Tamu Smith, 39, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints when she was 11. After a few years, she grappled with this question: Where are all the African-American Mormons?
My family has always been Pentecostal. My grandparents raised me in the Church of God in Christ, and we were very involved in my uncle’s congregation in San Bernardino, Calif. So it may surprise some that my grandmother allowed a group of Latter-day Saint (LDS, also known as Mormon) missionaries to visit our home. My grandmother, a forward-thinking woman, always encouraged me to seek my own path—as long as it involved a belief in God.
The missionaries invited us to their church, and the moment I stepped into the building, I knew I had come home; I had a strong feeling of joy and comfort.
The LDS beliefs really resonated with me and, after a couple of months of attending, I joined the LDS church. On most Sundays, my grandparents took me to the service, then they went on to the Pentecostal church.
A few years later, one question began to bug me: Where are the Black people in the Mormon congregation? I didn’t get an answer until I enrolled at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho) in 1992. In a history course, I learned that the LDS church once had a policy against ordaining Black men into the priesthood. The 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood—a message that the church leaders received from God—reversed that ban.
After doing my research, I came to this conclusion: The ban on Blacks in the priesthood was never doctrinal; it was a decision born of prejudice. In fact, Joseph Smith, the prophet who started the LDS church, had allowed Blacks to become part of the priesthood; the church’s second leader, Brigham Young, excluded them. Despite my questions about the church’s history, I returned to my conviction, and eventually joined The Genesis Group, a forum for Black Mormons.
After school, I married and moved to Utah. Though I’m solid in my faith, I wish more was being done to bridge the gap between Blacks and the LDS church (just 3 percent of Mormons are Black). Many Christian faiths have denounced their racist histories, whereas the LDS church has simply said that all worthy men should now be able to join the priesthood. Some Mormon leaders once believed that Blacks were cursed as the descendants of Cain—so why isn’t that point more often addressed directly? I believe it’s because the leaders are uncomfortable with that history.
Other African-Americans ask me: How can you be Black and Mormon? My answer: The same way I can be Black and American. This country has a racist past, yet I haven’t packed my bags. To be Black and Mormon is a choice. I embrace the LDS teachings but don’t embrace the dogma that Blacks are a cursed people.
For the first time in American history, we have a Mormon presidential candidate, and he’s running against an African-American president. I’m pleased that the nation has opened up to the possibility of a Mormon president, but I will make my choice on the basis of which candidate’s policies will be better for the nation.
Three years ago, my friend Zandra and I started a blog we call As Sistas in Zion (sistasinzion.com). We wanted to create a space where we could laugh at ourselves while having a conversation about our beliefs. When many hear the word Mormon, they picture two White missionaries on bicycles. The LDS faith is about more than that—and my spiritual path will always be proof.