wholepanelI attended the same conference Mormon Heretic did last week, Black, White & Mormon, held at the University of Utah. His earlier post highlighted the remarks from the first panel, Race and the Inner City. The other panels held that day were: Race & Mormon Women, Race at BYU, Elder Sitati speaking about Race and the International Church, and Race at the Ward. After the panel on Race and the Inner City that MH covered, there was a 15 minute break, and soon the day’s panelists all gathered in front for a quick prayer:


As someone was introducing all of the panelists for “Race & Mormon Women,” [2] a thought struck me: I tirelessly advocate for more voices of women to be heard at church (in history, lesson manuals, even from the ward/GC pulpit) and yet not once have I ever heard a black Mormon woman quoted or used as an example. [1] Not only that, I have never noticed the lack of voices from the faithful women of color in our church. This was one of the reasons I traveled from Rexburg to SLC for this conference. I am in need of so much learning and growth in this area.


Paulette PaynePaulette Payne was the moderator of the panel. She is a television host and public relations professional from Atlanta whose graduate work in Africana Women’s Studies is titled “Hallelujah and Amen: The African-American Religious Aesthetic and Black Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southwest Atlanta, Georgia”. Before turning over time to the panel she presented some of the findings of her research, which focused on nigresence, or how African Americans conceptualize their racial identity. She spoke about the different ways African Americans navigate, assimilate, and weave their African American and Mormon cultures and identities together.

Paulette would ask a question and panelists would take turns answering, sometimes building on each others’ experiences. Seeing as I live-tweeted my notes [3], I decided I would share as much of their stories as I could remember.

GrahamRussellHeadshot_002 Janan Graham-Russell is a writer, graduate student in religious studies at the Howard University School of Divinity, and community organizer. When asked what strengthens her, she answered that she sees herself in the story of Hagar through a womanist lens. When Hagar was thrust into the wilderness, God gave her the tools to survive; she feels similarly. She shared the first time she attended the temple she was walking through the hallways and noticed the artwork, the one in particular that stuck out had a white Jesus and behind him every single angel in the sky was also white. For the first time in her life she realized this is how her fellow saints viewed her: absent. Black people didn’t exist in LDS theology. That led her to one day, while thinking about the lack of discussion about Heavenly Mother, wonder if maybe Heavenly Mother she was a black woman. While so often Mormons use our history of suffering and persecution to shape our cultural narrative, white Mormons with pioneer ancestors will never understand the difference in experience of African Americans who have the heritage and brutality of hundreds of years of slavery.

Cathy_StokesCatherine Stokes is a retired deputy director of the Illinois Dept of Health and community volunteer in Illinois and Utah. She shared her background growing up in the south where relatives left in the dark of the night to avoid lynchings and how she’s lived in a culture of overt racism. Back then if someone said they wanted to be your friend they meant it, because if they didn’t they would let you know that, too. After moving to Chicago and experiencing the church there, she shared some of her experiences with covert racism (nice and sweet on the outside but still holding racist views inside), including when one church member was talking about curses being the reason for the priesthood ban she said, “Would you throw one of your children away? Then why in the hell do you think God would??!” She shared her experience of Elder Maxwell calling her out of the blue to ask her to fly to Ghana and speak to government officials in an effort to re-open Ghana for missionary work. One of the government officials asked her, “What is the role of women in your church?” She responded, “Women should be at cutting edge of music, science, and technology; but also have a special responsibility for the development of children.” One of her words of advice to people of color in the Church is, “You’ve got to filter out what doesn’t enhance you. You can’t let the church get between you and God.”

LaShawn_CSWDr. LaShawn Williams-Shulz is a CSW with a Doctorate in Education, adjunct faculty member, and a practicing mental health therapist. She grew up in the church and spoke to having to reconvert herself over and over again. She grew up in a white Mormon community and had a very stereotypical Mormon teenage experience, including having crushes on her EFY counselors. She said she was socialized into whiteness and eventually it ended up pushing her into her blackness. It wasn’t until her boyfriend’s mother told her she couldn’t date her son that she began exploring the idea of her race and embracing her African-American identity. When it was time to decide if she wanted to go on a mission she decided to stay home because she felt she could not answer any question she received about race and the Church while serving. While the race essay on lds.org is progress, she said we are not having needed conversations about race in the church that will stop her babies from asking her if she is cursed. She mentioned how difficult it is that she can’t bring up #blacklivesmatter at church because her fellow Mormons are scared just to discuss blacks in the scriptures. She also shared how she responded at Rational Faiths to the #thugmormon hashtag.

tamusmithTamu Smith is co-founder of Sistas in Zion and co-author of Diary of Two Mad Black Women. She grew up a Pentecostal in California and her family members were black nationalists, she grew up attending Black Panther social events. At age 11 she converted to the Church; she said while she’d already been ‘saved’ for the first time in her life she felt truly saved. Her family allowed her to attend the LDS church and Pentecostal churches concurrently (2 churches every Sunday!). Her family support extended to her mother helping drive her to early-morning seminary when a white boy in her class said he could no longer give her a ride because his parents told him that she was black and they might end up dating. Her response? “A black girl would –never– date you!!!” After she married her husband they stopped by SLC temple on their way to Ricks College, and for the first time in her life she was called the n-word (in the temple). Tamu shared how hard it is to talk about #BlackLivesMatter (Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner) because most Mormons respond with “Well he/she shouldn’t have resisted” or “It was his/her own fault.” She thought out of all people Mormons should understand what it feels like to have a community member killed by police brutality, because that’s exactly what happened to Joseph Smith. Does that mean he deserved it?

The last question was “What keeps each of them in the church?” Each panelist cited an experience of personal revelation and their relationship with God that keeps them here. LaShawn Williams-Shultz mentioned that the work she does on racism in the church *is* the Gospel; she is turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. Cathy Stokes said she “never testifies that ‘the church is true’ because the ‘church’ is all of us; and it is only true so far that you are true and I am true. So instead of having a true church our work is to create a true church by being true.” At the end of the panel they received a standing ovation. It was truly a blessing to be in the presence of spiritual giants testifying of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. The spirit was strong and I was definitely strengthened. I hope these discussions can continue and we can further progress towards Zion.


[1] I’m not counting the recent examples of Gladys Knight’s conversion or of the most recent Sis. Dorah Mkhabela praying recently in #ldsconf, which happened so recently. Only in the past year have I even learned about Jane Manning James on the internet.

[2] in-depth bios found here

[3] all live-tweets were storified here, for more info