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Genesis group for Black Latter-day Saints celebrates 50th anniversary with declarations of hope

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Darius Gray at the Genesis Group’s 50th anniversary celebration in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Oct. 23, 2021.

Darius Gray, left, past president of the Genesis Group, speaks during the group’s 50th anniversary celebration at The Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A gospel choir swayed, danced and sang in front of the famous organ pipes of the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday night as the Genesis Group for Black members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Amid the stirring musical performances, former and current group leaders and church leaders shared stories of the past and hope for the future.

Part of that hope was centered in optimism that the meeting laid to rest once and for all a strange myth that Genesis is not an official part of the church.

“People still think Genesis is a rogue group that is not authorized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and it leaders,” said President Eddie Gist, a former counselor in the Genesis presidency.

Soon after he said that, a senior church leader made a definitive statement that Genesis is an official church entity codified in the faith’s official handbook of policies and instructions.

“Today the Genesis Group is organized in harmony with the church’s General Handbook as a multi-stake activity group in the Utah Area,” President M. Russell Ballard, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said in a pre-recorded message. “It’s main purpose is to bring church members and others together as fellow citizens with the Saints and to encourage and support Black Latter-day Saints, their families and their friends to build faith in Jesus Christ, strengthen their membership in his restored church and foster unity.

Several Genesis members expressed joy after the meeting over that clear statement.

The genesis of Genesis

The Genesis origin story includes a prophet and three apostles, but begins with Eugene and Leitha Orr, who after his baptism in 1968 began to hold annual “Black Mormon Reunions.” In the spring of 1971, he asked two other Black members, Ruffin Bridgeforth and Darius Gray to meet him in a study room at the University of Utah, where he worked, Orr told the Deseret News in an interview on Saturday.

Eugene Orr speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Eugene Orr speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

They compiled questions for church President Joseph Fielding Smith, which Orr delivered to his secretary, Arthur Haycock. Two months later, Haycock called Orr and arranged a meeting for Orr, Bridgeforth and Gray with three apostles, Elders Gordon B. HinckleyThomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer. Two of the six men would become presidents of the church, and two would become presidents of Genesis.

The meeting was held on June 8, 1971.

“This was the first time in church history a committee of Black men had approached church authorities on the subject,” Gray said, “and it was the first time a prophet had appointed a committee of apostles to meet with Black members to work out the problems presented by Black Americans in the church. “

The six men met every two weeks for the next four months, culminating in the Oct. 19, 1971 launch of Genesis. All six spoke in that first meeting, which was attended by 175 people in a meetinghouse in Salt Lake City.

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

That same summer, another apostle, President Spencer W. Kimball, and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, attended the Black Mormon Reunion.

Then on June 8, 1978, exactly seven years after that first meeting, President Kimball received the revelation that lifted the church’s 126-year restriction on Black men holding the priesthood and access to temple blessings for Blacks.

Bridgeforth had been a member of the church for 25 years without being able to have the priesthood. After the announcement, he and his wife, Helena, were sealed in the temple, and she died soon afterward. He served as Genesis president from 1971 to his death in 1997.

President Ruffin Bridgeforth speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

President Ruffin Bridgeforth speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

“Joseph Smith said that the Restoration of the church wasn’t complete until the sisters were organized in the Relief Society,” said Elder LeGrand R. Curtis of the Seventy, the church historian and recorder. “President Russell M. Nelson has talked to us about the ongoing Restoration, and we certainly can say that the Restoration of the gospel wasn’t complete until all of our brothers have had the blessings, the opportunity to receive the priesthood.”

Elder Curtis and other speakers honored Bridgeforth, Gray and Don Harwell, who died earlier this year, as past presidents of Genesis.

“Contributions to history generally take one of two genres: writing history or being history,” Elder Curtis said, quoting Ronald O. Barney. “Darius Aidan Gray is one of the very few personalities within the Latter-day Saint tradition who has achieved excellence in both genres.”

Darius Gray speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Darius Gray speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

“It’s a heavy mantle,” fourth Genesis president Davis Stovall said in an interview. “They’re big shoes to fill.”

Gray spoke in the meeting. Orr, the other living member of the original six whose work led to Genesis, watched Saturday’s event via livestream from his home in Canada.

What Genesis does

Genesis now meets on the first Sunday evening of each month, operating under the direction of an Area Seventy. It provides a safety net for Black church members while people of different backgrounds adapt to one another, Gray said.

“The tenets of the faith are for all people, including African-Americans,” he said, “but within this group, retention is an ongoing problem. Generally, Black Latter-day Saints are a geographically scattered patchwork of individuals with little social support. In these circumstances, it has been proven beneficial to foster fellowship with other Blacks on a periodic basis. By reaffirming the gospel with similar background and experiences, brothers and sisters who suffer from the sense of isolation can find reassurance so that tender hearts can be soothed.”

The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, which regularly performs during Genesis meetings, provided prelude music for 30 minutes leading up to the program and additional pieces throughout the main program.

“For 50 years, Genesis has kept us in a closer walk with the Son,” Harry Bonner said speaking in front of the choir during the prelude. “Because of Jesus Christ, we know the best is yet to come.”

The crowd in the tabernacle clapped along to the beat at times, applauded each number and danced in their seats as the choir danced and swayed and sang a mixture of gospel hymns, Latter-day Saint hymns and devotional rap accompanied Alex Boyé’s presentation of a “Hamilton”-style song from his planned Joseph Smith hip-hop movie, “American Prophet.”

The entire program, including the prelude performances and all the musical numbers, can be viewed on the Genesis Facebook page.

Elder Thomas S. Monson speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Elder Thomas S. Monson speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

President Ballard called the 50th anniversary a momentous occasion.

“The members of the Genesis Group have demonstrated your living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and your deep commitment to his restored church,” he said. “We are grateful for your example of inviting all to come unto the Savior. You have been especially effective in including those who may feel marginalized in some way and in creating understanding among many not of our faith. You’ve helped others look forward in faith to the day when the people of the Lord truly will be of one heart and one mind.”

Elder Boyd K. Packer speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Elder Boyd K. Packer speaks during the first meeting of Genesis in 1971.

Courtesy Darius Gray

Stovall’s two counselors in the current Genesis presidency, Jamal Willis and Joseph Kalumba, also attended the event. Other speakers included past President Eddie Gist, a past Genesis counselor, Jerri Harwell, a former Genesis Relief Society president and Natalie Sheppard.

The Rev. Vinnetta Golphin-Wilkerson, pastor of the Granger Christian Church in West Valley City, and the Rev. Oscar T. Moses, pastor of the Calvary Church in Salt Lake City, also attended the event.