ATLANTA — Jermaine Sullivan maintains that when it came to participating as one of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints featured in the documentary “Meet the Mormons,” any number of individuals, families or even bishops could have been chosen.
Even so, he's grateful to have been among those who were selected.
“I’m glad to have been a part,” said Sullivan, who was serving as the bishop of an LDS ward in Atlanta when his segment was filmed. “Any small part I could have played in inspiring someone else is a great honor.”
While he occasionally is recognized and approached by people in airports, he says his role was just a small part of an edifying whole.
“I think you could say, beyond my part, just the film in general was inspiring to (people),” he said. “The various stories uplifted them, and they were just an inspiration to them and their families. … They can see themselves in some aspect of each one of the participants of the film."
Providing 'a unique insight'
"Meet the Mormons," which was released in theaters nationwide in October 2014, showcases the lives of members of the LDS Church from varying circumstances and locations around the world. Sullivan is the first subject featured in the film.
“I think it was a good thing to include someone who was serving in a leadership capacity in the church just so people can kind of know what Mormon leadership and Mormon congregations look like, and how does that impact the family of a Mormon leader," Sullivan said. "And beyond that, I think the Atlanta Ward is such a unique ward in the church and in the United States.”
About 55-60 percent of the ward members are African-Americans, Sullivan said, with other ward members' ethnicities including Caucasian, Latino and Vietnamese.
Then there was Sullivan himself, an African-American serving as the ward's bishop.
“I don’t know how many African-American bishops exist in the church,” Sullivan said. “So that was, I think, for them a unique insight into some of the diversity that exists in the church.”
Sullivan and his family didn't apply or audition to be featured on "Meet the Mormons" but rather were brought to the attention of the film's producer after participating in the "I'm a Mormon" campaign when it came to Atlanta, he said.
"We participated with a different crew from the 'Meet the Mormons' producers and directors," Sullivan said. "If I remember it correctly, that film crew said (to the 'Meet the Mormons' producers), ‘You may want to come just take a look at the ward; the ward is a very unique ward, and it may be good for you to take a look at this family.’”
"Meet the Mormons" producer Jeff Roberts and members of his crew came to meet the Sullivans and attend church with them, Sullivan said, and “I guess at that point, they figured we were interesting enough to participate in the movie. It kind of just went from there.”
A continuing story
Sullivan's life has changed in some ways since the filming of "Meet the Mormons."
For one, he's no longer "The Bishop" — he was called to serve as president of the Atlanta Georgia Stake about a year after filming his segment of the movie.
“That’s been very, very exciting, something I never anticipated, that I would be called to serve as stake president,” Sullivan said in an interview with the Deseret News in November. “It’s been three years now.”
Another difference is that his sons, Jeremiah, Abram and Corban, have gotten older — and bigger.
"It’s interesting to look back at the film and see how small the boys were," Sullivan said. "You look at them now and they’re so tall, and I can’t believe I have a middle-schooler."
Sullivan works in online higher education administration, he said, and his wife, Kembe Sullivan, is "doing great" and still working from home as a virtual elementary school teacher.
The Sullivans got to know some of the film's other participants and still keep in touch with them.
“We established good relationships with particularly the Armstrongs," Sullivan said. "We have communicated on many occasions with them on Facebook. … I may talk to Anthony Armstrong; we’ve talked several times since the film, about life and about challenges, about school, and about dating — just various things.”
Events following the film's release also brought them together with Gail Halvorsen, the now 95-year-old “Candy Bomber,” Sullivan said.
"We’ve been able to get to know each other a little bit better," he said.
Freedmen's Bureau Project
In June 2015, Jermaine Sullivan and Kembe Sullivan helped conduct a media event at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles to announce the launch of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, an effort to index 1.5 million digitized Civil War-era images containing 4 million names from the Freedman's Bureau, according to MormonNewsroom.org.
“Kembe and I were asked to come out and participate in the launch of the project and the announcement of what the church would be doing in working to make these records available to the general public and working on the indexing campaign,” Sullivan said.
The Sullivans worked alongside Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and members of the Family History Department in making the announcement, and Jermaine Sullivan said they were "very excited" for the opportunity.
“It was a phenomenal experience to have people who weren’t members of the church come and participate in the press conference and to get to meet so many people and just to let them know what we as a church, what we’re working on as it relates to the African-American community and as it relates in a broader sense to family history," Sullivan said. "As I was able to talk to several people after the press conference, they really seemed to appreciate the value that that would add to family history and black genealogy in the United States.”
The Sullivans didn't limit their participation to announcing the new project; after the launch, they got involved with helping it progress.
"Right after we finished the press conference, when we got home that following Monday, we started to participate in indexing some of the records, and it was just really interesting to read," Sullivan said.
African-American genealogy can be difficult, Sullivan said, and many people get stuck at around the 1870 census.
“It’s kind of hard to go back from there, just based on how history was and how slavery was; records just weren’t kept that diligently with actual identity being recorded,” Sullivan said. “So it may be hard to go further out, but you can definitely drill down and go deeper as a result of these records, to be able to maybe find cousins and know of some of the specifics of their lives after the Emancipation Proclamation. … You get to know occupations and just really detailed information about the lives and circumstances of the individuals during Reconstruction.”
Sullivan said he and his family have yet to find a direct link to themselves from the project, but he is enthusiastic about the potential value it holds for the family history work of other African-Americans.
"I’m just hoping that I’m able to find something personal, but in a general sense, I’m happy for people in the African-American community who can participate and hopefully have greater access to records," Sullivan said.
Before 'The Bishop'
While "Meet the Mormons" focuses on Sullivan's service as a bishop in Atlanta, it doesn't share how he got started on that path.
Sullivan's story as a member of the LDS Church goes back to 1999, he said, when he joined the church in Alabama at the age of 19.
“One of the most intriguing things to me about my initial experience with the church was the story of Joseph Smith because I related so much,” Sullivan said. “I had gone to many churches, and I was very serious about finding the truth. I just had a feeling that there had to be some church out there that had the truth. I just believed that. I didn’t have any evidence that it existed, but I just felt that it must have been true.”
Sullivan’s introduction to the LDS Church came late at night as he was watching TV at home.
“(The church) used to advertise this video called ‘The Lamb of God,’ and I saw that video advertisement and I called (the number). I mean, it’s 11 o’clock at night, and I called it, and of course no one answers the phone.”
When he woke up the next day, he said, “the first thing I did that morning was call that number, and two days later the missionaries came and they delivered the video and taught me about the church.”
The missionaries taught Sullivan about the priesthood and the authority to baptize — something that was particularly important to him, he said.
“It was just great to hear the missionaries teach me about the priesthood and that authority being present in the church,” he said. “The Lord really orchestrated that well for me and answered all of my questions.”
After the missionaries had answered Sullivan's questions and extended an invitation for him to be baptized, he said, they had a question for him.
“They asked me, ‘So, do you have any other questions?’ and I said, ‘I do have one question,’” he said. “And I looked over at them, and the missionary started to get nervous; his face was red. I just said, ‘Do I need to bring a towel?’”
In 2000, Sullivan set out to serve as a full-time missionary in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Sullivan was the only member of his family to join the LDS Church, and he said the decision came as a surprise to his siblings and some of their friends who knew him before he "became religious."
"I was the youngest and my sister’s friend would come over, and she would kick me out and I would try to annoy them — you have that whole thing — so she remembered that part of my life, that aspect of my life, when I was sort of a ruffian running around Alabama," he said. "So when I got home (from my mission), she wanted to speak to me, and she just couldn’t believe everything that they had told her about what had happened in my life — I had been a missionary and I was out preaching the gospel.
“… That was kind of interesting, just to see how people respond to the changes that occur in your life,” he said.