09/17/2011 10:34 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Racism and the Church: Do We Demand Change?

A friend mentioned recently that he met his first black Mormon and that he didn't know they existed. Of course they do. I was one. He was shocked and asked, "How could you be a member of a racist church?" I explained the Church's teaching, then turned to my own question about race and religion: why don't we challenge racism in all faiths?

I clarified the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' position on blacks and the priesthood. Blacks have been members of the LDS Church since the 1830s. Mormons have believed (past perfect tense) that the mark that Cain received after killing Abel was dark skin. In 1848, church prophet and President Brigham Young declared that descendants of Cain could not be ordained to the priesthood. This impacted blacks on every continents, not just slaves or freedmen in the United States. Much later, in 1978, then prophet and President Spencer W. Kimball opened full church membership benefits to all members. However, the belief that blacks were inferior members of the church has never been part of the Church's teaching, though it has been perpetrated by many misguided members and misinformed nonmembers.

As I said, I am no longer LDS (or "Mormon"), but not because of this issue. I have studied and been a member of other faiths during my life, in an effort to find one that embraces my experiences with God -- the highs and the lows. During my search though, I found other (Christian) faiths were less willing to embrace their lack of diversity than the LDS Church. Some churches taught clearly from a black perspective, with varying levels of ethnocentrism. Some of the majority-white churches taught that "others" were not included in God's fold, as the LDS Church had been accused of doing, with varying levels of boldness. Yet, some of us remain faithful members of these churches. Do we actually demand that our churches remain racially exclusive? Are we willing to disagree or even criticize our churches for not being accepting of others?

To answer my friend's question, finally, I believed in my church's teachings on other issues and felt free -- even obligated -- to disagree respectfully when I didn't. While I'm still evolving, I believe that, because of my vocality, my church is as well.