping on the bandwagon. I think it is necessary to bring this to light so that, hopefully, the brethren will see that it needs to be strongly addressed. My husband and child (only 12) have experienced racism. After so many years of it, it is effecting testimony and that is not ok. Claiming racism isn’t “cool” it’s necessary. You cannot change a problem that isn’t recognized.

    • vajra2 says:

      “We send our sons and daughters halfway around the world at 18 and 19 years of age to teach other races to come into Christ for heaven sakes. ” Many would view this as cultural imperialism. Moreover, I have known quite a few Mormons who said racist things. I don’t know whether they shared them at religious gatherings.

      PS 1978.

  13. Elaine Williams says:

    well i am married to an African returned missionary and i too am against all racism, we are all of one race , the human race.

  14. Dave Wilbur says:

    Excellent video about the “dark skin” references in the scriptures on YouTube “Black Mormon Speaks Candidly About LDS, Race, Past Priesthood Restriction” at https://youtu.be/LfzFS2mIcNk

  15. Taurus says:

    I have been a member of the Church for 34 years. Have I ever experienced anything as blatant as this? No. But I have experienced micro-aggression. When I was a young single adult attending an Institute class on the Official Declarations a young class member from Idaho mentioned that her family had some friends who told her mother that black people were excluded from the Priesthood because they had been fence sitters in the Pre-existence and she asked if that were true. A few other class members piped up that they had heard the same thing. I has already heard rumor of this statement from other black members who knew someone who knew someone to whom it had been stated. I was going to ignore it because It was a question and we had a teacher that I trusted to give the correct answer and because a black person speaking on race issues is not always well received. After the hubbub (because there was some hubbub), I did speak up to say that my patriarchal blessing mentions no such thing, but I fear my voice was part of the din.
    Another experience I remember was a family home evening (FHE) in that same ward, years apart and different bishopric. It was Martin Luther King jr. Day and the bishop asked me to give a little presentation about him. History had been my major and I had taught in a few church classes and do not have a fear of public speaking. I also love Dr. King (who wouldn’t?) I prepared a little presentation focusing on the messages that latter-day saints can learn from his life and message, unity, and spreading good. When it was over a young lds woman asked those around her in a psuedo-whisper while giving me some side-eye ‘why did we have to have a whole family home evening lesson on him? The bishop already mentioned something about him yesterday?’ I said nothing because I was shocked that she would be so upset about learning more about this amazing man and his message of peace and harmony.
    Our young single adult ward was plagued with a severe imbalance between the number of women and men. To help the men do their home teaching we would set aside one FHE night to divide into groups made up of all of the sisters that belonged to each home-teaching pair. One night, in our pair which a close friend of mine was leading, turned to the topic of race (I can’t remember why, this was a lond time ago). Somehow he was talking about the priesthood ban and read from “Mormon Doctrine” (first mistake). He posited that though the curse had been lifted (aka the ban on the priesthood) the sign of the curse (skin color and other differences in features) had not. Like I said, he was a really good friend whom I trusted, but given the lack of direction from leaders it was hard for people to know what to believe. I did wonder how things would have been between us prior to 1978.
    There are so many other experiences (people [including general authorities] warning us not to date or marry outside of our race for various stated reasons) that I have encountered that have brought me to my knees and weary me so much of this life with it’s never ending darkness. So, perhaps if you have never witnessed racism it is because you are very, very lucky or not a POC. I know some will wonder why I belong to this Church with such a history. I just want to say that before we think all is well in Zion, realize that is relative.

  16. Jason K. says:

    I love this post so much. I can only hope to respond to racism with the grace that Cathy Stokes showed.

  17. jjillrob says:

    “I am once again angry that a doctrine that I love is being twisted into something so hateful.” This quote is important to remember. The doctrine of Christ and the teachings of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are so directly opposite of any hate that we have to hold only the individual responsible for racist comments, not the church or the members as a whole. Also I’ve been a member all my life and read the scriptures and even though there are peoples apparently cursed with dark skin I was never taught and never thought that it has any relevance to the color of any of our skin today. Many with dark skin became righteous, many with light skin became evil. Those with racist attitudes today, I believe, are a small minority in the country and in the church. We just have to make sure we keep that knowledge alive – they are a small minority and we won’t let them become a loud voice, seeming bigger than they are. Let’s not elevate the hateful minority and make them seem mainstream, because they are not mainstream. Love will conquer.

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