Sister Shirley Kimball, an African-American Mormon who attends a chapel in Baltimore, helps the needy through a church clothing exchange. (Photo Credit: Kathy Slater)
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It’s a bright Sunday morning inside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near downtown Baltimore, and Brittany Stevens is standing in the pulpit, testifying about the goodness of her “Heavenly Father.”
Stevens, an African-American woman in her early 20′s, is telling this diverse congregation how faith and prayer helped her cope during an East Coast storm that claimed lives, destroyed property and left millions without electricity. Her family lost power in their home, but was otherwise fine.
“I’m so thankful,” she said.
Stevens grew up Baptist, but was recently baptized as a Latter-day Saint. She joined a church with some six million followers in the U.S., and where black members comprise about 3 percent of its body, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
With the presidential election close at hand, Mormons, and particularly African-American Latter-day Saints, have been increasingly thrust into the spotlight.
The expected contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has raised inevitable questions about the intersection of faith, race and politics.
Obama, of course, broke barriers and made history by becoming America’s first black president. Romney, a fourth-generation Mormon, is the first Latter-day Saint in history to garner the presidential nomination of a major political party.
Church officials stress that none of this matters when it comes to its official stance on the campaign.
“We are politically neutral,” explains Lyman Kirkland, a Latter-day Saints spokesman based at its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. “Candidates are not allowed to campaign in church.”
Still, the topic of politics isn’t taboo among Mormons when they’re not worshiping.
“I voted for President Obama in the last election and I’m about 95 percent certain I will again,” says Jerri Harwell, a Utah college professor and member of The Genesis Group, a church-sanctioned fellowship group founded by black Mormons in 1971. “I haven’t completely closed my mind to Mitt Romney, but I do have many questions about what type of leader he would be.”
Harwell, a longtime Mormon and onetime church missionary, says she’s baffled by Romney’s rejection of president Obama’s health care legislation, when in her words, it was “modeled on his own health care plan in Massachusetts.” She’s also concerned by recent media reports that Romney has Swiss bank accounts and other off-shore assets.
To her, both issues raise larger questions.
“Martin Luther King said we should be judged not by skin color, but the content of our character,” says Harwell. “For someone who wants to run the country, I’m not seeing strong character traits in Romney.”
Those views stand in stark contrast to her husband of 25 years, however. Don Harwell is a black Mormon and an ardent Romney supporter.
“I got to meet him and liked what he had to say,” says Harwell, a Mormon convert since 1983, and the current president of Genesis. “I did phone campaigns for him in the last election.”
Mr. Harwell, who noted he isn’t a Republican but has conservative political leanings, says he is “disappointed” with economic and social policies espoused by Obama and the Democratic Party.
“I was raised in a time when people were responsible and accountable for self,” says Harwell, a 66-year-old retiree who previously worked in sales. “People had respect for themselves, and they didn’t expect welfare or anything for free.”
Still, Harwell says he’s respectful of whatever political opinions that his wife and other Latter-day Saints may have.
“The church can have a lot of influence, but we make up our own minds. No one can pitch us a presidency,” he said.
Nationwide, thousands of Mormon congregations (called wards) have African-American members in large cities such as New York, Chicago, D.C. and beyond.
While there are famous black Mormons (among them Gladys Knight and the late Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver), the church has long battled perceptions that it is racist—traceable to controversial scriptures about black skin being cursed, and a period up until 1978 when black males couldn’t serve as priests or bishops.
When asked to clarify the position of Latter-day Saints regarding race relations, church spokesman Kirkland said Mormons believe that “the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone.”
He also directed a reporter to the church website and a fact sheet which noted the Church’s official teaching. The Book of Mormon states, “Black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.”
At the Mormon chapel in Baltimore, a converted office building situated unobtrusively near public housing projects and a municipal office complex, its members run the gamut in terms of race, gender, age, and socio-economic backgrounds.
After morning service, conversations centered around faith, not politics. When a reporter brought up the presidential election, there was nervous silence.
“We don’t talk about our political opinions here,” said Bishop Patrick Crompton, an unpaid lay clergyman charged with leading weekly services, aided by members who have `callings’–i.e. assignments that range from offering prayers, to giving personal testimonies during the service.
“If someone does [talk politics], we gently steer them back on track,” he added.
Among the African-Americans who worship here, there’s ample diversity, too. Shirley Kimball, a school cafeteria dietician, is one of several interracial couples in the congregation. Lawrence Gray, a 32-year-old biomedical scientist with long locks, grew up in Louisiana. And Tyrone Garner, a tall, strapping retired Marine in his fifties, hails originally from Georgia.
Many of the “brothers” and “sisters”—as Mormons call each other—noted that they’d been raised in or introduced to other faiths, but in the words of Garner felt “spiritually unfulfilled” at the time of their conversions.
Mormons believe in Jesus, and that Christ’s original church in the New Testament has been restored in modern times, with living apostles and prophets, starting with their founder Joseph Smith.
Beyond doctrine, many of those interviewed said they were attracted to the church’s emphasis on family.
Brittany Stevens was married and baptized in June along with her longtime love, Jesse.
“My fiancé and I had children out of wedlock and we never thought it was a big deal,” said the retail manager, who noted that she hadn’t been to church in 10 years until a neighbor who is a Mormon reached out to her husband. “We talked with the elders, and until then, no one had ever suggested how God looks at families and the importance of marriage.”
Stevens said some of her relatives have reacted poorly to their conversion, influenced by misperceptions of Mormonism being a cult or allowing polygamy.
The newlyweds are ignoring the naysayers. “Things fell into place when we joined this church,” she said. “It has strengthened us and we feel so blessed.”
For Kimball, converting some 15 years ago after stints in AME, Baptist and Apostolic churches, meant giving up cigarettes; Latter-day Saints pledge to abstain from smoking, alcohol, and drugs, as well as coffee and tea.
“It was hard,” she admits. “I was stuck on those last two cigarettes,” she chuckles. “But I decided, what did I want more, a bad habit or a relationship with Christ? I had to make a choice.”
Today, Kimball helps coordinate the church’s onsite clothing and food exchange. “We help our members and those in the community who have needs,” she says proudly.
With missionaries around the globe, and more than 14 million members worldwide in Europe, Asia, Africa, parts of the Caribbean and beyond, the ranks of Latter-day Saints are rapidly growing.
For that reason, Gray — the scientist — said it’s nearly impossible to predict the way African-American Mormons will feel about the Obama vs Romney match-up, or anything else, beyond their shared faith.
“We’re African-Americans and Mormons, but we’re all diverse,” he said. “We come from different backgrounds and social situations. We hold our own individual beliefs about society, government and how it should be run.”