A journey of faith: overcoming racial restrictions in the Mormon Church

Story and photo by CHRISTIE TAYLOR

The Genesis Group was formed as an auxiliary unit of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 19, 1971, to support the needs of its African-American members.

It was founded by six men — including three church Apostles, a term given to the governing bodies in the church hierarchy, and three African-American church converts.

According to the website, the idea was to develop and support new member growth among black members as well as bring some of the members, who had left the church because of racial restrictions, back into the faith.

The group’s presence was important, because prior to 1978 the Mormon Church restricted African-Americans from holding a high-ranking church position — termed the priesthood — serving Mormon missions and participating in certain temple practices.

Jerri A. Harwell, a Genesis member, isn’t sure why the group was formed then, but said, “Perhaps black members asked the church and started getting some answers.”

Perhaps she was right.

The LDS Church on 6710 S. 1300 East, where the Genesis Group meets from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month.

The LDS Church on 6710 S. 1300 East, where the Genesis Group meets from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month.

Harwell, whose husband, Don, is the current president of the Utah Genesis Group, said her interest in the Mormon religion came while she was watching a church-produced show.

“I was a huge fan of the Osmonds,” Harwell said in a phone interview. She tuned into the show because she heard they would be performing.

They weren’t scheduled to perform until the end of the program. While Harwell waited, the church provided a phone number to call to receive information on Mormon principles.

Harwell, who has written a book about her conversion, titled “Leaning on Prayer: A Story of Faith, Perseverance, and Conversion,” was a freshman at Oakland University in Michigan at the time and thought it would be great to get some mail.

The church sent her a brochure on the teachings of the religion. She tossed it in a drawer without looking at it. She said she happened upon it again a few weeks later while she was cleaning out the drawer.

While looking through the brochure, she found a prepaid postcard to get more information on the church. She said she filled it out and mailed it in.

Two LDS missionaries soon contacted her to set up a meeting. Harwell said when they met at her college dormitory, they were surprised to discover she is African-American. Knowing the church’s restrictions, they asked her if she was “really” interested in learning about the faith.

She said she didn’t believe in God then, but was interested in what the missionaries had to say. They gave her a first lesson on the Mormon religion and asked her if she would like to continue meeting with them. She did.

Harwell was baptized a member of the Mormon church in 1977.

While in her sophomore year of college, Harwell decided to get more involved in the church and asked to serve a mission. Her request was denied, because of her race.

The denial tested her faith in the church and she prayed about it. The answer came. “It was a burning that this was where I was supposed to be,” she said.

That steadfast faith in the church teachings pushed her to continue on. But Harwell wasn’t the only one struggling with the racial restrictions.

Nkoyo Iyamba, a KSL 5 TV reporter and member of the Mormon Church, was living in Nigeria when her family first heard about the faith.

In a phone interview, she recalled a story about Anthony Obinna, the first convert to the LDS Church in Nigeria. An article in the Ensign, titled “Voice from Nigeria,” stated Obinna had three dreams at different times of rooms in a beautiful building, shown to him by a man with a walking stick.

A picture he saw of the Salt Lake City Temple in Reader’s Digest resembled the building he was seeing. He wrote to the Salt Lake City church headquarters in 1971 and requested more information, according to the article in the church-owned magazine.

The article said he was sent the information, but was informed the church would not be sending missionaries to Nigeria.

Iyamba said he wanted to baptize his people, but didn’t have the authority because he was black. Obinna organized and baptized his people anyway, she said.

“The true heroes are those who continued to go to church and live the gospel faithfully, despite being discriminated against,” Iyamba said.

While Obinna was forming an unofficial Mormon congregation in Nigeria, Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray and Eugene Orr, the three founding African-American church converts, were developing the Genesis Group back in the U.S.

Bridgeforth was president of the group, Gray served as his first counselor and Orr served as his second counselor.

Margaret Blair Young, an adjunct professor who teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University, has co-authored three historical novels on black Mormons with Gray. They also co-created the documentary, “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.

During a phone interview, Young said white male members were being ordained at 12 years old. But black male members of the same age had nothing to look forward to. So, one of Gray’s efforts to improve church membership among young black men was to organize a team to compete in a regional church basketball game.

The game was originally set up for active members only, she said.

Most of the boys recruited to the team were inactive in the church, but Gray made arrangements for them to be able to compete anyway. Being a KSL 5 TV reporter at the time, he also made an agreement with a co-worker to put the boys on TV during a sports segment, if they won.

Young said that partway through the intense game, Gray was informed the boys weren’t qualified to compete because they weren’t active members of the church. Because the church leaders who had made the exception were unavailable during the game, he couldn’t do anything to change the decision.

“We lost all the boys after that,” Young said, referring to their interest in the church. It was a huge disappointment for the Genesis Group and for Darius Gray, personally.

Young said Gray became inactive after the incident. Nevertheless, he continued a close friendship with Genesis President Ruffin Bridgeforth and cared for him during his struggle with diabetes. Bridgeforth continually tried to bring Gray back into the faith, Young said.

All the persistence of faith by Africans, African-Americans and the Genesis group may have finally made a significant difference within the church in 1978.

During the 148th Semiannual General Conference on Sept. 30, 1978, a revelation by the first presidency of the Mormon Church was announced.

The revelation, named the Official Declaration—2, granted “every worthy member of the Church all of the privileges and blessings which the gospel affords,” regardless of race or color.

This revelation allowed Harwell the opportunity to become one of the first African-American female missionaries for the church. She served in Houston in 1980.

After her mission, she attended Brigham Young University in the fall of 1983 and met her husband, Don, through the Genesis Group, according to her book.

Darius Gray eventually returned to the church as an active member and became president of the Genesis Group after Bridgeforth’s death in 1997. Don Harwell took his place as president in 2003.

Harwell and Gray weren’t the only ones making history after the racial restrictions were lifted.

According to the Ensign article, Anthony Obinna and several converts living in Nigeria were officially baptized by LDS missionaries shortly after the 1978 church revelation.

Obinna was ordained and appointed to branch president in Nigeria, an honor that made him the first black man to serve a high-ranking church position in Africa, according to the article. Obinna was also able to baptize his wife, Fidelia.

Nkoyo Iyamba said she immigrated to Utah in 1977 and was baptized a member of the Mormon Church in 1983. She currently sings in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Genesis Group has continued to grow since its humble beginnings. Young said black membership has grown from 300 to 400 African and African-American members to about 1 million today. Even though the church does not keep official records of membership by race, Young said through demographics, estimates can be made.

Young attributes some of the local growth to the dedication of a monument in the Salt Lake Cemetery to black pioneer Jane Manning James, and a play that Young wrote based on James’ life, titled ”I am Jane.

Harwell said visitors come to each monthly meeting. “People come from out-of-state to attend our events,” she said. Consequently, they are becoming more diverse.

Harwell, who doesn’t think in terms of being a black member of the Mormon Church, said, “I think in terms of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Lord does not see color, He does not see race.”