A new beginning: Blacks giving the Mormon Church a second look

Columbia News Service/May 30, 2008

Angela Carson used to jump up and frequently yell "Hallelujah!" in church. Now, she sits in the middle pew and sings quietly, with a softer, gentler demeanor.

Carson, a 28-year-old black woman, left her Baptist church in New York last year feeling uninspired and removed from the congregation. She visited many traditional black churches, but she found her new home with the Harlem branch of the Mormon church.

The religious pillars of service and community outreach appealed to Carson, but so did something that may surprise many blacks: the commitment to diversity she saw at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I was approached by two younger African-American Mormon missionaries, and it made me think about the church in a different way," she said. "So many people have asked me why I joined a racist religion, which makes me sad that people would think this faith teaches hate."

Carson and other blacks who have left churches long associated with their communities, such as the Baptist and the African Methodist Episcopal congregations, say they often find cultural resistance from their families and friends who may be skeptical of how the Mormon church can minister to a black American.

"I remember my dad telling me that if I joined the church, I would have a hard time finding an African-American husband," Carson said. "I thought about marriage prospects, but I date men from all persuasions, so it wasn't an issue."

There are roughly 13 million Mormons worldwide, and about half of those live in the United States, according to figures frequently cited by the church, which doesn't record members' racial or ethnic background.

However, about 3 percent of the Mormon Church in America is black, and less than 0.5 percent of black Americans are Mormon, according to a survey in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy. That would translate to slightly less than 200,000 black Mormons in America - a huge increase from the 5,000 to 10,000 estimated by many experts at the turn of the century.

The growth of Mormonism among blacks is commonly tied to two events.

In 1978, the church abolished a long-standing practice that kept black men from seeking priesthoods and black women from participating in temple ceremonies. In 2006, Mormon president Gordon B. Hinckley publicly declared the faith open to all people.

"I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us," he said. "I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ."

The Harlem church opened in 2005, about the same time as new Mormon facilities designed to attract more blacks and Latinos opened in Philadelphia, Detroit and San Antonio.

Congregations in these cities are often very racially mixed.

The church that Carson attends is part of a New York regional stake, the equivalent of a diocese, which is one of the more diverse stakes in the Church. When she walked into the church for the first time, thoughts of any racial bias were forgotten.

"White and black people sat down with their families, extended their hands in worship, and sang alongside each other without any issues," she said. "My faith and belief in diversity keeps me coming back here every week, no matter who resents it."

Chris Carter, a 22-year-old black in Florida, is not affiliated with any congregation after leaving his Baptist church. He went to a Mormon service and said that he felt like more of an individual, despite the church's reputation for homogeneity.

"My old church had this monolithic philosophy to it," Carter said. "I just grew out of feeling like everyone was supposed to think the same, when I have always been my own individual."

Ahmad Corbitt, the stake president of Mormon churches in southern New Jersey, is black. The congregations he oversees are predominantly white, and he said there is a lot the church can do to reach out to other blacks. He converted in 1980 and has nine other siblings, all of whom also became members of the Mormon church.

"The church decries racism and teaches equality among all citizens, and the average African-American member in our church wants to be here and feels a bond to what the church stands for," he said.

Corbitt also is the northeast public and international affairs director of the church, and said that potential members have a right to examine the religion.

"I believe the church will actually be known as a model of diversity for the ability to bring people together, especially people of color, around Jesus Christ," he said.

Church outreach efforts to blacks include a strong emphasis on missionary service and volunteer work in immediate neighborhoods. The church has a Family Home Evening once a week where families discuss Scripture and religious issues affecting their lives, often with the aid of books, videotapes and other audiovisual tools.

Carson grew apart from her former church partly because she felt they weren't discussing real concerns that affected her fellow congregants. She has not started a family yet, but feels like the Mormon church places a strong emphasis on family bonds, which she thinks might appeal to other black Americans.

"There are issues with fatherless homes, broken schools, and poverty affecting so many African-Americans, and spending time with family could really make a difference for so many children," she said.

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