Introduction and Conclusion by Kendra Bybee
Essay by Sareta Dobbs
Family history has long been a topic of considerable discomfort for me. As a Black member of the church, I would find myself rolling my eyes when other members would stand at the pulpit telling the sacred stories of their ancestors. Admittedly, I was rolling my eyes because I felt a certain amount of envy. I was envious that they knew who their ancestors were. I was envious because their stories seemed to solidify their place as members of the church, a place that I felt that I had no valuable reason to also inhabit. I spent many a day wondering why I wasn’t blessed with a known family history, one that would make my fellow church mates envious of the accomplishments of my ancestors. My own parents rarely talked about their conversion or family history stories, a fact that further exacerbated my feelings of envy and otherness; it was just the way my family was, I decided.
Imagine my astonishment when, after nosing through my mother’s old books and journals, I discovered that my mother, my introverted, fame-avoiding mother, was the first Black woman to receive her mission call for the church. I finally felt as though I had some family history; I finally had a story to tell. Yet, it wasn’t my story to tell; it was and is her story. It was a story that she felt, for many years, had only to do with her life. History, however personal we may view it, rarely has an effect on only one life though — a fact that my mother came to better understand as our family size changed and as her children went out into the world.
Her story, forty-plus years in the making, is the backbone of who I am. It is the story that has propelled my siblings and me to stand firm in places that are not ready for us. It is the story that has taught us that every individual has a history that affects us all.
This is my family history.
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When I was a young woman, in my adolescence, I felt after the things of eternity. I wanted to know where I came from and what happens after death. When I asked those questions in church (a Protestant denomination), my teacher told me that death is the end and that we didn’t come from anywhere. This seemed strange to me and I remember thinking that couldn’t be right. However, I didn’t know what the correct answer was, or at least I didn’t consciously know.
I had never heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My freshman year in college, I had a roommate from Colorado City (which, I learned much later, was settled by Mormon fundamentalists) who referred to Church members as “those blankety-blank Mormons.” Fortunately, I had no idea what she was talking about and thus remained unbiased.
I encountered the LDS Church through a classmate who first invited me to a Relief Society homemaking meeting. She was somewhat hesitant when I suggested I would like to go to church with her, and this puzzled me. As I recall, she waited a week or two before inviting me. She told me that in her church, Blacks could not hold the priesthood. I asked why and she answered that she didn’t know, but expected it to change soon.
Soon thereafter, she invited me to take the missionary lessons. When the elders taught me the plan of salvation, they told me about the premortal life and that I am a spirit daughter of a loving Heavenly Father. This answer penetrated my heart, and I knew that it was true. I had found the answers to those two questions I asked years before. My heart rejoiced, and the truth resonated through my being.
I felt at a spiritual level that the chains of the world fell off at that time, and my mind was no longer darkened. Despite the priesthood restriction in place at that time, I was joyfully baptized in Stockton, California, in May of 1976, at the age of 21. Then and now, what mattered most to me is having a relationship with my Heavenly Father. From that time forward, I wanted to serve a mission, to shout out to the world those truths that had set me free. I wanted to share that testimony with all others who were lost and seeking.
I began to study the gospel of Jesus Christ, to learn all I could so that I would be prepared. I attended Institute classes and studied The Book of Mormon. I believe that I had some of the best teachers to tutor me in sound doctrine. I was eager and enthusiastic. There was so much to learn about my new faith, and I absorbed the teachings like a sponge, including what writings I could find about Blacks and the priesthood. I attended church regularly, accepted a calling to teach Primary, and participated in young adult activities.
I was baptized as one of a group of ten or twelve people, many young adults who had the same desire to share the gospel with others by serving a mission. Knowing new members could serve a mission one year after baptism, I prepared myself to go.
At the end of that first year, I went to my bishop and shared my desire to serve a mission. It was the spring of 1977. The bishop listened to my request, then told me that he would need to consult with the stake president. When I met with him again, he told me that I couldn’t serve a mission because of the priesthood restriction, that I would be unable to receive my temple endowments as other missionaries did. I countered that missionaries in countries without temples served without attending the temple, but he gave me no answer and ended the conversation.
I completed my associate degree and returned home to Kansas in June of 1977. I took a certificate of membership from my bishop to show that I was indeed a member, hoping to erase any doubt that might arise about whether I belonged.
As I prepared for church that first Sunday in Kansas, my mother asked what I would do if they didn’t accept me. My response was, “It isn’t their church.” She looked surprised but asked no further questions. She dropped me off at the church. Some people introduced themselves, and I generally felt welcomed. At that time I was the only Black ward member. There were some who raised their eyebrows and even a few who refused to look at me when we passed in the hallway or on the sidewalk. However, without active persecution, I was able to disregard their attitudes and continue my church attendance. I persisted with Institute classes, this time in Church history, and again served in the Primary and participated in church activities. I also enrolled in classes at Wichita State University.
As I neared the completion of the 1977-78 academic year, I felt prompted to go to Utah. I had never had a desire to go there and knew of no reason why I should. I inquired among ward members as to who might be taking a trip there, but got no offers. Out of the blue, my Sunday School teacher, who knew I felt inspired to go there, called and said she felt prompted to go and would take me with her. My stake president contacted a family he knew who agreed to let me stay with them.
After arriving in Salt Lake City near the end of May 1978, I began seeking to know the reason for my prompting. I searched for work, explored educational options, and continued to pray for understanding. On Friday, June 9, 1978, I went downtown to fill out job applications. It was very hot, and I returned to the home where I was staying, hungry, thirsty and eager for a respite from the scorching sun. My hostess was in the kitchen and greeted me enthusiastically, asking if I had heard the news, then gushingly told me that President Kimball had received a revelation saying Blacks could hold the priesthood.
I was delighted as I had also been studying the Doctrine and Covenants during the previous year and understood more fully what the blessings of the priesthood meant. I knew my people could now go to the temple to marry, do sealings, and that, in predominantly Black parts of the world, wards and branches could form. I also knew that it opened the door for me to serve a mission but wasn’t sure in that moment if that was the plan.
The very next Sunday was our stake conference, and Elder Neal A. Maxwell presided. My thoughts were preoccupied with learning why I had been prompted to come to Utah. I made my way forward to the podium, shook hands with Elder Maxwell, and asked him for a blessing. He answered yes without hesitation. In that blessing, he blessed me to let my tongue be loosed in bearing testimony to others, especially to my own people.
I received congratulations from members of my ward the next Sunday, one even telling me that this was a great day for my people. I simply smiled and said yes, while thinking to myself that it was a great day for everyone in the church. Some people I knew lost the weakest part of their testimonies with that announcement. While the restriction had limited my people, it was also a weight upon the hearts of those who struggled to understand how a just God would exclude an entire race of people from the fullness of his blessings.
I continued to ponder and pray, fasting for guidance on what I was to do. I felt I should serve a mission. I announced this to my host family and made an appointment to see the bishop. When I sat down in his office, he told me he was about to call me because he had received a call from Elder Maxwell telling him that he felt I should serve a mission. Instead, he discovered that I had already made an appointment to see him. We talked about finances and how much I would need. That particular stake had a large missionary fund which would help if I earned my part.
I received a call to the Brazil Rio de Janeiro mission and was to report to the LTM (now the MTC) on September 28, 1978. I was disappointed at first because the blessing from Elder Maxwell said I would especially bear witness to my own people. I thought of American Blacks as “my people” and had assumed I would stay within the United States. It took a couple of days to sink in, and then I accepted the call. I immediately began to memorize the story of the first vision and to learn about Brazil. Everything came together wonderfully.
My family didn’t react much to the announcement, probably thinking I was off on another adventure. At that time, they still believed that my Church membership was just another phase I was going through, as I had bounced around quite a bit since high school. I was in my junior year of college and my father urged me to finish my bachelor’s degree first. I firmly told him that I felt the time was now.
I was endowed in the Salt Lake City temple and attended the temple in Provo weekly during my language training. The friend who introduced me to the church had once said, as we passed by the Oakland temple, that I would probably get there before she did. She had married a nonmember and had not been to the temple yet, due to a policy that prevented women who married outside the Church from taking out their endowments. I never imagined she’d be right, and that the policy that kept me from the temple would change before the one that kept her out.
Our little Portuguese group remained in the LTM for two weeks past our ending date while we awaited visas, leaving on December 7, 1978. Sometime later, I learned that I had been the first Black sister to receive her mission call after the priesthood revelation. Several of the elders in the LTM told me that, and it was confirmed by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in a talk called “All are Alike Unto God,” in which he stated that the first Black sister had been called to the Brazil Rio de Janeiro mission.
After several days in the mission home, I was assigned to serve in Juiz de Fora in the state of Minas Gerais. Completely alone in a foreign country, I took a bus to my first assignment. When I arrived, there was no one there to meet me. Of course, there were no cell phones in those days and, lacking a backup plan, I waited anxiously for my companion to appear. Shortly, three sisters arrived, walking and talking together: Sisters Caldas, Marinho, and Cezario. This was the only area I served where there was actually an LDS constructed chapel.
I immediately loved the warmth of the Brazilian people. However, though I had done well in my language studies in Utah, learning to understand and speak the language with natives was a different story. I believe this is generally true for most people who travel to foreign countries. For the first several months, I struggled to both understand and speak to others, though thankfully I had a companion whose dialect was easier to understand.
All of my companions were native Brazilians, so I spoke only Portuguese and had to learn quickly. At times, I felt like the class dunce and found that some natives thought me stupid because I could not communicate well. One of the sisters in our apartment (not my companion, thankfully) was even less charitable and would sometimes mock my manner of speaking.
Brazil was very diverse and we had missionaries of various descents: German, Japanese, and Arab, to name a few. At a missionary conference presided over by Elder Teddy Brewerton of the Seventy, Elder Brewerton heralded the removal of the priesthood/temple ban as a great day and justified the Church’s previous denial of priesthood blessings to Blacks by referring to the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price (Abraham 1:21-26). At that time, Church leaders maintained that the Lord had first cursed and then delivered our people from spiritual bondage. I was disappointed. It felt as if white people continued to hold the moral high ground, and we had only just arrived at a point of worthiness. However, I had heard these sentiments expressed before; they had been tolerated or accepted by all church members, and those attitudes did not disappear overnight. I suppose, being a child of the 1950’s, it resonated with the attitudes of the white power structure I experienced growing up. After all, outside the mantle of priesthood authority, they were mortal men. I shrugged it off and shook my head. To me, this was a battle that needed to be fought within each person’s heart. I already knew I was accepted by God.
Within my missionary bubble, I never heard talk of race except once near the end of my time there. On that occasion, my companion and I were standing outside the gate of someone’s home, an investigator I think, and she said something about me being pretty, for a Black girl. It so surprised me that it gave me a start. I had totally forgotten about race during my time there. When it was time to leave Brazil, I remember thinking that now I would go home and become race-conscious once more.
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When I sit in church now, my eyes no longer roll back into my head and I no longer pray silently for speakers to spontaneously develop laryngitis and cease speaking of their ancestors. I listen and remind myself that their history isn’t just theirs; it belongs to all of us. My mom’s story is no longer just a piece of family history; it is part of history.