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?