Members of the LDS Church should not assume that common religious belief is sufficient to overcome cultural differences among the faithful - especially among the church's growing black population.
That was one of the conclusions presented Friday during the opening day of a two-day conference on "Mormon communitarianism" sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation and the National Historic Communal Societies Association. The conference, titled "Plotting Zion," concludes Saturday at the Excelsior Hotel."Too often the LDS Church, as well as other organizations, has assumed that people from one cultural background are the same," said Jessie L. Embry, director of the oral history program at the Brigham Young University Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.
Embry, who presented a paper on efforts to develop a sense of community among black members of the LDS Church, said black culture in the United States is diverse and that black and white members must see each other as individuals rather than as stereotypes.
Quoting a black member from the Hyde Park section of Chicago, Embry said, "There is not a cookie-cutter stamp kind of thing for black folk that you can just apply universally. The black university professor is much different than the person who is marginally making a living."
One factor that has united black Americans - viewing whites as the oppressor - begins to dissolve as blacks and whites worship together.
"In the religious setting, they "become no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints of the household of God," Embry said, quoting Ephesians 2:19.
Embry drew her conclusions from interviews with members of the racially integrated Hyde Park Ward and the Charlotte 6th Branch in North Carolina, which is essentially segregated.
The experience of blacks in the LDS Church is about as varied as their expectations concerning the church's role in their lives.
"For some, working together on common projects creates a religious community. Others want more social interaction with church members," Embry said.
After interviewing 226 black Latter-day Saints, black LDS author Alan Cherry "found that the important elements in integrating them (blacks) into the church's community had more to do with individuals' personalities and their commitment to the church than whether they attended church with blacks and whites, or mostly blacks," Embry said.
While some blacks prefer meeting and worshipping with other blacks, others consider segregated groups a public relations nightmare, she added.
"Having an LDS African-American cultural awareness group or a Genesis group of all blacks meets an important need for some. For others it is a sign of segregation," Embry said.
White LDS Church members shouldn't assume that blacks are necessarily more comfortable worshipping with blacks.
"In some instances, some people will (be more comfortable). But don't assume it," Embry said, quoting black member Marie Smith. "Let it show first. Then make your apologies or adjustments where needed."
Developing a sense of community requires that church members, regardless of race, learn to relate to each other. Members also must learn to adjust to each other's expectations and the confusion inherent in adapting to new religious traditions.
"Some blacks . . . were concerned about what the church could do for them and were not used to having to serve other people through church callings," Embry said.
While church activities provide ample socialization for some black members, others feel a need for additional socializing besides Sunday meetings, group family home evenings and Scout activities.