It was the end of 10th grade for me at John Bartram High School, a tough inner-city school in southwest Philadelphia with a student population that was about 90 percent African American. My siblings and I, like the other kids in our neighborhood, would enjoy a hot city summer. I’ll never forget the water gushing from fire hydrants illegally opened to cool off kids in cut-off shorts, or the sweltering heat that rippled in waves from the softened asphalt of the black streets.
Our neighborhood was hot in other ways too. “Black fever” ran high. It was 1978. These were the days of “black power” and “black pride.” Slogans, music, and movies extolled the blackness of African-American identity and heritage, pushing back not only on decades of discrimination against blacks but, more subtly, on the shame some blacks themselves felt about aspects of their own racial heritage.
Crime, too, was heating up, as it did every summer. It was at once predictable and random in the City of Brotherly Love. And some of it was racial. When my black friends and I walked home from school, it was not unusual for us to be chased by gangs of stick-wielding white youth shouting racial epithets as we passed through their all-white neighborhoods, only to be similarly hounded by other blacks as we passed through their “territories” in the black communities.
Dad had grown up in Harlem, and our family had faced challenges in the Philadelphia housing projects and row-home communities we lived in, so we had to be fairly street smart. But we were also taught to be appropriate and sensible. Mom always said our family had purpose. She kept a tight leash on us, not just to keep us alive but to help us succeed. To us, she seemed endowed with spiritual sensitivity. She taught us to follow God’s will and to seek the guidance of His Spirit.
Given this training, the spiritual experience I had that same summer seems fitting in hindsight, though it was something of a surprise at the time. I had been wondering if there really was a God. My desire to know Him, if He existed, was intensifying. It was then that I had a vivid dream that remains the most significant and sacred of my life.1 It confirmed God’s reality and set me on a path toward knowing Him. The dream was so summoning that I arose early the next morning, a Sunday, determined to get closer to God. I quietly put on slacks and a dress shirt and walked to the nearest neighborhood church, two blocks away.
The service was a Catholic mass in a traditional stone church in our black neighborhood. Turnout was low and, surprisingly, white. It seemed I was the only black person there, joining longtime parishioners who now commuted from safer neighborhoods. I was surprised by how comfortable I was with this racial dynamic. While many whites had had positive influence on my life, I had never worshipped with them. Given our family’s interest in the decidedly black Nation of Islam and our membership in the black Protestant church in which I had been baptized, I’d simply never had the opportunity. Yet it seemed good. I distinctly remember shaking hands with an older working-class white man in a uniform during what my Catholic friends call the Sign of Peace.2 I remember our mutual smiles. More important, I remember feeling that this cross-racial display of spiritual brotherhood was right, that it was pleasing to God.
“I remember feeling that this cross-racial display of spiritual brotherhood was right, that it was pleasing to God.”
During this same period, over 2,000 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, 15 leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrestled with a question that would significantly impact the Church and the entire world. Although I had no idea who they were, they would profoundly change my life and my family—root and branch—as they considered their question: Should the priesthood be extended to all worthy male members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including black males of African descent, from whom it had been withheld? On June 8 of that year, President Spencer W. Kimball and his counselors in the First Presidency issued the answer in an official statement:
“Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us that at some time, in God’s eternal plan, all of our brethren who are worthy may receive the priesthood, and witnessing the faithfulness of those from whom the priesthood has been withheld, we have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.
“He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple. Accordingly, all worthy male members of the Church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”3
Two years later, in 1980, my family moved from Philadelphia to southern New Jersey, where two full-time sister missionaries came to our home. We later learned they had fasted and prayed for direction and were led directly to our street and house. My mother invited them in. We were taught by a series of missionaries, and both of my parents and all ten children were baptized over the course of several years. So far, five of us have served full-time missions, including Mom, after Dad passed away.4
Looking back, I marvel at the minimal impact the former priesthood ban had on our decisions to join the Church. The ethos of that era, strongly reinforced in our family’s racial experiences, did not inhibit us from accepting and embracing the restored gospel. Our spiritual and social experiences while learning about the Church, and the testimonies that grew out of these experiences, were such that I don’t remember race being much of an issue. This was true despite the fact that our Latter-day Saint congregation was overwhelmingly white.
It was not until after I was baptized that I seriously studied the former priesthood ban on people of African descent. That study took me on a journey that, like the gospel of Jesus Christ, transcended race, ethnicity, and culture. In the next three segments of this essay, I will share part of that journey.
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