Latter-day Saints and others still puzzled about the history of African-Americans within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will get a close-up look once a new documentary film is finished.
Clips from "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons," were previewed for participants at an annual apologetics conference for Latter-day Saints on Thursday, and producers are still seeking money to finish the independent film.
Darius Gray and Margaret Young, authors of a historical fiction trilogy that traces the history of black LDS pioneers, have long dreamed about the project but began working in earnest two years ago after securing a $10,000 grant from the University of Utah.
They told an audience at the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research at the South Towne Expo Center that they hope to have the "rough cut" of the documentary ready by Aug. 31, but they spent the last of their money this week and are seeking additional funding for the film's completion.
Before June 1978, the LDS Church had a policy in place that denied the faith's priesthood to black males. That year, then-church President Spencer W. Kimball announced that he had received a revelation from God lifting the ban, and today the church actively proselytizes to African-Americans. But the history remains a sore spot for many potential converts and some church members.
Folklore about the reasons for the ban persists in some quarters, and is something the producers — both active Latter-day Saints — are anxious to dispel.
"The official answer (from the church) is, 'we don't know why"' the ban was in place, Gray said. "And that's important. It does away with the rationale that Cain killed Abel, or that blacks were less valiant (in a pre-Earth life), or that Noah's son, Ham, was cursed" with black skin that marked his descendants as unworthy.
"The brethren (top LDS leaders) have disavowed that."
In fact, a few black Latter-day Saints did hold the faith's priesthood during the nearly 150 years since the church was founded in 1830, Gray said, though that fact was not well-known among church members, either then or now.
Gray, a black man who joined the church before the ban was lifted and who was among the first to receive the faith's priesthood in 1978, has long worked with top LDS leaders to help facilitate ministry among African-Americans. He said he's been given permission by those same church leaders to share his belief that the ban "was not imposed by God but was allowed by God" as a test for Latter-day Saints of all ethnic backgrounds.
He believes it was "not a curse but a calling."
"It was a test to see how we would treat one another," he said, adding the challenge for all "was the same: to maintain the love of the Savior in our hearts for one another. And when that restriction became too much of an impediment for (God's) work to go forward, there was a revelation."
The film will include footage not only of early African-American church members, but of a civil rights protest at church-owned Brigham Young University in 1968, according to Young. In that clip, "you'll hear the students and their honesty in talking about why they felt they had to do it," despite pressure from the school's administration to the contrary.
Gray and Young have teamed with a young African-American convert, Danor Gerald, who is editing the production and is the only paid participant in the project, they said. Footage will include interviews with roughly 40 church members, scholars, civil rights workers and ministers.
To date, the cost has been $25,000, much of it raised through independent fund raising. About that much more is needed to finish the production, and target date for completion is the end of the year, Young said. "We'd like to do a theatrical debut on June 8 next year," which is the 30th anniversary of the church's announcement lifting the priesthood ban.
Gray said donors who want to help finish the project can give a tax-deductible contribution through a Web site, www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com, where the film ultimately will be sold publicly. The producers also plan to enter the film in a black film festival in Hollywood next year. "We'd love to have it on the History Channel someday."