Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
The images from Hurricane Harvey are devastating. The upper stories of houses protrude from the water like small islands in a vast sea. Families are homeless. Vulnerable people like children and the elderly are without basic necessities. In situations like this, Latter-day Saints know what to do. We pitch in. We go out in boats and ferry people to safety. We open our homes, donate food and clothes, check in with people to make sure they’re okay.
It’s easy to know how to help when you’re up against the forces of nature. It’s harder when you’re up against the forces of culture. Culture is invisible, and it shapes the way we think, feel, and perceive. Racism and white supremacy are facets of human culture. Just as not all of us are currently in Hurricane Harvey’s soggy path, not all of us experience racism in the same way. But even when the floodwaters have receded and the people of Houston have begun to rebuild their lives, racism and white supremacy will still be with us. This is despite the fact that while heavy rain is a timeless natural phenomenon beyond human control, racism must be actively sustained and cultivated by human beings in order for it to survive from generation to generation.
The effects of racism can be just as catastrophic for human civilization, and even more catastrophic for human salvation, because racism is a sin. What should Latter-day Saints do about it?
On August 15, in response to the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Church released a landmark statement condemning racism and white supremacist attitudes. It reaffirmed President Gordon B. Hinckley’s teaching that no one “who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ.” It also specifically condemned groups or individuals perpetuating the belief that people with “white” skin color are superior:
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. – Official Statement, 13 and 15 August, 2017
Applauding the Church’s official statement, on August 17 an independent group of Latter-day Saints launched a new website, Shouldertothewheel.org, with resources Latter-day Saints can use to recognize and fight the evils of racism and white supremacy, especially as it affects black Latter-day Saints.
Cynthia Lee, one of the website’s developers, wrote that this effort to gather resources to fight racism has been ongoing for months. “We realized we could no longer stand by and watch, feeling useless, as our [black] sisters were being regularly attacked on social media,” Lee said. “We realized that just offering comfort to them after the fact was not enough—we needed to think bigger and go after the root of the problem.”
Racism: a moral issue
Some Latter-day Saints may see racism or the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia as “political” issues. However, the Church’s recent statements are unequivocal: racism is a sin that has no place among the Latter-day Saints. Racism is immoral and evil, and disciples of Christ must stand against it.
A widely shared Facebook video [full transcript of the video here] made last week by black Latter-day Saint Zandra Vranes powerfully expressed the loneliness that she felt when fellow Latter-day Saints hurled racial epithets at her at church, but others remained silent. Afterwards they would advise her to “just ignore it” or apologize that they “didn’t know what to say.”
Vranes explained that being on the receiving end of a racial slur feels like getting punched in the face. Just as no one at any church (LDS or otherwise) would allow someone to just walk in and punch another person repeatedly in the face, when people hurl racist slurs or wield attitudes of white racial superiority, Latter-day Saints must speak out against racism at church and in our communities. Shouldertothewheel.org assembles resources to help Latter-day Saints know what to say and do in such situations.
These resources include a downloadable booklet, Shoulder to the Wheel, containing scriptures, words from LDS Church leaders, historical information, and practical steps to ending racism from a Latter-day Saint perspective. The website also includes suggestions for teaching children about racism, links to the Church Media Library on Race and the Priesthood, and supports for Sunday School teachers. My husband and I plan to use these resources regularly to teach our children in Family Home Evening this year.
Learning our history
Racism occurs everywhere, but fighting racism against black people in particular is especially important for Latter-day Saints because, as the Church’s official website painstakingly explains in the essay “Race and the Priesthood,” America’s long history of slavery and racism against blacks has intertwined with Church history.
As the Church’s website explains, “the Church was established in 1830, during an era of great racial division in the United States. At the time, many people of African descent lived in slavery, and racial distinctions and prejudice were not just common but customary among white Americans. Those realities, though unfamiliar and disturbing today, influenced all aspects of people’s lives, including their religion.”
Between 1852 and 1978, this essay on lds.org explains, church leaders beginning with Brigham Young restricted blacks from priesthood ordination, temple endowment, and temple sealing. “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
In other words, current Church leaders disavow racist teachings that people with “black” skin color are cursed, less righteous, or in any way inferior to other people by virtue of their physical appearance. The Church does not currently teach that people with “white” skin color are privileged, more righteous, or in any way superior to other people by virtue of their physical appearance. However, at various times, past leaders did publicly preach and publish such racist teachings throughout the Church.
Our Church’s history has complicated Latter-day Saints’ response to racism, because to call out the racism in Charlottesville as “evil,” as LDS Senator Orrin Hatch recently did, is to recognize that white Latter-day Saints’ racism in the past was also evil—a sin that grieved the Spirit of the Lord. The resources in Shoulder to the Wheel help Latter-day Saints make sense of this history—how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go.
The steps of repentance make this process clear: we Latter-day Saints must acknowledge the sin of racism, stop its perpetuation, and start making restitution, both in the communities in which we live, and within our church family.
In this spirit of taking responsibility, says Emily Jensen, she and a group of other white Latter-day Saints launched Shoulder to the Wheel, through close consultation with advisors who are Latter-day Saint people of color, to “clean up their own mess . . . things we might not even realize were there. A lot of our first steps were just recognizing the problems.”
Mica McGriggs, one of advisors to the site, says, “While this project is by white people for white people (dismantling racism in Mormonism), [the] team has worked in collaboration with an advisory board of people of color in order to add perspectives or fill blind spots. It is both thorough and accessible; I am looking forward to seeing it distributed widely among the saints.”
The power of our covenants
What can we really do about a problem as big as racism?
Latter-day Saints are helpers and healers. We believe in calling upon the power of God to help do God’s work in the world. At baptism, we take on the covenant explained by Alma at the waters of Mormon. By being baptized, we covenant to
bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light . . . to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places . . . Mosiah 18:8-9
This collective covenant has been a blessing in my life—especially since May, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Throughout my ongoing treatment, fellow Latter-day Saints have stepped up to offer extraordinary support. They have brought meals, cared for my children, scrubbed the shower, walked the dog, and taken me to chemotherapy appointments. Although this burden at times feels too heavy to bear—especially when I worry about how my children will cope—these and countless other expressions of kindness from my fellow Saints have helped me feel that I am not alone.
Everyone knows how it feels to feel unwell, or to worry about your family members. The paths to service for someone who is physically unwell are well-worn. By contrast, not everybody has experienced how it feels to be hated, to worry how your children will cope with verbal and physical abuse, to be disrespected and disdained, or to be called “cursed” by members of your own Church—simply because of the amount of melanin in your skin. Succoring our brothers and sisters in the fight against racism may require us to break new trails, but I pray that this kind of Christlike action becomes as natural and “typically Mormon” as delivering casseroles or blessing the sick.
Every week, we Latter-day Saints around the world renew our baptismal covenant to bear one other’s burdens. Even if the particular burden of racism may not fall on our own shoulders, we can ask those who bear it, as many kind Saints have asked me in recent months, “What can I do to help?” Shoulder to the Wheel is an answer to this question, developed in close consultation with Saints who face racism daily.
As the Church’s essay, “Unity in Diversity,” affirms, although the Church once consisted mostly of people from Northern Europe, concentrated in the state of Utah, Latter-day Saints now live in 190 countries, speak over 120 languages, and serve in more than 400 missions around the world. Yet we all make the same sacred covenants: at baptisms, during the sacrament rite on the Sabbath, and in holy temples.
It may be difficult—some might think, impossible—to live up to this covenant to bear one another’s burdens when “we,” Latter-day Saints around the world, are all so different, so prone to prejudice, so influenced by partisan political divisions and local cultures. But, as Zandra Vranes has pointed out, God would not ask us to make a covenant that would could not keep:
We have to start to keep that covenant in that way and to bear everybody’s burdens, and to be teaching children and showing them that we bear their burdens, and to not let a child feel like their specific problem [of having to deal with racism] is just one that’s too hard for adults. . .
There is no covenant that God would give us, unless He has prepared a way for us to keep this covenant. He would not have us enter into covenants we cannot keep. And the baptismal covenant that we have, to bear and to mourn and to comfort, in that covenant lies the power to keep that covenant. And I pray that we will be a people who don’t just make covenants, but keep covenants.
[Zandra Vranes, Facebook Live video on 14 August 2017, around 1:35.55]
Pioneers in the twenty-first century
Today, we have before us an opportunity to be witnesses of God in a world that desperately needs to hear this message: “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.” [“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” 1995]
The home page of Shouldertothewheel.org includes a form through which people can commit to working to “end racism and white supremacy in LDS homes and communities.” Whether or not my fellow Latter-day Saints feel moved to make this sort of public statement, I pray that when we take the sacrament, each of us will be mindful of this burden of racism and pledge to make these burdens light.
In 2017, nearly forty years after the end of the policy excluding blacks from the priesthood and the temple, we realize that there is still much work to be done to fight racism within our LDS culture, our families, and our hearts. Standing against racism is not a matter of politics or cultural identity, but a matter of moral integrity.
If we are willing to donate time, talents, and treasure to help people affected by a terrible storm which, through no fault of their own, came and lingered over their homes, threatening their safety and sense of security, then surely we can commit to help fellow Latter-day Saints grievously affected by racism. Through no fault of their own, they were born with levels of melanin in their skin that—due to lingering evils in our past history and current culture—make them a target for hateful speech and acts.
If we cannot commit to tackling the evil of racism within our own diverse Latter-day Saint communities, then the hard work that missionaries around the world are doing to bring people of every nation, kindred, tongue, and skin color into the fold of God is all for nothing. If we choose to ignore the sin of racism instead of standing up to it, then we will be admitting we have bitten off more than we can chew—that we like the idea of a “global church,” but do not want to be accountable for bearing one another’s burdens because they are too different and overwhelming.
If we are humble and hardy, however, we will have the opportunity to be pioneers, putting our shoulders to the wheel and bringing our global Church fellowship closer to the place which God has prepared: Zion, one heart and one mind, dwelling together in righteousness, no poor among us (Moses 7:18).