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Genesis members, others respond to LDS racism statement

MURRAY, UTAH – Over my head I see trouble in the air

Over my head I see trouble in the air

Over my head I see trouble in the air

There must be a God somewhere

James Sheppard's powerful voice seemed to lift everyone in the packed LDS meetinghouse Sunday night to his or her feet. He didn't lead the singing of the "Gospel Song of Praise" in the way that is traditional for Mormon choristers: standing behind a music stand and beating out the measures with a waving, wandering hand to swelling organ accompaniment. Instead, he stood at the podium, the microphone pulled close to his mouth, and with passion and power in his soul-stirring baritone voice, he led the congregational in a cappella singing like a good shepherd leads his sheep.

"Here I go," he seemed to be saying with his heartfelt phrasing of the old Negro spiritual. "See if you can keep up."

Over my head I see glory in the air

Over my head I see glory in the air

Over my head I see glory in the air

There must be a God somewhere

By the time they were singing the song's fourth and final stanza, the congregation – consisting mostly of black Latter-day Saints – was standing and swaying as the spirit of the moment moved them. A few raised their hands heavenward, waving them in time to the music. Others ad-libbed harmonic vocalizations that made the song sound wonderfully rehearsed, even though it was the first time singing it for most of the congregation. Tears trickled down a number of faces. And as the last strains of music reverberated through the chapel, thunderous applause broke out, along with at least two "amens."

James smiled and nodded his approval. As he told the crowd before the start of the singing, "President got permission to raise the roof."

James was referring to Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, an organization created by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a way to serve the unique needs of black Latter-day Saints. The meeting was the group's regular evening meeting on the first Sunday of the month, featuring songs, prayers, a special speaker and, if time permits, spontaneous expressions of faith by members of the congregation.

What was unusual about this meeting is that it was held the Sunday after a story in the Washington Post focused national media attention on the status of blacks in the LDS Church. Statements in the story attributed to BYU professor Randy Bott were considered by many to be inaccurate, patronizing toward black Latter-day Saints or even racist. The story prompted both a response from the church disavowing the comments and a second church statement condemning racism, "including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."

From about 1850 to 1978, the church did not ordain black men to the priesthood. Both church statements last week said the origins of the priesthood restriction remain unclear and any attempts to explain it are speculative and not church doctrine.

Neither Harwell nor Elder Stephen B. Allen, the LDS Church's area Seventy who presided at the Genesis Group meeting Sunday, specifically mentioned what Slate's Max Perry Mueller called "the most significant dust storm concerning Mormonism and race in 30 years." But when the time came for the "testimonial" portion of the meeting, it was clear that some group members were anxious to talk about it.

"It's been an interesting week," said Thom Reed, who said he has been following the story and its aftermath on the Internet. But rather than talk about the story or any of its elements during the meeting, Reed used his time at the microphone to testify of his faith in the LDS priesthood.

"I know that God's priesthood exists in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with every 12-year-old boy who is ordained a deacon all the way up to our living oracle, President Thomas S. Monson," Reed said, his powerful voice booming from the pulpit that he was gripping firmly. "The priesthood of God is on the earth. It binds families together. It is real. It is not made up. It is true and it is living and it is real."

Tamu Smith joked that "it isn't very often that my parents (who don't live in Utah) see Utah County in the national news." Still, she said, she is "grateful for what happened this week."

"I'm grateful for parents who raised me to understand that people are human, and they make mistakes," she said. "I'm grateful that they taught me to recognize the spirit, and to trust what the spirit tells me. I'm grateful that the leadership of the church made this statement. But mostly, I'm grateful for my relationship with the Lord. I know he loves me just the same as he loves everyone else."

The Post story and the LDS Church's reaction to it have been a matter of considerable controversy and discussion during the past week. Journalists, historians and anyone else who had an opinion on the matter have presented their thoughts, feelings and reactions in blogs, comments on newspaper web sites and in interpersonal communications.

For some, the recent surge of coverage on the subject has provided an opportunity to get all Latter-day Saints together on the same page, both in terms of the church's history and its position on the matter of race. Writing for the Huffington Post, Samuel Morris Brown, a member of the church and author of "In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death," expressed his feeling that "increased scrutiny to its racial history can ultimately work to the good of Mormonism."

"Church leaders ... have publicly denounced entrenched racism among certain demographic groups within the church body," Brown observed. "Unfortunately, their efforts have not been successful enough to eliminate intermittent espousal of the kinds of scabrous folklore apparently related by this BYU professor. These narratives are deeply cruel, un-Christian, and contrary to the teachings of modern LDS Church leaders. It is well past time for those Mormons who still hold them to abandon them forever, with sincere apologies for treasuring racial bigotry for so long."