COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — The Genesis Group began its monthly meeting Sunday night mourning the death of President Thomas S. Monson, the last living apostle who formed the LDS Church's multicultural activity organization for Mormon blacks in 1971.
Then the group said more goodbyes, as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released its longstanding president and his counselors and installed a new presidency.
The events marked a momentous start to the year that will mark the 40th anniversary of the revelation that lifted the restriction on priesthood and temple blessings for blacks in the LDS Church.
President Monson died Tuesday at age 90. He had been one of three junior apostles who created Genesis in 1971. The others were President Gordon B. Hinckley, who like President Monson later became the senior apostle and president of the church, and President Boyd K. Packer, who later served as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
More than 400 people gave a long, standing ovation Sunday night as President Don Harwell, who led Genesis for 14 years and spent more than 22 years in the group's presidency, was released by Elder David Warner, an Area Authority Seventy, at a stake center in Cottonwood Heights.
Harwell's counselors, Eddie Gist and Wain Myers, also were released.
"When you're having fun, it's not labor," Harwell said.
The group sustained Davis Stovall, 40, a LDS Church security engineering manager from South Jordan, as its fourth president. Jamal Willis, a school district administrator from Saratoga Springs, will serve as first counselor. Joseph Kaluba, a systems analyst and native of Zambia who now lives in West Jordan, is the second counselor.
Elder Warner also announced that the group, which had been hosted for years by the Midvale Union Stake, will now be hosted by the Draper Utah Mountain Point Stake.
Elder Warner honored the outgoing presidency, calling them "as faithful servants of the Lord who could be found anywhere." He said Harwell and his counselors oversaw a period of growth that approximately quadrupled the size of Genesis, improved missionary outreach and established a renowned choir.
"Thousands have come seeking and have found refreshment, rejuvenation and renewal and reason for hope in the redemption of our Savior," Elder Warner said.
"I remember an evening in 1971, Oct. 19 to be exact, in a building a quarter of this size, when three junior apostles of the Lord set apart the first Genesis presidency with a small group in attendance," said Darius Gray, one of those set apart that night as a counselor and who later served as the group's president. "To see where it has come and where God has brought it, I recognize his hand every step of the way.
"It was a marvelous day, Oct. 19, 1971, and it's a marvelous day today, Jan. 7, 2018."
Elder Warner said some group members might ask why the change wasn't made sooner, but he called the answer self-evident.
"In spite of health challenges, family needs and church responsibilities in their own wards, why have they served so long? They have been needed," he said.
Angela Terry celebrated the change in leadership. Terry is the daughter of the first Genesis president, the late Ruffin Bridgeforth. Her mother, Betty Bridgeforth, was the first full black to sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"It's absolutely amazing that my dad's legacy is carrying on and on and on, that it didn't end with him," she said. "It just meant the world to him. He had no idea how it would go. If he were alive right now, he'd be loving this."
Genesis Group meetings are unique in the LDS Church, from rhythmic clapping along with the gospel choir to call-and-response testimonies. The result is a positive, affirming environment, the outgoing presidency and incoming president said during talks, where blacks who sometimes still feel out of place in their home congregations can come and feel accepted.
"We're gonna be offended, we're gonna be put in tough spots," Gist said, "but don't let the gospel be taken away from you because of somebody else's words or actions. This is the 40th anniversary of the priesthood ban being lifted. Today, we can have the priesthood if we're worthy. My challenge to you priesthood holders here tonight is to always be worthy."
Stovall echoed the sentiment in his first address before the congregation.
Stovall, who joined the church 20 years ago, said he gave his mother a priesthood blessing at the end of her life, when she had become unable to speak.
“Immediately after that blessing she woke up and told me how wonderful that felt for her,” he said.
She was able to talk to all of her family members before she died.
“That blessing is my last experience with her,” he added. “That feeling of exercising the priesthood and knowing that it’s real and not just something we talk about, that’s what celebrating the priesthood, the lifting of that ban, means to me. If that never happened, I never would have had that sweet experience with my mom.
"So I hope that as we go through the next year, as we think about the priesthood, that we’re not just celebrating it but that we exercise it, we show that we’re proud of it by how we live our lives and how we use that great privilege.”
Harwell said he was grateful to turn over leadership at a time when he said Genesis "is no longer the best-kept secret in the church."
Bridgeforth, Gray and another founder first met with Elders Hinckley, Monson and Packer on June 8, 1971, to for help in serving and reactivating the few black Saints in the area. Seven years later on the same day, the church announced a revelation extending the priesthood to all worthy males and lifting the restriction on temple blessings for black men and women.
In 2013, the church released an essay on race and the priesthood that said in part, "Today, the church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form."