Three Identities, One Person, and One Soul: An African­‐American Gay Mormon Perspective on the 1978 Priesthood Revelation

By Frederick Bowers

(Admin note)
No More Strangers is a new forum seeking to advance the dialogue regarding LGBT people and Mormonism.  As such, it has the good fortune of having bloggers who have made significant contributions to Latter-day Saint LGBT people, their families, their congregations, and to the Mormon Church itself. Collectively, contributors have helped make the Mormon community a much safer and more enlightened and hospitable place for LGBT people. 

The purpose of No More Strangers is to encourage dialogue about the issues that impact LGBT Mormons and their friends, families, and congregations.  This dialogue is essential for educating, for encouraging conversation, and for promoting change. Some aspects of this subject are easy to explore; others are more difficult. While the contributors to No More Strangers are united in their concern for the LGBT cause, they represent different points of view and speak with individual voices. 

The following special blog presents explores the relationship between the issue of blacks and the priesthood, including the 1978 revelation granting priesthood to blacks of African descent, and the current issues regarding LGBT individuals and the Church. The six authors present different perspectives on this subjects. Our hope is that both individually and collectively they can help advance understanding and provoke thoughtful dialogue.

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And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me. And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself. –Doctrine and Covenants 38:24‐25 (1)

“Self‐evident truth doesn’t erase the differences between us. In fact, on the contrary, it highlights them. It presents not just the complexity found in a procession of different human beings, but the complexities found in each individual person. It wasn’t that we had too many boxes, it was that we had too few.” — Artist iO Tillett Wright, Fifty Shades of Gay (2)

African-­American. Gay. Male. Mormon. Son. Brother. Friend. These words will never fully express or define who I am. But these words form a framework that I use to describe myself, by which others recognize me, and for which I wish to be esteemed by others. There are way too few boxes to describe me as a person. This is the same for every human being on the planet. As soon as we attempt to draw lines or boxes for any part of humanity, they will be expanded or done away with as society finds that they no longer fit. Mormons of color and LGBT Mormons, along with other minority groups, are permanently broadening the demographic of who can say, “I am a Mormon”.

I view every aspect of my physical, mental, emotional, and sexual self as a divine and gracious gift from a loving Heavenly Father. The same “still small voice” that confirmed that the gospel and blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are true to a young African American man in his twenties later confirmed that it was a blessing and calling to embrace my gayness in my early thirties. The spirit that sustains me has been “paid for” by my African­‐American, white, and LGBT ancestors and I strive daily to “pay it forward” for the next generation (3).

Discussing the 1978 Priesthood Announcement is a complex issue ‐‐ especially when you live at the intersection of being African‐American, gay, male and Mormon. As I mentioned in my presentation at the 2012 Sunstone Conference, Riding Our Double Rainbows to Heaven: Experiences of LGBT Mormons of Color in the Modern World (4), LGBT people of color (POC) face constant dilemmas in deciding on how they culturally, socially, or demographically react to life challenges. Do I react to this situation as gay first or Asian first? Black first or lesbian first? Or Native American first? LDS first or gay first? LDS or Hispanic first? The reaction varies by individual and by specific circumstance.

I view the 1978 Priesthood Announcement as a Mormon through two major lenses: one as an African‐American, and another as a gay man.

A key personal experience that has shaped my opinion on the similarities between the acceptance of blacks and the acceptance of LGBT Mormons in the LDS Church was my experience in the Kirtland Ohio temple. While writing an article for the 2011 Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons Cleveland/Kirtland conference, “We Have a Vision – Making It Better for LGBTQ Mormons of Color”(5), I discovered that in 1836 the rules established by the church for governing assemblies in the Kirtland Ohio Temple included attendees who were “bond or free, black or white.” (History of the Church, 2: 368‐9). This was early in the history of the Church and the same year that Elijah Abel, the first black elder and seventy in the Latter Day Saint movement, was ordained an elder. Elijah also received washings and anointings in the Kirtland Ohio temple (6). I was filled with excitement that not only would I be gathering with other LGBT Mormons but also I would be standing in the same temple where early African American Latter Day Saints may have stood. Both of these aspects of my being were combined in a wonderful devotional where I felt welcomed, loved, and doubly esteemed in a sacred Mormon space. There were few dry eyes at this spiritual assembly and the hymn “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” has etched an eternal place in my heart and soul.

The 1978 Priesthood Announcement is presented in the Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 2 (7). The introduction to the declaration has been changed to include language that describes the experiences of Elijah Abel and other black male members of the Church ordained to the priesthood early in the history of the Church. A key benefit of this change is the acknowledgment of the fact that African Americans have been worthy to hold the priesthood since the beginning of the Latter Day Saint movement. Previous stories about why the priesthood was not extended to blacks prior to 1978 do exist but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (8), a novelist, tells us: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” The change in the declaration brings forward to a new generation previously hidden facts, allowing more complete, accurate and authentic stories that help empower, humanize, and repair the dignity of African American Mormons.

The time frame between Elijah Abel’s ordination and the 1978 Priesthood Announcement officially extending the priesthood to all worthy members was approximately 142 years. The period between these two instances of African Americans/Blacks officially holding the priesthood was filled with four to five generations of African Americans waiting for the blessings of the priesthood to be restored to them. Faithful and tenacious African Americans like Jane Manning James (9); the first leaders of the Genesis group (10) Elders Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr, in the U.S.; and Elder Helvecio Martins in Brazil continued to pray for restoration of the priesthood to their African-­‐American families and their posterity. The stories of these early African American Mormons who continued to worship in spite of the racial exclusion inspire modern African American Mormons to carry the torch of these pioneers. For example, the African American Outreach Program (11) works to improve the manner in which LDS Church members teach and non-­‐LDS neighbors view the LDS Church in regards to race and equality.

As for the spiritual component of the revelation and its meaning to African American LDS members living in 1978, it is one that I know second hand as I did not join the Church as a convert until 1986. For pre­‐1978 African American Mormons it was the answer to their long sought prayers, for me it was a long overdue change that had already been made and which allowed me to join the Church. Pre­‐1978 African American Mormons are part of our common LDS heritage and I am eternally grateful for their faith and devotion that led to such a joyous outcome in 1978. An event that helped my testimony of the Church grow was having a fellow African American as my bishop in the Washington D.C. area. This spiritually helped support my involvement in the Church for a number of years. In a small way, this relationship helped validate the thought in my mind that the Church was truly investing itself in extending the priesthood to all worthy men. As mentioned in Riding Our Double Rainbows to Heaven, both LGBT and ethnic/racial role models are extremely important to LGBT people of color because of their dual minority status.

Mark L. Grover, in his Dialogue article, “The Mormon Priesthood Revelation and the Sao Paulo, Brazil Temple” (12explores the possibility that events in Brazil were part of a larger context that resulted in the historic June 1978 change. He also talks about the idea that both secular and sacred variables have been known to influence Church policy and practices. Looking at the framework that he provided, i.e. historic change can result from developments in the surrounding secular world and combine with sacred variables to influence Church policy and practices, my opinion is that these aspects could also influence the changing of Church policy and practices in the area of how its LGBT members should be fully welcomed into and esteemed by the Church.

Grover also describes how the General Authorities visited Brazil often and were confronted with questions and problems of race during their visits. According to Grover, Elder Helvecio Martins (mentioned above) unknowingly became the Brazilian advocate to the Church leadership for the need for a racial policy change and thus played a role in helping church leaders see the different impacts and implications in the racially restrictive policy that was really complicating the growth of the church there. Thus we see how individual efforts of people impacted by a church policy combined with the surrounding secular and spiritual variables preceded an enormous change of church policy and practice.

There are many LGBT related events contributing to the larger context in the world, i.e. the UN Secretary‐General addressing violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (13), the passing of laws in several countries allowing civil same-­‐sex marriages, and the passage of LGBT anti‐discrimination bills by the city council for Salt Lake City, Utah.

2012 was a banner year for LGBT Mormon issues. In his article, The 6 Most Optimistic Gay Mormon Moments of 2012 (14), Mitch Mayne talks about six major events that occurred to influence secular and sacred variables to influence Church policy and practices in the area of ministering to LGBT Mormons: 1- straight Mormons formed grassroots LGBT ally and advocate groups, 2- straight allies and LGBT Mormons marched in over 20 Pride parades across the globe, including Santiago, Chile, 3- the Family Acceptance Project released a LDS booklet that helps Mormon families and leaders understand how to respond to gay youth and young adults in ways that keep them safe and healthy, 4- The Mormon Church launched a website talking about LGBT issues inside the faith, 5- U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D­‐Nev.) came out in support of gay marriage, and 6- LGBT and allied BYU students came out in support of their LGBT brothers and sisters in an It Gets Better video series. The occurrence of these events demonstrate the influence LGBT Mormons and their allies wish to have on the changing of LDS Church policy and practices in regard to valuing LGBT Mormons within the Church.

As POC, women, and LGBT persons within the LDS Church continue to advocate for policy and practice changes within the Church, the Church leadership may become influenced by secular and sacred variables and become more responsive based on actions taken in 2012 and other actions that are happening now and in the future. By telling their complete and authentic stories through these actions POC, women, and LGBT persons in the church can empower, humanize, and repair the dignity of themselves and the Church as a whole.

It is my hope that a Church policy or practice change confirming the worthiness of LGBT Mormons to express their same sex love to each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually will take fewer generations to be approved by the Church leadership than the four to five generations it took to reaffirm the worthiness of African Americans/Black males to hold the priesthood.

I also hope and pray that in the spirit of the LDS Hymn “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” that “The Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding” of how to be a more diverse and inclusive community that welcomes and esteems the complexities found in each of God’s children.

In the spirit of diversity and inclusion in music, I invite you to listen to a unique performance of “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning” by the Norfolk State University Concert Choir directed by Dr. Carl Haywood here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWkdwTfNtzc&feature=youtu.be

Fred Bowers is a board member of Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. He is also the director of its LGBT Mormon People of Color and Allies Group. He has written articles for Affirmation’s Proclamation blog concerning LGBT Mormon and People of Color issues. He also created a historic first at the annual Sunstone symposium with his presentation advocating for greater understanding and appreciation of the experiences and lives of LGBT Mormons of Color. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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1 Featured in Blacks in the Scriptures, EQUALITY & PRIESTHOOD (Scriptural compilation of the Lord’s command for all to be equal and to ordain to the priesthood all who will embrace the gospel work.) Darius Gray and Marvin Perkins -

http://blacksinthescriptures.com/mormons-for-equality/

Gender Inclusive Version - And let every person esteem others as themselves, and practice virtue and holiness before me. And again I say unto you, let every person esteem others as themselves.

2 TED Talk, Fifty shades of gay -http://www.ted.com/talks/io_tillett_wright_fifty_shades_of_gay.html

3 MAKING IT! – Minority Success Stories, Be a Rainbow by Maya Angelou – http://www.makingittv.com/BusinessAdviceFromMayaAngelouBeaRainbow.htm

4 2012 Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, Riding Our Double Rainbows To Heaven: Experiences of LGBT Mormons of Color in the Modern World, Audio – https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/blog/?page=ss_audio-foryear-2012

The presentation is available at Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/133524370/Riding-Our-Double-Rainbows-to-Heaven-Experiences-of-LGBT-Mormons-of-Color-in-the-Modern-World

Join the Affirmation LGBT People of Color and Allies Facebook group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/134166980037744/

5 Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, Proclamation, We Have a Vision: Making it Better for LGBTQ Mormons of Color – http://blog.affirmation.org/2011/08/we-have-a-vision-making-it-better-for-lgbtq-mormons-of-color/

6 Mormon Coffee, Elijah Abel: “Thy Soul [Shall] Be White in Eternity” -http://blog.mrm.org/2008/02/elijah-abel-thy-soul-shall-be-white-in-eternity/

7 Doctrine and Covenants: Official Declaration 2 – https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/od/2?lang=eng

8 TED, The Danger of a Single Story, Quotes by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – http://www.ted.com/speakers/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie.html

9 Ensign, August 1979, Jane Manning James: Black Saint, 1847 Pioneer – https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/jane-manning-james-black-saint-1847-pioneer?lang=eng

10 Genesis Group – http://www.ldsgenesisgroup.org/history.htm

11 Blacks in the Scriptures, African American Outreach Program – http://blacksinthescriptures.com/african-american-outreach-program/

12 Dialogue, Vol. 23, Num. 1 – Spring 1990, The Mormon Priesthood Revelation and the Sao Paulo, Brazil Temple, Mark L. Grover – http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V23N01_41.pdf

13 Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, March 7, 2012, message at Human Rights Council – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtxU9iOx348&feature=youtu.be

14 Huffington Post, January 9, 2013, The 6 Most Optimistic Gay Mormon Moments of 2012, Mitch Mayne – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mitch-mayne/the-6-most-optimistic-gay-mormon-moments-of-2012_b_2434570.html

2 comments for “Three Identities, One Person, and One Soul: An African­‐American Gay Mormon Perspective on the 1978 Priesthood Revelation

  1. EdwardJ
    April 8, 2013 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for this great perspective, Fred! The choir performance was really moving, too.

  2. John Gustav-Wrathall
    April 8, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Fred, I’m in awe of your steadiness and thoughtfulness, and so grateful for the incredible example you’ve set within Affirmation.

    I love what you’ve said here, partly because among so many LDS, acknowledging that influences from outside of the Church can influence policy changes within the Church is viewed as a kind of denial of the “truthfulness” of the Church. I think it does make sense to recognize that God works through many avenues to help faithful people within and beyond the institutional Church learn and grow. I personally think it’s not helpful to imply that the Church is “behind the times.” Whether behind or ahead is something only future generations of historians will be able to judge. What matters more is the faithfulness of the participants in the current discussions — however we might define faithfulness (whether as “in good faith,” or as “trusting in God”).

    Thanks for this wonderful essay, Fred!

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