DETROIT — In a sodium swamp on the west side of Chicago and a historic church two blocks from Martin Luther King Square in San Francisco, a surprising collaboration began bearing its first fruits in March.
Some of the most underprivileged African Americans in those two communities cracked open brand-new financial literacy manuals provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The self-reliance manuals had been specifically rewritten and adapted for inner-city blacks by the church and the NAACP.
Twelve weeks later, in late June, 100 students graduated. The effort has encountered bumps. For example, both sides expected classes to begin last fall, and some church staffers wrongly assumed the faith's self-reliance materials were ready for an inner-city audience. Still, students and NAACP leaders heralded outcomes for graduates who learned to budget, reduced or eliminated debt and came to recognize the pitfalls of payday lending.
For two groups that one of their own called "strange bedfellows," the effort is noteworthy, one rooted in a fundamental common belief that all people are children of God.
The strongest signal about that belief and the relationship it has facilitated may still be to come. On Sunday night, NAACP leaders will deliver the podium at their national convention to the church's leader, President Russell M. Nelson. The 94-year-old's speech should fall between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 pm Eastern Time in a meeting that will be broadcast live on NAACP.org.
"This is all happening because of the trailblazing leadership of President Nelson," said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a legendary civil rights activist. Rev. Brown is pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church, which hosted classes for 90 students this spring.
President Nelson locked arms with Rev. Brown at a news conference in Salt Lake City last year. Rev. Brown said Saturday he will attend President Nelson's 95th birthday celebration in Salt Lake City in September.
"He set the trail for us to follow by being humble," Rev. Brown added. "It was a humble gesture on the part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make overtures to the NAACP to say, 'We had a checkered past on this issue, and we want to do something about it.'
"It was more than just talk."
The NAACP and BYU law school alumni are organizing a project to help previously incarcerated men and women expunge their public criminal records so they can regain the right to vote and improve their employment opportunities.
The Rev. Theresa Dear uses the social justice term "sodium swamp" for the westside section of Chicago where the financial literacy classes were held because it is a grocery desert. Without a full-scale grocery store, most people shop at local stores that sell food high in sodium and preservatives.
Rev. Brown is the chairman of the NAACP's religious affairs committee and Rev. Dear is the vice chairwoman. On Saturday afternoon, they presented a report to the NAACP's national board of directors on the self-reliance class and recommended that the association adopt and expand the pilot program based on the success in their cities of the customized self-reliance classes developed by the church.
"Based on the feedback from the participants and based on the wonderful relationship we had with the Utah team and the church, I absolutely believe this partnership or program should continue," Rev. Dear said.
The class in Chicago began with 12 students. Ten graduated. One woman took three buses to make the one-hour trip to the class each week and told a focus group after graduation that she would do it over again.
The blossoming partnership began 30 months when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelves Apostles met NAACP President Derrick Johnson in the well-worn headquarters of the historic NAACP chapter in Jackson, Mississippi. Elder Holland arranged for Latter-day Saints to paint and otherwise improve the offices.
Then in spring 2018, the NAACP held a national board meeting in Salt Lake City and President Nelson linked arms with Rev. Brown and stood with Johnson and NAACP Chairman Leon Russell to call for racial and ethnic harmony.
And in July 2018, at the last NAACP national convention, Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy of the church, announced the joint self-reliance project.
The first classes were expected to launch in fall 2018 because church staffers anticipated they could plug and play with the faith's interfaith version of its internationally tested personal finance manual that is part of the church's self-reliance program. That idea lasted as long as it took for Rev. Dear to review them.
"We had some really good bumps," said Melissa Riley, former senior manager of strategic initiatives for the church, who had written the interfaith manual. "It was a different population with different issues. Theresa Dear wanted to focus on the hardest hit people in Chicago, those who did not finish high school, had been incarcerated and were unemployed for five years."
A new marriage
Rev. Dear and Riley tackled the customization of the manual.
"We started last September and it was more than a collaboration," Rev. Dear said. "It was more like a marriage. We started at a very fundamental place. We wanted to do God’s work."
Rev. Dear provided feedback and suggestions. Riley wrote the materials.
"Fundamentally, the self-reliance program is a great program," Rev. Dear said. "The content is outstanding, relevant and applicable. The customization we did was making it more appropriate to African American communities."
They changed the order of chapters and added information on credit scores, predatory lending and how to offer appropriate financial support for family members and how and when to say no.
"Some of the recommendations we made were modifying the imagery to make sure there were people of color, brown and black people, in the images," Rev. Dear said. "We used inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, as an example, in the content. We also used scripture that is often used in the African American community, such as, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.'"
They also added scenarios to the course that are specific to challenges faced frequently by African Americans. The two worked into January. The church then published and shipped the revised manuals.
A focus group of the graduates strongly recommended the course, saying they appreciated the customized manual they found to be biblically based and full of relatable scenarios.
Meanwhile, the NAACP has begun to partner on the expungement project with the Houston and Charlotte chapters of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society of Brigham Young University, which is operated by the church.
"We are training them on doing expungements, helping people clear charges and even, in some cases, convictions from their records," said Gayla Sorenson, executive director of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law Society.
In Houston, the law society is teaming with the Thurgood Marshall Law School at Texas Southern University, where law students are handling the intake of potential candidates for expungement. The partners hope to begin to refer clients in August.
"It's been very energizing and inspiring," Sorenson said.
Elder Gerard said the effort fits the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"This was one area the NAACP identified, enhanced employment or employment at all for people who have made poor choices in the past but are looking for a second chance," Elder Gerard said. "That's what we call repentance and forgiveness."
Rev. Dear said second chances can change generations.
"Both programs are transformational," she added. "We have an opportunity to break generational cycles. Kids who have seen their parents go into the prison and incarceration system now could see their parents find employment because their records have been cleared. With the self-reliance system, children who have seen parents unemployed for years now will see role models in their households getting jobs and moving from rental programs to home ownership.
"These programs I believe are life-transforming and cycle-breaking in terms of some of the habits that have been acquired or witnessed generationally."
The NAACP and the church are talking about taking the personal finance courses to Baltimore, Atlanta and Camden next, Rev. Dear added.
She will host President Nelson on Sunday and brief him on both projects.
"I'll share with him the experience as well as the outcome and our hopes for the partnership and collaboration," she said. "We are honored by his presence at our convention."
The linchpin of the relationship is the joint faith in Jesus Christ's teaching that all are alike unto God, Rev. Dear and Elder Gerard said.
"None of us asked to be the color we are," Rev. Dear said. "When you strip away the color we are, we are all the same. We are God's people."
"The relationship," Elder Gerard added, "is about helping those whose hands hang down and helping lift them up. The basic tenet is, we are all God’s children. If you look at the broader picture, we have worked together to lift and elevate our brothers and sisters."
He called the partnership mutually beneficial.
"From our perspective, we want to bring what experience and success we have had, and have the NAACP add whatever it can to further enhance our efforts We’ve made a number of significant improvements based on their feedback. That makes their courses and materials better and also benefits us. It helps us to refine and improve what we are doing."
Rev. Dear and Rev. Brown, who both sit on the NAACP national board, stood together Saturday inside the cool Cobo Center convention hall on a humid Michigan day and summarized their feelings. A few yards away outside towering glass windows, the Detroit River flowed by. On its opposite shore, a massive Canadian flag billowed on a foreign shore.
"We appreciate being engaged in such a wonderful strategic partnership," Rev. Dear said.
Rev. Brown said he presented Joseph Smith's abolitionist teachings with the students in the personal finance classes at his church. He taught them about the church's past, and how it lifted its former ban on priesthood ordinations and temple blessings for blacks.
He considers the surprising collaboration an example.
"We have shown this nation that is now a cacophony, how there can be harmony, concord and togetherness, and that there can be, out of adversity, unity."