Why Representation In General Conference Matters
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to attend General Conference for the first time in person after traveling to the United States on what I now call “The Great Grief Trip of 2018.”
I knew the world I stepped into would be different, yet I held onto the hope that my membership would all but connect me with the people I met on my travels. I told myself that my race, education or even socio-economic status didn’t matter as long as I had the same testimony that the church was true as everyone else.
Almost immediately, I stuck out like a fly in soup. While my host family was wonderful, being the only “other” at church reminded me of how far away from home I had gone for the sake of recuperation. Luckily, everyone was friendly and welcomed me into the fold as if I belonged there.
Despite the warm welcome, one of my most vivid memories of my trip happened as I strolled through the aisles of Costco with my hanai mom Jolyn as we played a game of how many black people we could see that day.
This game to most may childish but when surrounded by faces that did not reflect the realities of my life and my shared experiences, it was impossible to feel at home. Jolyn and I accepted the challenge becoming excited each time we spotted someone who looked like me.
As the days passed by, I sought out faces during those early days to feel a connection to my identity. It was highly unlikely that I would find another Caribbean person unless I took a detour and made a quick road trip to BYU-Idaho.
Eventually when I ventured south and crossed state lines, I quickly discovered that my skin stuck out more than my thick Caribbean accent. Quickly, I recognized that the melanin content meant that I was greeted with more curiosity than I had ever experienced in my life. Still, I soon settled into in the young single adult wards Provo even if I was still the only woman of color present during ward prayer.
Despite the support of my friends who had just returned from their mission and the supportive sisters in my ward, no true sense of community filled my soul. There was no one who looked like me. There was no one who sounded like me. I eventually began to hang my church membership around my neck, flashing it like a badge in an attempt to prove my worthiness. Still, even when my contribution was acknowledged, there was little sense of belonging that stirred in my heart.
Once returning home, that feeling of belonging returned. I knew who I was and where I was loved and supported. I recognized that there was no need to suppress my personality in a culture that understood me. There was no need to shush for the sake of being Mormonly.
In time, the community feeling evaporated when I moved into my new branch. I didn’t like it there and soon spent more time counting planes flying overhead than listening to the speakers each week.
Still, I held on for years hoping that the tides would turn. And they soon did.
I first felt that true sense of belonging when Peter M. Johnson was called as a General Authority. Sex aside, the words I felt come from his mouth filled me with a spirit I hadn’t quite felt before. I recognized the enthusiastic vigor and vibrance in his words as it warmed my soul from the inside out.
Following his talk, I remembered the excitement as I gushed with my friends about the light that radiated from a different experience during General Conference. I was so excited to finally hear a different way to deliver a gospel message over the pulpit.
I took heed of his words, choosing to share the gospel more sassily than I ever had in my life. I wiped my slate clean, went back to the drawing board and found new and engaging ways to share messages of love, hope, faith and endurance.
Some might think that my burst of vigor has nothing to do with representation. In fact, it has everything to do with it.
While most members of the church absorb the speakers’ thoughts shared over the pulpit, the feel-good euphoric vibes sticks around for a brief moment. To reabsorb it, we log into our social media pages, visit the Gospel Library App and make tedious notes that allow us to deeply understand the speakers intended message. We then connect the words spoken and their meaning into a new context that we take with us throughout our lives.
On the other hand, when saints of color who crave community and visibility the experience is far different. We recognize immediately that a speaker looks like us, that our accent is accepted during these few moments or that we can even recognize that the person may reside in the same country or region that we do.
This becomes our identifier. Once we recognize these identifiers, we then follow a chain that allows us to both connect and understand the speaker on a deeper level. We recognize their appearance first. Does the person look like me? Do they sound like me? Once we established the common relatability, we seek to home in on the “feel good” moments the speaker gives. Do they mention their culture? Do they mention their upbringing which may be similar to ours?
We may often choose to focus on pride next. Does this person with their shared cultural values instill pride in myself as a saint of color or as a saint who lives in the same geographical location? The pride exhibited here is not selfish. It doesn’t boast. It gives us a sense of purpose, belonging and identity that fills our hearts long after the speaker has concluded their talk. Lastly, we focus on the message. We dig deep to understand what they say and how they say it. We recognize their tone, their stance and the conviction behind their words.
For saints of color, our opportunities to shine are few and far between. Still, we seek to feel like part of the community, even if the faces whom we come to know, and respect don’t look like us.
Over the years, I resigned myself to the fact that it would be a rare occurrence to see a woman from my region to speak during General Conference. I prayed and hoped the day would come. I understood that things needed to work in their order and in the time Heavenly Father saw fit.
During last conference, Sister Tracy Y. Browning was called to the Primary Presidency. I celebrated the appointment with my institute class, comprising of mostly Jamaican young adults who cheered on wildly as someone from their homeland was acknowledged.
This was more than a Jamaican thing. This was more than just one island of saints celebrating the news. Instead, Caribbean Latter Day Saints finally had reason to feel immense pride.
As I sat watching Sister Browning on Saturday morning like many others around the world, my blackness reflected back to me. I felt the spirit in her words and in her culture. I felt solidarity as I noticed her hair looked like mine and probably felt like it too.
Some would like to believe that representation doesn’t matter. They try to reduce the sense of belonging so many crave to be a carnal, selfish or even naive request. Why should we want to seepeople who look like us when we already know that we are a worldwide church?
It matters to the brown and black child who may realize that a speaker looks, sounds or resembles them. It matters to the young woman struggling to accept who they are and see it reflected in a speaker. It matters to those who choose to erase their cultural identities for the sake of fitting in in spaces where they feel ostracized. It matters to girls like me who see a speaker embrace their natural hair against the societal pressures to adopt Eurocentric beauty standards.
In a church like ours, representation does more than crosses off a diversity quota.
It fills us with belonging and with pride. It allows us to know that we too bring something to the table and that our voice are valuable and contribute to the restoration of this church here on the Earth.