I was lucky enough to interview Margaret Young for almost three hours in person and to follow it up with a more formatted written interview. Her project www.heartofafricafilm.com is what she is currently working on.
You can get steady updates at https://www.facebook.com/HeartOfAfricaFilm/
With that said, here is the interview:
How did my passion with LDS Church history and culture start?
I was raised by a father who challenged me with hard questions. My mother lived the faith beautifully, but did not raise many questions. She did provide culture, though—music and literature and magnificent examples of “cultural refinement”, which was the Relief Society lesson she gave monthly. I liked considering the nuances of questions my dad posed. The fact that our family subscribed to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought mattered. I have sweet memories of reading Lester Bush’s seminal article in Dialogue back in 1975. I was still a teenager, and read it on my bed, pondering the implications of the priesthood restriction which had long troubled me.
The fact that I was raised not only with nuanced history but with a willingness to cross borders into other cultures and into alternative ways of understanding things was vital. Mom, a Groberg (think The Other Side of Heaven and picture the family violinist—Julia Groberg Blair) brought Grobergesque love for other cultures with her, though she would have preferred Paris to Patsun, Guatemala (where we lived for several months). She has not yet been to Paris, though I am planning on taking care of that soon.
Dad had a different approach to global culture. He would take us kids to some 3rd world country and give us vocabulary words to learn from the natives. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was fearless. When I went to Africa for the first time, I recognized a world I knew well, with people I could easily love. One of my African friends asked, “Do you always smile?” I said that I don’t smile while I’m sleeping. She asked why I smiled as I surveyed the Congo. I answered, “It is so beautiful.” I had learned from my dad to see beyond the obvious to the transcendent.
As for the culture of Mormonism and some of the difficult borders, my experience is this: I came across anti-Mormon material during my first marriage. My ex-husband was terribly anti-Mormon had been an active distributor of Ex-Mormon pamphlets. So, I studied the Book of Abraham issues, multiple accounts of the 1st Vision, etc., and found that my faith was not shattered but invited to new perspectives.
I was able to examine the materials from various angles. I was willing to say, “What if I have looked at this wrong? What if, for example, translation includes imagination, inspiration, interpretation and not just the transfer of a script from one alphabet to another? What if revelation is something like language learning—where you understand not only words but context, and where you engage with others in a community of mutual learning?”
The anti-Mormon material invited new questions, but not any exit strategies. What mattered to me was the spiritual connection I felt to my faith, my temple experiences, my general sense of the divine—which was nurtured by sometimes miraculous happenings in other cultures. Interestingly, the more stunning miracles of my life have happened outside of the U.S. I think there is something significant in that. I have had miracles in America, at least what I consider miracles, but quieter ones.
I believe strongly that those of us who take on hard issues but who also have deep faith must convey our faith before we deal with the questions. That doesn’t mean we need to bear our testimonies at the onset of anything we say. The way in which we acknowledge or address sacred things reveals much about us. I have said before how important it was to me to have Darius Gray as my mentor (my Virgil) through the Hellish details of the Church’s racist past. Having him call me to remind me of his own conversion—that a literal voice spoke to him and said, “This is the restored gospel, and you are to join”–was my touchstone throughout all of what we I did in our writings and presentations.
I had to read and to write about horrific things which Mormons had stated about blacks, but even as I was doing so, Darius and I were witnessing daily miracles. We called the miracles “manna.” Even now, I approach the hard race issues within the memory of those miracles. So I don’t leave the difficult questions with an abrupt departure from what I most cherish in my faith. On the contrary, I consider myself as involved (however insignificantly) in the Church’s God-led evolution, glacially slow though it may seem to some.
You have blogged some. How has that affected your perception of things? Do you have a favorite blog?
I thoroughly enjoy informative and insightful blog posts, though I have lost any taste for contention in blogs or in any social media. I simply leave. It breaks my heart and hurts my spirit to see the meanness, the insults, the sarcasm so present in much of the banter. Sometimes, I have rebuked others, but that’s never a good idea and I have generally regretted it. Blogging was once a big part of my life. It no longer is. Much of that is my awareness that I am now 60 years old. How much time do I have left on my mortal clock? I am preparing for good and godly things in the future, things my husband and I will be doing. I have become, as my daughter once accused me of being, “Jesus 24/7.” I love listening to hymns, and can’t even deal with much classic rock these days. Except for Clapton. Layla will always be on my list. I usually have hymns playing in my car.
Favorite blog? This one, of course.
What do you believe religion and the gospel (with a small or a large “g”) should be? What is the core doctrine you believe?
I am guessing my readers already know what I’ll say.
Take three seconds to predict.
Here goes: The first and great commandment is to love God with heart, mind, and soul. And the second is like unto it—to love our neighbors as ourselves. On these commandments hang all the laws and the prophets. Or, as some Jews paraphrase it, “This is the essence. The rest is commentary.”
Which of your past projects are you the happiest with?
I see all of them as steps. I would prefer that people forget about the first novel I wrote, but I learned important things from it. As I have gone deeper into my creative impulses, I have found them sometimes divinely honored. When I wrote a play about my sister-in-law who was paralyzed by M.S., (though I fictionalized portions) my husband wrote a tribute to her for the play’s program. She died on opening night.
Some in the cast went to her funeral, and family members and care takers came to the play. I remember saying to Bruce, “This is the first time I have seen my talents lifted beyond me.” In many ways, it was a small thing—just a play. But it became a tribute to a woman who most had forgotten, who lived the final six years of her life in a care center, speechless and paralyzed. What does that say about the way the Heavens will honor those whom we may neglect or forget?
That was the first time I saw my talents lifted beyond me, but certainly not the last. The work that Darius and I have done on black Mormon history has brought me into contact with Jane James’s family and with the heroic stories of people I feel are now a part of my own family. Twenty years ago, a young man saw my play I Am Jane—which was only locally produced.
He subsequently went on a mission to Los Angeles, and came into contact with Louis Duffy, Jane’s great great grandson. When Louis told this missionary that his ancestors were pioneers, the missionary told Louis about my play. Louis researched it, and discovered the novels Darius and I had written. He ordered them immediately—express mail. As it happened, we had followed Louis’s ancestral line specifically. His mother is mentioned in one chapter’s endnote. Thus began a precious friendship between Louis and me.
What project are you happiest with?
I am usually happiest with my current project, whatever it may be. That is the case now. The timing seems just right. The film (Heart of Africa) which I have written, and which we are preparing to shoot in the DR-Congo and in South Africa, came of age just when Sterling Van Wagenen—arguably the best LDS filmmaker and one of the best in the world—was retiring. He agreed to direct.
Then we got one of the world’s best cinematographers, Reed Smoot, to join us as the Director of Photography, and the savvy producer, Russ Kendall, to bring his talents to the team. Finally, we paired up with the Out of Africa film group—one of the most professional organizations anywhere. We get to work with the passionate and candid Kweku Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, who is one of the company’s heads and a gifted producer. We are in the midst of miracles on this project. But of course I would say that. I choose to look for miracles, and I see them often. Seek and ye shall find.
Do you have any other major projects or ideas? Where do you see yourself headed? Care to suggest the next thing we should be looking from you about?
Well, after we finish Heart of Africa, I plan on helping get the film industry established in the Congo. There are NO theaters there in Kinshasa—a city of over 10,000,000. And yes, I foresee another film. That’ll be my secret for now. But then—Bruce and Margaret Young leave the U.S. and become missionaries in the Congo for whatever time the Lord sees fit. I am hoping we can serve multiple missions. I am boldly LDS, dedicated to the gospel of love, and grateful to be married to a like-minded man. I am also aware that we Mormons as a people have a long ways to go to become the people we have promised to be. I am happy to be one of many bridge builders pointing to a brighter future.
If you could give one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?
Never assume you have figured anyone or anything out. Never boil someone down to a cliché and certainly not to an epithet. Never assume that because you discover a hard question, the answer is an exit rather than renewed perspective. Even if the answer IS an exit, be sure it is done with respect and gratitude, not with anger and insults. Anger serves no one well and hurts many. If anger is your default response to discomfort in any relationship (including your relationship to faith or to the sacred), take up yoga. At least for starters.
Anything else you would like to add?
The work I do is to unfold possibilities and nuances. I do it through my writing, whether that writing results in a film or in a novel. I do it from a center of faith. I cherish the privilege of having my particular talents, and rejoice in the ways my talents are edified and expanded by others’ talents. I love collaboration and community and the possibilities and nuances inherent in communal settings. I love the ways Mormonism is both intimate and communal, and that each of us is called to serve.
Finally, I am grateful for some really difficult things we as a family have gone through over the past decade. I acknowledge the hand of God in all we have endured and am grateful we were entrusted with some arduous, soul-stretching journeys. These journeys have prepared us for even greater journeys, and I have no idea what those will be. Nonetheless, I am ready to leap into service. I trust that my feet will land well.
Margaret Young is currently in the Congo, working on her film project.