By Maurine Proctor
Editor’s note: Ahmad Corbitt will be speaking at the Washington D.C. Visitors Center, Sunday Februarya 12, 2006 at 7:00 p.m. Click here for the full schedule of events during Black History month at the visitors center.
When the Church opened its new chapel on Malcom X Boulevard in Harlem late in 2005, the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times were among the newspapers who published stories describing the number of blacks who were swelling the ranks of the Church – always a surprise and a story for journalists.
The New York Times noted that the Harlem congregation had first met in a mirror-lined room at Sylvia’s venerable soul-food restaurant, and then had become progressively cramped until the new five-story brick building on one of Harlem’s busiest arteries was ready for worship.
There is only one problem with the new building, in the view of Herbert Steed, whose title with the newly established Harlem First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is first counselor. ”I think it’s going to be too small soon,” he said.
What many rank-and-file Latter-day Saints don’t realize, but became clear to these reporters, is how racially diverse the Church is becoming – not only across the world, but also in the United States, particularly in urban areas. Attend the “Why I Believe” firesides featuring the newest converts in the Washington DC Visitors Center, and the vast majority of newly-welcomed are African or African American.
These are the new pioneers of the Church, those who are the first trickle of what will ultimately become a flood. They promise to bring to the Church a new cultural dimension and a broader reach than ever before.
No matter what was in the press kit describing the Church’s diversity, there was no better embodiment of that reality than Ahmad S. Corbitt, the public affairs director for the northeast of the Church and the new stake president of the Cherry Hills, New Jersey stake.
Here was a spokesman for the Church who is not only smart, competent, warm and disarmingly sincere in his complete devotion to the gospel, but also, incidentally, black.
And here was a Church that, in its color blindness, wasn’t reaching out specifically to minorities, but simply reaching out, where identity politics doesn’t compute but eternal identity means everything.
”We’re not in Harlem because of affirmative action ,” said Ahmad told the New York Times. ”We’re in Harlem because we love people.”
Joining the Church
Ahmad grew up in Philadelphia, where he and many of his siblings all received Arab names from their parents (who were involved with the Nation of Islam at the time and knew Malcolm X). This background gave his family a strong sense of discipline and was at least a temporary home for his mother’s spirituality, which Ahmad describes as “expansive.”
He said, “As we were growing up, she had this sense when something bad was going to happen or when you couldn’t do something. She had guidance that we recognized as children as beyond her own ability. She knew how to act on that. She had spiritual experiences that we recognize now were preparatory to receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost and the gospel.”
“When I was about 12,” he said, “we reverted to the southern Protestant tradition that she had grown up with, then over the next few years we were not active in any church.” Yet Ahmad’s spiritual yearnings were not squelched.
“During high school,” he said, “I specifically remember having this plan where one year I would pray and the next year I wouldn’t, and I would see if there was a difference. Typical of teenagers I don’t remember sticking with it long enough to find out, but I had that really glorious plan to be able to find out for myself.
“Without going to church, I remember feeling spiritual invitations to come unto Christ just in my own soul. One Sunday morning that feeling was so strong, that I got up and put on some nice, casual clothes and walked to the nearest church, which was Catholic, and attended mass.”
Finally, when he was 18 and his family had moved to New Jersey, two sister missionaries tracted them out. “My Mom felt the spirit right away, knew that the church was something special, and that she and her family needed to be involved, and most were baptized three weeks later.” Ahmad and his sister were baptized in August of 1980, on his 18th birthday.
This was only two years after the priesthood had been extended to all worthy males, but, he said, “It was clear to me that the Church was moving forward and I was willing to judge it by its fruits.”
Ahmad was immediately struck with a “deep sense of the Church’s rightness and goodness” and determined that “I would die as an old man, as a Latter-day Saint.”
‘College and Beyond
The next step was an unusual one for a black, young man from New Jersey. He headed to Ricks College in Idaho – a far cry from the life he’d known. He went on a Greyhound bus to the rural town, and the minute he stepped off the bus, people greeted him, took his bags, and showed him to the registration office. He was one of only six or seven black students on the campus of thousands, but immediately he loved it. “It was a very different place than I’d known. The people were just sweeter. I recognized that it was due to the influence of the gospel in their lives.” It never occurred to him to feel different or marginalized. He had come home.
Before Ricks, Ahmad hadn’t seen a mission as part of his life, but he ended his freshman year determined to serve. He went to see his bishop and told him he was ready to go, but he had no money. The bishop told him something that would change Ahmad’s life forever. He told him to go to work and save. He went to work for 16 months and saved thousands of dollars toward his mission. He remembers, “It was the first time I had set a goal of that importance and achieved it.”
Learning that he could accomplish something he had set his mind to affected his mission to Puerto Rico and the rest of his life. In his last area as a missionary, he and his companion lived in a second-story apartment owned by a retired lawyer on the first floor. During one of their discussions, the man told Ahmad that he should go to law school, and “when he said that I knew it was right. Sometimes your decisions are important to the Lord and sometimes the particulars mattereth not. It was one of those times that the Lord had an opinion.”
Returning from his mission, Ahmad was still in the position of having to earn his own way. He was almost immediately called to jury duty, which ultimately led to a job working as an investigator in the court system in custody cases. For four years he went to undergrad school at night while he worked, and then took another four years of law school at Rutgers at night school while he worked during the day. “It was hard, hard work,” he admits.
“I could do it,” he said, “because I knew the Lord wanted me to do it.” When he completed the course, he had graduated with a 3.83 and a wonderful wife, Jayne, whom he had met in the single adult program in his stake and on a temple trip to Washington D.C.
Years earlier when he was a child, he and his family had been on vacation when they had passed the Washington D.C. Temple. He had asked his parents what the beautiful building was, and they had told him it was the Mormon temple. “What’s a Mormon?” he had asked. “You know, like Donny and Marie Osmond.”
Ironically, he would be married in that temple and sign the recommends of hundreds who would go there to do temple work.
Upon graduation from law school, you’d think life would hold no more surprises. He was on the course God had directed. With his magnetic personality and intelligence, he became a successful trial attorney working on criminal courses. His years of work had made him familiar with the courts and with judges.
Already, the gospel had completely transformed his life. Of the friends he’d known growing up in his urban neighborhood, some had serious addictions, some were no longer alive, and some had done well for themselves and lived good lives – but not enough. They hadn’t become all that their potential suggested.
He Loved Us First
In contrast, what had happened to him was because of two missionaries who happened to knock on his door, and the message they brought lit a fire within. He couldn’t attribute much of it to himself. “So much of your life is by the Lord’s mercy and grace. The more you look for his grace, the more you see it, and the more you see it, the more deeply you love him – and then it just repeats itself in your life. It becomes an anchor for your soul, and as your faith and hope grow, so does the charity in your heart.
“John says that we love him because he first loved us. When you see the effects of the atonement in your life – and the focus, vision, purpose, drive and capacity it brings, you try not to squander it. You want to focus it on what the Lord would have it focused on.
Where he directs us is always in our best interest, leading to success, happiness and joy.
The Lord had changed Ahmad’s course once as a youth, and he had arisen to remake himself. Now the course was to change again.
Jayne and Ahmad each had spiritual impressions that came in the midst of his eminent and happy legal career. For Ahmad the impression came in 1998, and again in 2000. Despite his legal education, his future lay in public relations.
He had become acquainted through the Church with Steve Coltrin, CEO and founder of a mid-size New York public relations firm. As members of two different stakes, they had worked together on “bridge building efforts” between the Church and the community, opening a dialogue with mayors, public officials and religious leaders. Steve Coltrin made Ahmad an offer.
“I went from feeling at the height and confidence of my legal career where I was having pretty good success to feeling incompetent as a public relations executive,” Ahmad admitted. But competence came, and before long he was the spokesman for the Salt Lake Olympics account.
Among his many assignments was organizing news conferences in advance of the arrival of the torch. “Light the Fire Within” was the Olympic theme, one that surely resonated with a man who had seen his own fire so surely lit.
For Ahmad, traveling in advance of the torch and watching it arrive in communities across the United States was “a beautiful opportunity to witness the goodness of average Americans and to really have faith in people throughout the country.”
He admitted, however, that “notwithstanding the goodness of the people of the United States, “when that torch went into Utah, the excitement and the goodness of the communities was measurably increased. There was a distinct difference in the level of openness, excitement and community.”
“You’d see throngs of people waving the American flag and shouting hurrahs. Torch bearers who had been nominated by their friends came running by – or some were wheeled in chairs – and everywhere the theme invited discussion about the power we have to inspire one another.
Communicating the Church
Ahmad’s history and racial understanding make him an especially effective public affairs director for the Church in the northeastern United States. His job is in public and media relations as he deals with sophisticated press outlets. It is in international relations as he meets diplomats from all over the world who are in New York. It is in assuring that stories about the Church are accurate and that misperceptions are changed over time.
Most uniquely, he can break new ground in communicating how critical the Church’s message is to the African American community. “The Church’s message about family and also about individual growth and individual vision are major needs for the African American community, and the black community is coming to understand the Church much better.
“I think the Lord’s spirit is being poured out upon all flesh in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. We are seeing a marked increase within the black community, the Latin American and Hispanic community, among Asians and Polynesians. It thrills me and I think it will only increase. Because of my own personal experience, I absolutely want this joy for others. I feel like Lehi. I’ve partaken of the fruit, I know that it is good. I want to look around and find others and call them to the tree.
“The Lord clearly loves all of his children. He is full of grace and truth and he wants the truth to be known by all of his children. It is humbling and an honor to be part of the team under the prophetic leadership and direction of the General Authorities to help that truth come to light within all communities. We want the world to see the Church for the wonderful and vital institution that it is.”