White Mormon, Black Mormon: Beauty and Struggle in Our LDS Diversity

 

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Grateful for my racially-diverse home ward. Also shown: the only time my whiteness has been a major disadvantage. #embarassing #thanksmarchingband

For years I rolled my eyes each time I saw Mormon media employing obviously-intentional ethnic diversity; there was the inevitable zoom-in on the one black member of MoTab during general conference, and the Mormon Message featuring a family from Peru. I remember flipping through the church’s cardstock photo collections to find a young brown child’s confirmation, and a sketch of Jesus surrounded with kids of all races.

I couldn’t take any of it seriously. Not then. Each time I saw this non-white representation I thought, “Wow! Trying to present ourselves as diverse, huh? This ultra-white church with far fewer brown people than our PR tricksters would have anyone believe.”

And you know what? That wasn’t fair of me. Not in the slightest.

At that time I had become so preoccupied with remaining coolly cynical that I forgot a blindingly obvious fact: There are indeed other races in this church, and in this world, and they need that representation. We all do.

I don’t know how this escaped me, especially back then. My half-Pakistani best friend had two black siblings. A girl in my primary class had come straight from Venezuela, and I befriended Polynesians in the youth program. My classes at school were heavily populated with Koreans and Latinos. It’s not like I existed in a sea of conformity – my life at church, in school, in my neighborhood, functioned within a beautiful plethora of cultural and physical difference. I suppose that, even though I befriended people of varying backgrounds, I never truly took the time to value what that representation must have meant to them. I never stopped to think that this white-centered culture might look even the slightest bit different to those without white bodies.

That changed one Sunday, when I nervously stood in front of four beautiful young women in a working-class London suburb, called to teach them about the gospel in the only way I knew how; following the lesson manual, and frantically praying I didn’t mess up.

I saw in these girls – two the children of Ghanaian immigrants, the others of Indian and Middle Eastern decent – spirits brimming with love, courage, and passion. Life as a thirteen-year-old is hard, but they chose to come to church and learn of Christ, following in the footsteps of their brave mothers, modern pioneers in their own British version of Zion. Loving these girls wasn’t a choice – it simply happened as I taught, served, and learned to so greatly admire them.

And when we watched our Mormon Messages and a black girl made an appearance, I sighed in relief knowing that these girls might know they belong, that this church promotes and uplifts people with bodies like theirs. And when the stock photo of a baptism showed a father and daughter from Asia, I silently thanked whoever chose to make that cultural statement. These were no longer things to mock, but to praise, if only for these girls.

And when white general authority after white general authority spoke up and offered their love-driven leadership, I discovered within myself a newfound discomfort.

“Not one apostle or general auxiliary leader of color?” I thought, “Not even one?”

A white, American minority among a predominantly black and British ward, I felt loved and welcomed in that place. Kind African women greeted us, complete strangers, with warm hugs and smiles amidst thick Ghanaian accents. I found myself hoping that the church as a whole offered them that same type of earnest, communal warmth. I wanted to know that, despite our past, Mormonism offered them fellowship and sanctuary in all available forms.

We haven’t always been good to these people. It’s taken us a long time to be comfortable acknowledging that, and some members aren’t yet ready to admit our faults for reasons I have a hard time understanding. I want to speak here as a white, privileged, “average” Mormon, to say that I seek to share that pain; that I know I can never truly understand, but that I hope to empathize and do my part to improve things.

When I attended that London ward, each time I shook the bishop’s soft, dark hand – white on black, skin on skin – gratitude overcame me. Gratitude that I wasn’t born sixty years earlier, that I never had to align myself with a church that would not grant this man the gifts of his birthright. I felt grateful to see him as a role model, a leader blessed with the spirit of ministering, a black man who could lead me as well as any white bishop ever had. I was grateful to commune with diversity, in the same way Christ did – among Samaritans, women, gentiles. Loving others, true others, makes us more like Him. Communing with those different from us brings us closer to God. Finding common ground and sharing in the gospel, despite our outward differences, makes us whole. Learning from those outward differences throughout the journey shapes us into better, kinder humans.

I have learned now that seeing a photo of a black man taking the sacrament does not hurt me in any way, but it could make a world of difference to a black member on the cusp of inactivity, unsure if he ever belonged. Mormon messages about girls in Ecuador now teach me the beauty of this Christian gospel, spreading itself around the world and blessing those in its path with hope and goodness; there is nothing there to mock.

Knowing I belong in this church, at least based on trivial matters of physical appearance, has always been easy for me. I look very much like most people in my Provo YSA ward. My life and its struggles do not vary greatly from those of other white members. No one has ever told me that my people couldn’t receive the priesthood or temple ordinances for an actual reason, or tried to justify horrifically racist past policies to my face.

Now as I look upon my differently-colored brothers and sisters, I respect them more than ever, especially for sticking around despite what must be, at times, a tremendous challenge. I’m grateful for what they can teach me, and we should all be immensely grateful that our church has lifted bans that kept them from teaching me and people like me such valuable lessons. I’m grateful that we can share with each other the gospel, and unite under Christ, who died for us all; black, brown, beige, white.

Because non-white Mormons are here, they are beautiful, they are strong, and they matter – to all of us.

And maybe, when the cameramen zoom in on the one black member of MoTab, or when the Mormon Message producers feature members from other countries, they’re not doing it to convince the world that our church is more diverse than it is. Maybe they’re doing it to teach us sometimes-jaded members that our fold is growing and diversifying more each day, more than we might realize. Perhaps they seek to remind us to broaden our sense of community, to think of those not immediately visible in our Provo YSA wards – to pray for the day that we will stand, all together, to proudly sustain our very first (and second, and third, God willing) apostles of color.

I’ll be praying for that day. Will you?

Read This Book: Ashley Mae Hoiland’s “One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly”

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Since starting this blog almost a year and a half ago, at the very least I hope I’ve made two facts resoundingly clear: I am a Mormon, and I am a woman. They’re both lovely aspects of my life, things I have often sought to better understand, and am learning to appreciate more each day. There are times I feel these two parts of my identity are at odds, and still others when I am reminded that my place as a woman in the LDS faith is sanctified, valued, and above all, worth mentioning.

As I read One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly, I was struck by the way the author, Ashley Mae Hoiland, so intricately weaves together complex facets of Mormonhood and womanhood, as if the two have fit together all along. This maybe shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, but I’m convinced this step in the right direction will help open a dialogue that allows even more voices to be heard and validated against a backdrop of love and empathetic support.

Reading through the first few sections – internally shouting “YES!” all along the way, because it really is that good – I remembered a Terry Tempest Williams reading I attended last year. In the Q&A that followed, Williams (who gets a few mentions in One Hundred Birds) emphasized the importance of speaking out despite fear, finding your voice even when that means assuming a degree of terrifying vulnerability; sharing innermost ideas that will uplift those around you and tell those seeking solace that they are not alone.

One Hundred Birds fulfills that challenge with astonishing grace. The more I read, the more I felt a deep sense of gratitude for Hoiland’s courage, humility, and honesty in tackling subjects I know many Mormons have worried about, perhaps without a space to acknowledge their questions. She addresses issues of LDS culture, family relationships, mission experiences, poverty and inequity, the infamous “crisis of faith,” judgments even the best of us might make, and the ultimate (often difficult) quest for Christian kindness. She does all of this without relying on anger to fuel her narrative, a feat I find extraordinary considering the emotional toil surrounding much of the earnestly-questioning Mormon experience.

An approachable combination of autobiographical vignettes, poetry, and original artwork – small, fractured pieces of a life story that fit together exceptionally well – One Hundred Birds reminds the reader that God (He, She, and They) can be found in the smallest of moments and a variety of places – forests, beaches, cars, rainstorms, temples, and interactions with other people included. Referencing scripture only sparingly and without citing a single source, the book, as Kristin L. Matthews points out in the foreword, inserts itself into the ancient tradition of devotional writing, reminiscent of medieval mysticism and metaphysical poetry.

As someone who aches to connect with the beauties of ancient religiosity within this comparatively-newborn faith, it’s hard to describe my delight at witnessing such a valuable, intimate form making its way into the LDS tradition. This book is a thing of raw, sometimes refreshingly wild, beauty. As much as I value the Book of Mormon, general conference talks, and scholarly texts aimed at unearthing the intricacies of LDS theology, One Hundred Birds offers something that those texts do not, that I never fully realized we were missing: an artful, contemporary voice that does not have all the answers, and maybe doesn’t want them.

Hoiland basks in the unknown, the possibility that God and the godly expand far beyond the reaches of our mortal understanding, and finds within that massive space opportunities for self-improvement, charity, and learning from our Heavenly Parents. The devotional context reminds us that Hoiland’s story – and in turn each of our stories – is enough. She doesn’t need to cite outside works to show that her thoughts and experiences are of sincere spiritual worth, and I find that approach encouraging as an aspiring LDS writer and wonderfully entertaining as a reader.

One Hundred Birds also engages with emotion, to great affect; a section focused exclusively on laughter is delightful, and I lost count of how many times crying is mentioned. I found myself actively participating in the tear-fest as I read, and not for reasons I might have expected. I cried because I was once forced to squeeze my awkward adolescent body into a wedding dress too small to zip up, and reading about Hoiland’s virtually identical experience reminded me that we all have weird Mormon baggage, and all we can really do at this point is nervously laugh and vow to improve things for the next generation. I cried because reading this book helped me to know that my own voice matters, despite the constant silencing from insecurities and people who think differently. I cried because this book forced me – gently – to realize that as frustrating as some of my fellow Mormons can be, “we can look each other in the eyes and say sincerely, ‘I could not do this without you'” (p. 153).

I see in this book the potential to heal many souls like mine, occasionally lost and in need of something whole and beautiful to grasp onto. It speaks clearly and warmly of motherhood, the body as home, our human relationship with nature, and the feminine divine. Reminding me of my worth as a nature-loving woman, a daughter of a Heavenly Mother who is there and active in all of our lives, it helped solidify areas of my testimony previously neglected.

Though rooted in the female experience, this book belongs to every member of the church, not in spite of its feminine voice but because of it. I have never read a book that so flawlessly incorporates the scary discomfort of fifth-grade-girl health class and the empowerment one might find in pregnancy into a conversation of divinity and godly connections, and I started wondering why. Female experiences are human experiences, and can connect us to God in important ways. One Hundred Birds reaffirmed to me that women’s stories matter, that by engaging with them and working through them we can all become better, kinder, more compassionate people.

At times, the book reads like a primer on love. Hoiland foregoes cynicism in favor of a belief in “the possibility of unselfishness we all possess” (p. 53); she subtextually presents a call to action to be a little more patient, a little more kind, without ever coming across as preachy or holier-than-thou. Her earnest offering of questions centered on Mormonism and an individual’s place within it does not conclude with directionless upset, but rather broader ways of thinking about godliness and the graces we might find even among our own mistakes and doubts. She assumes an ultimate good in the church and its members, and does not shy away from that assumption while tackling difficult subjects. Even as a sometimes-cynic myself, I admire One Hundred Birds‘ focus on the beauty of the human experience and the ultimate good found within each of our souls.

In short, buy this book! Support this fabulous, thoughtful writer.

I wish I could fully describe the blessing that One Hundred Birds has been to me as a young woman with many of my own questions. I see this book as a voice coming from within Mormonism that I can wholeheartedly accept, at a time in my spiritual journey when such voices are rare and valuable. When Hoiland writes of her desire to “help others around [her] speak” (p. 163), I find myself wanting to tell her personally that in writing this book she succeeds in that endeavor, brilliantly. Her words have helped me realize that I am not alone in my feelings of resentment, hurt, and anger, and inspired me to better myself, become more Christlike, and cling more steadfastly to the gospel. One Hundred Birds has truly been an answer to some of my most earnest prayers.

I’m grateful to have the pleasure of reviewing this book, and I know this review strays from the norm of objective, formal critique. I found it nearly impossible to remain objective and formal after reading something that touched me so deeply. I hope that in discussing the text in a personal and intimate way I can convince those who need it the most to read it and learn from its beautiful, nuanced, delightfully-accessible approach to seeking God.

One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly is the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s most recent installment in their Living Faith series. It goes on sale starting November 1st, and you can pre-order it here.