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Guest Post: Open Letter to Brother Wilcox

Dear Brother Wilcox:

Where do I begin? My testimony of Christ is based around justice, specifically social justice. Day in, day out, the Christ who overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple, the Christ who healed the sick, the Christ who forgave sinners, the Christ who raised people from the dead and loved outrageously, He is my rock and my foundation. I am His disciple, He is my guide, and the Spirit is my informant and comforter. My ancestors and my Heavenly Parents call out to me daily, reminding me of my purposes on Earth: growth, service, action, and consecration of my talents and abilities to the betterment of all. I wandered through agnosticism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Taoism for 44 years to find this Church. I am grateful for every moment of that journey and its end, but I came into this church with eyes wide open. I know bias when I see it, no matter how subtle or socially acceptable the manifestation. Your fireside of 6 February 2022 was unconsciously, but noxiously, prejudiced. 

Your words about the issue of Black members being denied the priesthood were absolutely appalling. You derailed a legitimate question posed not just by young members, but by investigators like me at age 44, by recentering it on “us all” (i.e. Whites). That pivot was beyond offensive, for a great many reasons. For one, it is against stated LDS policy – the ban on Blacks in the priesthood has been formally disavowed as racism. It was also inhumane, as is all racism, and tone deaf, as it was trumpeted in Black History Month, no less. You discounted the pain and suffering of generations of Black saints by denying the importance and truth of bias and racism in our shared history. This goes against everything that my testimony acknowledges or requires of me. Rather, my testimony of Christ, and of the Church, requires that I write this to you.

You are a BYU professor, a General Authority, a lifelong member, and an author. You know full well that Black members of the Church had the Priesthood at the time of the Restoration, and that it was taken from them for 150 years. That is the truth. There is no “better question” about the Priesthood. Pivoting to “why didn’t we all have it for 1829 years?” is just a diversion from Anglo-American emotional malaise. It denies the real question, the valid question, that is being asked: what was legitimate about the racial and ethnic discrimination that caused Black men, Black women, and Black children to know the full blessings of the Church, to have full exaltation within their reach, and then to suffer denial of full blessings and exaltation – no sealings, no missions, and only an incomplete grace of the Sacrament. I love the Temple, and I can’t imagine it being withdrawn from me. If Zion was ever to be a country, Blacks’ citizenship was blithely and painfully revoked before their eyes, and refused them, even as their White counterparts grew in the joy of the Restored Church.

I’m a genealogist, and one topic those of us who work with Black history and records discuss is the horror that the earliest Colonial Black Virginians must have felt as their status as indentured servants who could achieve freedom was taken away by law. The hope of becoming independent business owners, land owners, church members, and of accumulating generational wealth and respect was wrested from them. They built Jamestown, and went from being peers of White indentured servants to enslaved people with no hope of freedom, a descent that was addressed only with the end of the Civil War (though arguably, it has not yet been fully rectified – if it had, we wouldn’t be dealing with this issue now). I cannot imagine the pain and powerlessness of being kidnapped, indentured to strangers in a strange land, building the beginnings of a nation with my labors, and having my expectations dashed as the promises made to me for that toil were systematically broken by a transition to enslavement.

The Church, under Presidents Young, Taylor, Woodruff, Snow, Smith, Grant, Smith, McKay, Smith, Lee, and even Kimball, committed the same offense against Black saints. Black saints consecrated their talents and worldly goods to the glory and growth of Zion, yet their access to the Celestial Kingdom evaporated by edict. This denial was a daily, in-your-face second-class citizenship. It was back-of-the-bus status before buses were created. It was Jim Crow before Jim Crow, and everybody alive at the time knew it, including Brigham Young when he made that initial choice. The other prophets had to know in their hearts that it was injustice, even as they continued to uphold the inequity.

One of the most engrossing and engaging points of my investigation was the challenge at the beginning of the Book of Mormon. I was told to read it and pray, and in prayer, to ask to know whether the Book of Mormon was true. I rose to that challenge. I accepted it. I realized that, with that question being the first challenge posed to an investigator, I was considering a faith based in seeking truth. Because questioning is a true form of LDS scriptural learning, it is valid to question the motives of mortals, even prophets. It is right to ask whether Brigham Young was a racist, whether polygamy was wrong, and a thousand other things. Why? Because there is only one perfect Christ. Only Christ was Christ, and even he insisted that he needed to be baptized by a human being in order to fulfill his earthly mission. 

Asking uncomfortable questions, therefore, is valid. Pivoting away from the discomfort that questions raise is irresponsible.

This is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we march. Your pivot to an unasked question, why the whole world was denied the true church for 1829 years, posed an incorrect timeline – Jesus Christ was alive and preaching for the first 33 years of the Common Era, and his disciples for decades afterward, until the Apostasy. But the offense lies in the deeply denied truth of Black pain inside and outside our church. I have witnessed the fury, the injury, the anguish of Church members over the last few days. The fact is simple: the ban was racist, discussing racism is uncomfortable, and working through discomfort is the only way to learn and reach new levels of understanding. Denying any White saint that opportunity isn’t just squelching his or her spiritual growth, it’s putting Black missionaries and members in physical and spiritual danger by making their lives seem de facto less important than some spun-up theoretical exercise in conflict avoidance. Black saints feel “othered.” Black saints are tokenized. Black saints feel unsafe. Black saints are told to kill themselves, by members of this church, because they are Black. This happens daily. White supremacy is rampant in our church. Running from your own discomfort surrounding these issues means you’re valuing yourself over those who are subject to daily attacks. If you are concerned about people leaving the Church, please consider the distress of Black members who try to remain.

It is clear to me, even if you won’t admit it to yourself and at some level, that Black lives don’t matter enough to you. If they did, you would never have spoken so. You would have discussed the facts as they stand. You’d respect all members of the African diaspora, and their cousins in Africa, by being honest: the ban was racist. We have a racist past and present. We must confront it all, however frightening it may be.

As White Americans raised in a world that standardized the kidnap and brutalization of Black bodies for centuries, and despite our best hopes and efforts, we are all, to some degree, racists. I read your apology. To those you offended, especially your dear Black friends, you apologized, and committed to do better. I believe that you did know better, but OK. I’m going to take you at your word on this, and offer you what I have learned in a decade of concerted effort to rectify my own racist thinking, speech, and actions. We all need assistance at times, regardless of our level of education, our age, or our privilege in this world. Please take this offer as such.

First, get some White friends who are avowed and active anti-racists. They’re not hard to find. Ask them the questions you have about Whiteness, Blackness, bias, and racism. Don’t put the weight of the work you need to do on Black people. It is not Black America’s job to teach White people how to act or speak. Black folks deal with White nonsense in their everyday lives, and they are tired. How do I know? I am blessed to have Black friends and family who tell me the truth, and I respect the lived experience of others.

Next, get some Black friends. I don’t mean polite conversationalists with whom you can chat amiably about the weather as you pass them in the hallway. I mean real friends, people who will be ruthlessly honest with you. Pay attention to what they say about the world, what they need, what they want. Listen, don’t ask or tell. Do not question them when they tell you about an incident or words that they deem racist: if they say it’s racist, it is. They know. It’s their lived experience. Take these lessons on board silently, and commit to do better than the examples of racism they show you.

When preparing to respond to questions about racism in lessons or talks, employ the Rule of Three: ask three of those trusted and trusting friends how to proceed when discussing race BEFORE ACTUALLY DISCUSSING RACE. Accept your amateur status with humility, and instead of being just another White male blowhard, listen. Learn something, and speak with care. Follow, do not presume to lead.

Above all, acknowledge that there is a deep cultural divide between Black and White saints. Just because a Black saint or family looks happy and says all the right things at church, during a ministry conversation, or in a class, doesn’t mean that this is so. I have been educated well in a single fact: Black America speaks two languages. One is for us, and one is for them. They switch codes to be safe in White America – “don’t sound angry,” “don’t have too much of a blaccent,” “don’t ask for too much space or time.” In fact, the saddest part of all of this is that I, a White woman, was asked to write this piece in the first place. I suggested that a Black writer would be a better choice – I have not suffered racial or ethnic discrimination inside or outside the Church. The response I received was that the Black writers who were approached didn’t want to have to modulate their tone or word choices, yet again, in order to avoid sounding like “angry Black men” or “angry Black women.” How pathetic that the Church represents, above all else, a stifling blanket of smothering racism, of expectations of performative obedience, to even one person. How sad that my voice was considered worthy of this discussion.

But I have no fear of this discussion, or of what might happen to me for speaking up – I am a White woman. I don’t have the same outcomes as my Black family. The issue of racism in the Church, in all its manifestations, in all its permutations, is an issue that is of Satan. Racism is of Satan, and pretending not to be racist is of Satan. Telling the truth, however – that is of Christ.

Please, educate yourself. There are so many great books out there that take the onus of education off of individual Black people during their busy and stressful days. Ibram X Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” is a good start. “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo is also a classic. And whenever you start to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, angry, victimized, or resistant, know two things: first, this is the necessary first step to repentance, and second, your discomfort is nothing in comparison to the gaping wound of racism. Don’t pour more salt on their wound; instead, address your own and heal it.

Sincerely,

Sister Brigid Jones

 

Brigid Jones is an adult convert, raised agnostic, former Catholic convert who gave it up for Lent, continual struggling Buddhist and Taoist. She’s a historian, a scholar, and a perpetual city girl.

18 COMMENTS

  1. This is so beautifully written, thank you. I was also distressed at the very title of the event, Alpine Youth Rescue. Really? What are they being rescued from? I hope that there is another conference for them to teach correct principles and allow their actual questions to be asked and answered. Further, in that same P is for Priesthood clip, Wilcox slammed women members using old tropes that aren’t true. And he threw the Lord under the bus with his “we don’t know the Lord’s timeline” nonsense. Blaming the Lord for the stuff that is questionable. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this.

  2. The BYU committee on Race, Equity & Belonging has an OPEN online form where anyone can contribute comments related to their work. According to the official PR statement made by BYU in response to Wilcox’s controversial talk, this committee will be reviewing the facts and making recommendations according to their policies and guidelines.

    I urge you to copy/paste your letter into their hands, and urge any others who have strong feelings on what has happened to similarly send their comments. Or, send a letter to the committee members who are named on this site.

    https://race.byu.edu

  3. Thanks for this great response, Brigid.

    Forgive my ignorance, but could you point me to where I could learn more about this point you made? “Black saints are told to kill themselves, by members of this church, because they are Black.” Because that’s horrifying. I’d like to know more.

  4. Amen Sister Jones!

    I earnestly pray your words get the message through to not only Brother Wilcox but all the GA and lifelong members who refuse to examine their innate biases and belief of false doctrine to finally abandon attitudes and actions of prejudice as we’ve been admonished to by our current prophet.

  5. His apology feels hollow when you learn that he has been giving similar talks for a least a year. This is probably the first time he’s been called out on it. He spoke very similar words in Georgia last January

  6. I wanted to watch the whole talk to decide for myself. The whole talk was old-fashioned and worse. Putting other churches down and then going in on the racism question. Brad Wilcox is yesterday’s man and someone needs to sit him down and have a serious talk with him. There were so many offensive parts to his talk I turned it off after “P”

  7. Thank you!! This is the work that fuels my own testimony of the gospel and the meaning in the Work to be done. It’s empowering when we can truly understand the power of personal revelation and the radical compassion of Christ’s example to call out racism wherever it lurks. It’s a sacred responsibility of white members and we must not shirk.

  8. There is a slight inaccuracy here. The church never “disavowed” any racist doctrines. Read their wording more closely because they disavow “theories” of the past about the role of blacks in the plan of salvation. They never disavowed the racist doctrines, policies, or practices of the church

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