Mormons gain in inner cities

Church is attracting more blacks and Hispanics.

Philadelphia Inquirer/December 10, 2005
By Miriam Hill

Donte Holland, a 30-year-old carpenter's apprentice, joined the Mormon Church in Philadelphia two years ago because it gave him "the fruits of the spirit. Peace. A good feeling inside."

Holland and his wife, Rosalyn, are black. The Mormon Church generally is as white as its most famous members, Donny and Marie Osmond and, locally, Eagles coach Andy Reid. But for the last decade or so, the Mormons, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), have been expanding in city neighborhoods with large black and Spanish-speaking populations.

The Hollands, who live in Upper Darby, joined after missionaries knocked on their door and explained the faith.

Last month, the Mormons opened a five-story meeting house for 900 members on Malcolm X Boulevard in New York's Harlem. Today, a new Mormon church building at Broad and Wyoming Streets in North Philadelphia will be the site of an open house with food and information about the church and about other topics, including medical care and financial planning. The Harlem and Philadelphia buildings follow an expansion in Detroit.

The church does not record members' racial or ethnic backgrounds, but experts estimate that black Mormons number 5,000 to 10,000 in the United States, up from almost none 30 years ago. The church says 130,000 people belong to its Spanish-speaking congregations, up from 92,600 in 1995. The Broad and Wyoming location includes a Spanish-speaking service, and attendance at that has grown from 60 to about 110 since the building opened earlier this year.

Mormons count 12 million members around the world, 5.5 million in the United States, so the minority figures are small.

"There is a kind of changing face of the LDS Church because of its continuing commitment to work in the inner cities," said Melvyn Hammarberg, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the Mormons.

The growth in minority representation in the Mormon Church comes after many years of racial exclusion.

The church's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., is believed to have ordained a black man, Elijah Abel, in 1836. But his successor, Brigham Young, decreed that black men were not worthy of being priests. While in most churches the priesthood involves a select group, in the Mormon Church it is a prerequisite for full membership for men.

In 1978, church leaders in Salt Lake City had what Mormons call a revelation, which church members say came directly from God. The revelation proclaimed that "all worthy men... without regard for race or color" could be ordained for the priesthood.

Some members say the church needs to go further, repudiating old beliefs.

"If the church would apologize, it would do wonders for proselytizing among blacks," said Darron Smith, a black Mormon and author of Black and Mormon. Other church organizations, he noted, have apologized for racist histories.

Smith joined the church as a teen in 1980 because he liked the answers it offered about family and the afterlife. Church members also were very friendly, he said. But when he has criticized the church's previous attitudes toward blacks, white Mormons often brought up old teachings to justify the onetime ban on black priests.

"This is systemic," Smith said. "This is a part of how people have learned to understand these issues."

Church officials said they emphasize the importance of diversity and the dangers of discrimination in current teachings.

Several black members said that only the Mormon Church ever felt like home.

Ahmad S. Corbitt, who grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Bartram High School, got his Arab name from his parents, who were involved with the Nation of Islam and knew Malcolm X. The family later converted to Methodism. But when Mormons knocked on his family's door in South Jersey in 1980, he said, "my mother felt a peaceful, spiritual feeling immediately."

Missionary work - going door-to-door in cities and neighborhoods across the world - is a key component of the Mormon faith. Many young Mormons spend two years in a mission away from home.

Corbitt, who was 17 when the Mormons came calling, shared his mother's feelings and converted, too.

He knew about the pre-1978 ban but said it did not bother him.

"It was something that the church had clearly moved beyond," he said. "It was clear to me that the church was moving forward, and I was willing to judge it by its fruits."

After several years as a lawyer and public-relations executive, he became director of the New York Office of Public and International Affairs of the church. Last month, he became Stake President for the Church in South Jersey, a promotion roughly equivalent to becoming a bishop in the Catholic Church. Corbitt, 43, is one of a handful of black stake presidents in the United States.

He and Vai Sikahema, a sports anchor at NBC10 and a Mormon, will be the featured speakers at the open house at the Broad and Wyoming church today. Last Sunday, at one of the new church building's first services, the crowd of about 100 appeared to be about 30 percent black. The surrounding neighborhood is about 80 percent black.

Services last three hours, with one hour devoted to singing, preaching, and confirmations of people recently baptized as members. Men and women separate for the remaining portion. Each group discusses ways to improve their lives and the church.

Celeste Smith and Carolyn Frye, two North Philadelphia residents, were checking out the church. Neither is Mormon, but Smith said her teenage son had started coming to the church after some missionaries knocked on their door, so she wanted to see for herself.

She had not decided whether to join. "It's working for me right now," she said.

Frye liked the diversity of the crowd but said the relatively staid service "just didn't move me. I'm used to more foot-stomping and that kind of thing."

Those who do join say the church's emphasis on family attracted them. Church services overflow with children, and conversations and classes often aim at improving family life.

"I have seen so many lives blessed by the power of the gospel," said Ingrid Shepard, president of the Mormon Relief Society, a women's auxiliary group, at the Broad and Wyoming location. She is black but said the church's history is less important to her than her experience in it.

"I guess having been a member of the church my entire life, I have never felt that it is racist," she said.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.