Several times a week, I drive by a real estate business that is set back from a main street. The parking lot, completely asphalted over, allows no room for beauty or style. The only decoration consists of four magnolia trees in front of the building. When the current owners took over, they had the trees pruned. Perhaps I should say hacked, butchered, disfigured. Once stately, the magnolias’ upper limbs were lopped off at the top of the roof. They look like awkward boxes on the heavy trunks. This year, valiantly, there are blooms, the beauty of survival.
My topic today is not what I started with on Friday. Sometimes I’m done writing days ahead. Other times, it comes together with some effort. This time, a complete change was necessary. The pruning image will serve in silence briefly.
When a friend wrote a long Facebook post talking about being hurt, the reason was missing, with a promise to add it later. When the truth was revealed, I was stunned. My friend, who is black, had read a fake post in which a church leader apologized for years of institutional racism. The mood of elation had changed from feelings of relief and joy to horror, sadness, embarrassment at believing—salt on the wound make sense her. Another friend made similar comments, as did others who posted about the events.
What happened was this: A former Mormon wrote the apology, accredited it to the head of the Church, and then posted it on what looked identical to the Church website for news. The differences were subtle. I’m ashamed to report that he happens to live in Texas. A news article here gives the details, and the only point I’ll bring out is that he wanted to “spark debate.” Here’s where pruning comes in. It works if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t, disaster ensues. Perhaps he was trying to help black members, but the result was that he hurt them. Sometimes profoundly. That’s just bad business.
The timing of the piece is no accident. Last week Church leaders met with NAACP leaders and issued statements encouraging “greater civility and racial harmony.” The anniversary of a 1978 revelation in which the priesthood was extended to all adult males is approaching. An entire section of videos and essays has been added to the church website. The title is simple: Blacks in the Church. It is in that section that many of us need to spend some time.
This passage from Kirstie Ranger-Wayland, a young black woman who grew up in the church, served a mission, and married in the temple catches us: “Some believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore. While I feel the world has made progress, I’ve also felt the sting of stereotypes that some still hold. But I have hope we can continue to progress past racism by recognizing our assumptions and not stereotyping.” That seems so direct. For a number of years, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes wrote Sistas in Zion, originally a blog, now a Facebook presence, and worth reading. The trauma discussed after the fake news was revealed resulted in a long video posted on Facebook, but a common theme that several others expressed was a lack of desire to go to church yesterday.
Being oblivious may not be malicious, but it can seem thoughtless. I like to consider myself savvy. Years ago, speaking with a woman who grew up in Mexico, I, too, assumed she was a convert. She proudly said she had grown up in the church, her mother had served a mission and was a Relief Society president, as she herself had been. I would like to say I’d learned my lesson.
A friend told the story of young black girls being asked to go do baptisms at the temple early in the morning before school. White girls just blow dry their hair. (One of my black friends says I have wash-and-wear hair; she won’t travel without an umbrella.) Those girls couldn’t get their hair wet without—literally—either destroying work that had taken hours or spending hours getting it ready for school.
Maybe it is all about assumptions. Maybe if that man in Texas had simply written his letter under his own name, this never would’ve happened. They say people leave the church but can’t leave it alone. He hurt people. Yes, bad business. I hope we don’t, ourselves, by not thinking. I hope we correct others if they are thoughtless, or mean. It may take some courage. It’s the least we can do.