Editor's note: Noting the 30th anniversary of the 1978 priesthood revelation, this is part of a series of profiles on black Mormons and their families.
Marcus Martins' life story has been written before. His noteworthy, and in some cases unprecedented, experiences as a black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are well-chronicled, and Martins says he enjoys reading such accounts.
"These stories really inspired me," he said. "I only wish they were true."
Martins laughs when discussing how the details of some accounts aren't entirely accurate. The heart of his story, however, is still worthy of print, and there is inspiration to spare in even the most basic retelling.
Martins insists he is just an ordinary church member but concedes that his experiences have been "extraordinary." The story begins with his family's conversion in 1972 and their activity in the church at a time when their African ancestry made certain opportunities unavailable. The 1978 revelation allowing all worthy male members to hold the priesthood regardless of race opened a new chapter, and the timing of the event made Martins an unexpected pioneer.
While he does not consider himself an activist, Martins' educational and professional pursuits have afforded him the opportunity to share his story and enlighten church members on the priesthood restriction and race relations in the LDS Church.
"I suppose that not because of ourselves, but because of the nature of those experiences, those served as ... a visible example to others of the universality of the gospel and the universal nature of the blessings of the gospel," Martins said.
"We can all come into the church and be one. My story is just another example of the universal availability of the blessings of the gospel."
Marcus Martins is the descendant of European, African and American Indian ancestors who grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His father, the late Helvecio Martins, was a respected professional who worked as an executive for a national oil company and as a university professor.
But when the family was baptized into the LDS Church in 1972, their African ancestry prohibited Martins, who was 13 at the time, and his father from being priesthood holders. Martins, now 49, says the family never experienced "any crisis of faith."
"We saw this as just the cost of membership in the church," he said. "Because of our desire, and we had the desire to join the church, we could just say that this is the way the church operates. ... We had to accept it, so we did."
The Martins family became part of a branch that included neighbors and members who were welcoming. Helvecio Martins was called as a gospel doctrine teacher just two weeks after his baptism, and just three months after the family's conversion, Martins' father and mother, Ruda Martins, both received callings in the newly established stake in Rio de Janeiro. Marcus Martins himself served as secretary in the Young Men program.
"We were fully integrated, fully fellowshipped in the church," he said. "These issues about the priesthood ban were in the background."
But they were still present.
Martins describes these issues as "clouds." In his book "Setting the Record Straight: Blacks and the Mormon Priesthood," Martins writes about going from a "somewhat privileged social standing" to being "categorized as 'cursed, less valiant, fence-sitters, Cain's lineage."' Perceptions of the priesthood restriction were founded in explanations members often ascribed to the policy, such as the notion that blacks were not as faithful in the premortal existence. In his book, Martins addresses these perceptions and calls them "speculative ideas and hypotheses developed as man-made attempts to understand the rationale and possible reasons for the ban."
When Martins was deciding whether to serve a mission, a fellow ward member suggested that he should accept the call so he wouldn't "mess up here" like he had in the pre-existence. One church leader implied that Martins' fiancee and now wife, who is white, would not be able to enter the celestial kingdom if they got married.
"The fact is that we knew that people were looking upon us as those people who messed up in the pre-existence," Martins said. "It was there. ... We knew that these things were in people's mind.
"There was this cloud, if you will, following us around."
Martins, however, emphasizes that he was never mistreated or discriminated against, and that such experiences were isolated and contrary to the general acceptance and respect his family was received with. In fact, in 1975 Helvecio Martins was called as a public affairs representative, giving television and newspaper interviews about the church despite not being allowed to hold the priesthood. General authorities traveling to Brazil would often ask to meet Brother Martins.
Despite some members' perceptions, Martins says the priesthood ban was a "non-issue" in Brazil. His father was never asked to speak about it, and Martins remembers only two occasions when Helvecio Martins addressed the restriction in church. While Marcus Martins himself has been requested to speak on the issue more than 120 times in the United States throughout his career, he's never been asked to do so in Brazil.
Because of the standing of his father, who in 1990 became a member of the LDS Church's Second Quorum of the Seventy, and the culture he was raised in, Martins realizes his story isn't typical.
"My experience in the church was very, very different than my counterparts in the U.S. because of where we were and who my father was," Martins said.
When Martins did experience what it was like to be a black member of the church in the United States, his impressions were positive. After getting married, having two children and working for 10 years as a systems analyst in Brazil, Martins and his family moved to Provo, where he obtained three degrees from Brigham Young University in a six-year span.
Because of his family situation, Martins and his wife, Mirian, were counseled by a stake president that a community ward might better meet the needs of their growing children. Martins was hesitant to leave the student ward because of the "misconceptions and stereotypes" he had about Americans being a little cold.
His family's experience in the Pleasant View 1st Ward, however, was far from frigid. The ward included 63 high priests who were much older than Martins, who was a former bishop. But the men "took me in as one of their own," he said.
"People received us with open arms and open hearts, and we made friends for life and beyond," he said. "It was one of the greatest surprises for me, as a Brazilian, the warmth and love we received.
"That's when I finally came to the realization (that) this gospel of Jesus Christ can really transcend nationalities and racial barriers."
While studying in Provo, Martins' career path veered away from business. He began teaching religion courses at BYU, and upon graduation, Martins and his family moved to Rexburg, Idaho, where he became a religion instructor at Ricks College. In 2000, he joined the faculty at BYU-Hawaii, where he is currently chairman of the department of religious education.
Martins' membership in the LDS Church, and the subsequent 1978 priesthood revelation, has changed his life in many facets.
Martins and Mirian Abelin Barbosa, who had just returned from a mission, were engaged to be married on Aug. 8, 1978. Exactly two months before their wedding date, President Spencer W. Kimball announced the revelation that would allow Martins to hold the priesthood and enter the temple, and Martins was challenged by his stake president to serve a mission.
Initially, Martins planned to continue with the wedding but was persuaded to serve a mission by what he calls "a sense of duty." Mirian Martins, who lived 60 miles away in Petropolis, said she received a call from her fiance, who said they needed to talk.
"I was so surprised," she said. Because she had a testimony of missionary work and because her fiance had encouraged her to serve a mission, she supported his decision. At the same time, she felt like "(asking) my bishop if I can go back to the mission field."
Marcus Martins became the church's first black member to serve a full-time mission post-1978. He downplays the distinction, saying he was totally unprepared because he never thought he'd have the opportunity. He served in the Brazil Sao Paulo North Mission and describes himself as an "ordinary missionary" who "didn't do anything special." After working for one year in some remote areas, his unique status became "old news," he said.
Mirian waited for her missionary, and the couple married upon his return in 1980. While they both prayed and fasted about the decision, Mirian Martins said that prior to 1978, the priesthood restriction was cause for concern about the marriage among some. The revelation, therefore, was a great blessing to the couple.
"It was the answer to our prayers for everybody, not just for ourselves," she said.
The couple has four children and one grandchild. With Martins' son Flavio recently being named bishop of a ward in Eagle Mountain,Utah, three generations of the Martins family have served in that capacity.
Martins doesn't consider himself a representative of any race or nationality, acknowledging all areas of his ancestry and calling himself "a citizen of the world." He doesn't specialize in researching the priesthood ban or race relations, and his professional emphasis is more on temples, globalization, economics, immigration and technology, and how those concepts affect the church.
He's not an activist. In fact, his often-used phrase is: "This is a time for activity, and not activism."
But being the church's first black missionary following the priesthood revelation does give Martins authority on the subject, and his career as an educator at three church institutions has provided him with opportunities to address the issue. This past semester, Martins spoke at a devotional at the Orem LDS Institute of Religion.
"People think I know about this so they invite me to speak," he said.
From his unique perspective, he sees a bright future and a capable church.
In his book, Martins suggests that parents "not allow the (priesthood ban) issue to trouble our children and grandchildren." He has told his two sons and two daughters that because of their race, others may have misconceptions about them. Martins says that teaching his children has been less about the priesthood ban and more about life and society in general. More than counseling them on race relations, he has focused on civility, citizenship and conviction.
"What I taught them is that they should gain a testimony of the gospel, keep the commandments and be active members and contributors in whatever place they lived," Martins said.
He doesn't believe in color-blindness, but Martins hopes that the generation of his granddaughter will be one where "differences will be accepted as normal," he said.
"I have great hopes for the future. I am optimistic."
After 36 years of membership in the church, Martins is convinced that as the faithful become more global and diverse, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will continue to meet the needs of its members.
"I like to say that the church is perfectly adapted to the circumstances in which its members live," he said. "I don't have any concerns whatsoever about the future of the church. We have challenges, but we're in good hands."
Name: Marcus Helvecio Tourinho de Assis Martins
Hometown: Rio de
Mission: Brazil Sao Paulo North (1978-80)
Family: Wife, Mirian; children, Flavio, Felipe, Cristina, Natalia; grandchild, Hannah
Education: Bachelor's (business management), master's (business administration), Ph.D. (sociology of religion, race and ethnic relations) from Brigham Young University
Occupation: Chairman, department of religious education, BYU-Hawaii
Church service: Full-time missionary, bishop, high councilor, stake and ward executive secretary, high priest group leader, ward mission leader, temple officiator, instructor