Future of Mormonism
The Colorful LDS Future
Now in 2010, we have whole congregations that are predominantly African American, but retention of these new pioneers is a real problem. We have made strides even in the past decade in positioning faithful African American Latter-day Saints in leadership roles (stake presidents, bishops, Relief Society presidents, branch presidents, etc.), but we tend to see a revolving door as new converts of color come into the church but cease activity shortly thereafter. Though past statements of church leaders -- freely distributed by anti-Mormons -- show our racist past, the main problem is not with the past but with cultural insensitivity in the present. There is a huge temptation to correlate not only lesson manuals, but culture.
In recent years, the guide for ward or stake music chairs was to rule out any Negro spirituals, or anything like unto them. (Margaret: As music chair in my ward in 1990, I was told that a version of "Silent Night" that had a few notes resembling a Negro spiritual could not be sung in our sacrament meeting.) It is a good sign that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir now regularly performs such spirituals, but we are unlikely to hear these songs in regular wards any time soon, even if there is no longer a written proscription. We would hope that by the time the hymnal is revised, it will include songs like "O Happy Day" or "I'm On the Battlefield for my Lord" -- as well as other songs from around the world, not just from Europe.
Sometimes, African American converts are seen as wanting only church welfare -- notably evocative of what some Germans termed "canned food Mormons" just after WWII, a derisive label that President Uchtdorf addressed in April 2010 General Conference when he called for greater compassion and less judgment of those coming into the Church. In his talk, which had bold references to cultural intolerance, President Uchtdorf said:
They [who refused to welcome "Canned food Mormons"] resented these new members because they believed that once their temporal needs had been met, they would fall away. While some did leave, many stayed -- they came to church, tasted the sweetness of the gospel, and felt the tender embrace of caring brothers and sisters. They discovered "home." And now, three and four generations later, many families trace their Church membership back to these converts. I hope that we welcome and love all of God's children, including those who might dress, look, speak, or just do things differently. It is not good to make others feel as though they are deficient. (Liahona May 2010).
We have also heard complaints about African American women dropping their children off at church or at scouting activities and not staying themselves, thus (according to the complainers) using the church as a babysitting service. The fact that this has, on occasion, been seen as a burden rather than an opportunity is important -- and Elder Uchtdorf's discourse might bear a fresh read in wards where anyone has shown resentment of "child care Mormons."
When Mormons talk about Blacks, they tend (in our experience) to go back to June 8th, 1978, when they heard that the priesthood restriction had been overturned. They will almost always describe what a joyful day it was, or how they pulled off the road to weep with happiness at the news. Certainly, it was joyful for Black Latter-day Saints as well, but many who had joined the church during the restrictive years were not able to hold onto their children in the faith. They tried, but the clear message to Blacks that they were in a separate and even cursed position -- "a caste apart," as Bruce R. McConkie said in Mormon Doctrine -- was simply too much for many young people to accept. The Black pioneers had children and grandchildren who stayed strong in the faith until the third generation. Now, in 2010, we are aware of only one descendant of a Black pioneer who is still actively LDS. Though June 8, 1978 was joyful because of the doors it opened, the price of what came before was severe for Black converts. Their pain is part of the whole story, which is yet to be fully told and resolved.