In this episode, we explore one of the ways that we can become better storytellers and better listeners through cultivating our holy curiosity. In honor of Black History Month, we revisit the faithful story of Isaac Thomas, a black Latter-day Saint who converted to the gospel in the 1970's despite the fact that he would be unable to hold the priesthood or participate fully in the restored gospel he loved. We'll also hear from Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes, (aka the Sistas in Zion) who give us their tips for better ways to interact with one another across cultural divides.
If you're looking for ways to get curious about the lived experiences of our brothers and sisters of color in the gospel, you can find a list of resources (as promised!) at LDSLiving.com/thisisthegospel
Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host KaRyn Lay.
If you've ever spent any time with a three year old, then you might not agree with the central tenet of our theme today, that curiosity is a gift. But listen, if we can get past the exhaustion that comes from answering those rapid fire questions of our tiny humans, we'll eventually come to that magical place where we admit that the ability to look into the wide world and ask a million times, "How does this work?" That's pretty awe inspiring.
It's interesting, when we talk about the commandment to become as a little child, I think our minds often go straight to humility. But is there anything more humble than acknowledging that there's so much we don't know and so much that we want to know?
Curiosity is a function of true discipleship. And when we tap into it, we open the door to so much beauty and possibility in our efforts to become a true child of Christ. Now, listen, I'm pretty sure that I am preaching to the choir when I say this, but I can't think of a business that is more suited to a cultivation of curiosity than the work of storytelling, and it's necessary companion act of listening. When we dive into a story and allow ourselves to feel something from someone else's experience, that's evidence of a curious heart. And that translates when we tell our own stories.
Having the spiritual gift of curiosity about others will make us more introspective about ourselves, our motives, our fears, so that when we bear our own stories of faith, we'll convey the heart of the story instead of just the details. If curiosity can really do that, then I think it's something lovely, of good report and worth seeking after.
I've also been thinking about how curiosity, storytelling, and listening can be tools for us as we try to accomplish what President Nelson has charged us with, when he said in the October 2020 General Conference, that Latter-day Saints and followers of Christ must, quote, "Lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice."
I firmly believe that offering a curious heart to one another and listening from the starting place of, "I don't understand and I want to understand," is the key to beginning that work.
So as we celebrate Black History Month here in the U.S. in February, I figured maybe we could start there today. Start by practicing a holy curiosity about a part of our church history, that sometimes hard to hear. Today, we've got a story about faith, pain and hope from Isaac Thomas, an African American Latter-day Saint who converted to the gospel in the 1970's, despite the ban that precluded Black men like him from holding the priesthood. We first shared Isaac's story in season one of the podcast. So you may have heard it before. But even if that's the case, I'm a huge believer that with a little bit of a prayer in our heart, the spirit will show us new insights. Here's Isaac.
ISAAC: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. I've been a member of The Church for 46 years. I was part of the Civil Rights movement, I was involved in the marching and the sit-ins and those types of things, and campaigning and being a non-violent protester for rights not only for blacks but for everyone. That was what I was doing at the time when I first started college. It was 1967 to 1971. It taught me patience, if nothing else, and long-suffering because during the Civil Rights movement to sit in at a cafe, and to be hosed in those things, there's a lot of patience involved in that, and a lot of long-suffering.
I first came in contact with the church through a young man that was in my basic training unit when I was in the Air Force, and he gave me a Joseph Smith pamphlet for me to read. That was my initial contact with The Church. I actually didn't get a chance to read it all. I just got to the first paragraph, explaining who Joseph Smith was. And then my drill instructor took it out of my hand and told me that Mormons were racist and bigots. Oh, okay well, forget that. I don't need racists and bigots in my life. I almost ended it.
After that, I went to my next duty station and again, there was another Mormon on base that asked me for, you know, said he’d give me a ride at the chow hall and he asked me to go to his church with him that night. I forgot to ask him what church I was even going to. It didn't occur to me that everybody in the jeep that I was in, leaving base, was white but me. And the church was on the road in Southwest Texas alone by itself, I’m squinting, going where’s the church, and I realize it's a Mormon church. Ahh, it's a Mormon church! It's a Klu Klux Klan meeting and I'm going to be the burnt offering. I was, I couldn't believe it. I said I'll get out of the Jeep. I'll stand here, They'll go in and I'll walk back to base. Nobody moved until I did.
I'm walking into this church, I'm going, "Please let there be another person of color in here." There was not. They had a mahogany foyer and I was going, if I stand close enough I can blend in and they won't notice I'm here. I expected for the chapel doors will open I would enter and see the grand dragon with hood in sheet. I could not believe I had gotten myself into such a terrible, terrible situation.
KARYN: What Isaac found that day was actually far from what he feared. The rumors were untrue. There was no grand wizard lurking in the chapel, and instead, he felt something sweet and meaningful. He agreed to take the missionary discussions that soon came across some difficult information that was hard to process.
ISAAC: The first time I learned that I couldn't hold the Priesthood was when they gave me the last lesson which was added to the series of lessons that they were giving me and they explained it to me. They told me all the reasons, all the reasons that the time that they were told. And I listened. And then I said, "You'll have to tell me that again". And they repeated everything. And then something just said, "It's okay." And I said, "Fine. Fine, I'm okay."
The thing that kept me anchored was I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I knew that, got that witness, can't deny that. I knew the Book of Mormon had been restored by the prophet of God, can't get rid of that one either. If those two are true, then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Church of God. There was some dissonance because I didn't know what other blacks would think of me, how they would accept me. I wasn't sure how the rest of my family members would accept me which troubled me because we were very close family. And so I was wandering in this mist of darkness really, just feeling my way, but I could not deny what I know to be true.
I actually joined the church December 15 in 1972 in an old chapel in San Angelo, Texas. I remember just fighting with myself in the restroom, going, "Should I leave? Should I stay? No, Get out of here, this is bad. No, you need to stay this is going to be good for you." But I indeed stayed and I was baptized and it was glorious for me. Really, I’d never felt so good and all my days. I remember the feeling of being light and forgiven.
My parents' reaction when I joined the Mormon Church, my father was not there when my mother asked me, "What church did you join?" And I said, "The Mormon Church," and she dropped the skillet. My cousin left cussing. My brother said, "You did what?" And I just kind of sat there silently. And then my grandparents, when they heard about it, they said, "Just leave him alone, it’s one of his passing things. It'll be okay." But after a while, when I stopped drinking, smoking, carousing, doping and all those things, my grandmother finally said, "I don't care what church it is, hallelujah to it." It got me to be the person that they wanted me to be. Because my grandmother, when I was younger, I was ill and she promised the Lord that if I was saved, or live, that I would dedicate my life to the Lord. And I have to admit, I found that out and I purposely tried not to be that person, but here I am.
Well, I decided once I got out of the military that I wanted to go on a mission. That was 1976 or 77. And I knew I couldn't, so I wrote President Kimball a letter and said, "Dear President, I'd like to go on a mission. I don't care if I can't baptize people, somebody else can do all that. All I want to do is be able to get in there and to teach people, just to teach them the Gospel." I got a letter back and it said, "Dear Brother Thomas, we're sorry, you can't go on a mission because you don't have the priesthood."
Then, I went, "Women go on missions!" So I wrote him another letter, "Women go on missions!" I got another letter back saying, but they had to go to the temple and take out their endowment. And for you to go on a mission, you'd have to take out your endowment. So you can't go." And I said, I'm going to mission one way or the other, okay? And then my mindset, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Okay, I'm going to go, I'll figure it out, then I'll let them know. That was my mindset. I had not given up, but I accepted what he said, I understood what he was saying and why it was being said. But I figured there was some other way for me to accomplish the thing that I wanted to do. Because after all, the Lord gives no commandment unto the children of men unless He provides a way to accomplish the things that he has commanded.
Well, I realize how to serve that mission. When the kids came home from school and they told me about this song and dance group at BYU that did missionary work, and all they did was sing and dance. And they said it’s Young Ambassadors. And I went, "I can do that!" So me and my friends jumped in his MG, drove up here inAugust of 1977 for me to audition for the Young Ambassadors for my mission. But I got there and I was intimidated by all the talent that was there. I mean, I hadn't had music lessons or dancing lessons so I didn't audition. But then I was getting ready to go do baptisms for the dead and the phone rang and it was the director of the Young Ambassador's asking me to come up and audition. The director of the Young Ambassadors was told to call me because when I was in Thailand, a group from BYU came over to entertain the troops. And I worked the lights for them and Randy Booth was playing the piano and I met him and I was doing USO shows. Apparently, somebody told him that I was there. And a dancer had dropped out of the Young Ambassadors so they had called me to see if I wanted to come up and audition. And so I went up, after I'd gone to the temple, sang and danced, sand and danced, and they said, "Yes, we want you to be part of our group.” We want you to know that you're going to be in a fishbowl, that everybody will be watching you that this won't be easy. There will be a lot of questions, a lot of pressure that you will be under. It was going to be pressure because I was a black member of The Church. And at that time, there were not a whole lot of us around, particularly in a performing group at BYU. And because we were going to be traveling all over, that there will be non-members and other people that would take me to task and take The Church to task on their stand about why blacks could not have the priesthood. And I said, "Well, that's their problem. This is my mission for two years. I don't have time for that." Done.
That was one of the greatest learning experiences of my time being a member of the Young Ambassadors. I learned more about performing, I learned a whole, whole lot about brotherhood. When I say brotherhood, I include sisterhood as well. The love and care that they had for me was genuine and real. There would be some that would leave and go on missions and they would tell me, "Isaac, I'm gonna baptize this many people in your name." I was promised that I would have special friends and associates that would be for my good. And that was indeed quite true with that group. When something untoward happened, like a member or somebody would not let me stay in their home because I was black, some of the girls— they got very, very upset—and I didn't like that kind of thing. So I would have to stay in a hotel or something with the director. But they were always there. I never had to worry about my back. Ever.
There were some challenges while I was on my mission with the Young Ambassadors, and there was a time where we were doing a number in Georgetown, Pennsylvania and a girl jumped about two inches off the floor, ripped her knee out, hobbled off stage. I was the only one off stage because I had a solo number after that one. And I carried her off and the director came back and said, "Isaac, go get someone that has the priesthood." And he might as well hit me upside the head with a wrecking ball, or taken a machete and just gutted me. I was devastated. He wasn't being mean, it was just a fact. And really, I think for the first time, I really did feel inferior in some way because of that. Like Man's Search for happiness, I just didn't know what was happening in my life because I had no question about the priesthood for six years. I'd been a member for six years, what's going on? And I was talking to Brad Smith, he was my roommate, and I just told him I felt like I was holding on to my testimony by the skin of my teeth at that point. But then, I realized, we have to trust in God because man will disappoint us every time, but God will not. He may not come when you want Him all the time, but He's always on time.
So about June, end of May of 1978, we were in Toronto, Canada. And the missionaries brought this young lady to the show for me to talk to, she was black. And the director kept bugging me to talk to her. And I said, "Okay, fine." But when I jumped off the stage, there was a bunch of anti-Mormon people that came to the show. I was surrounded by all these people that are calling me a traitor to my race. That I was an Oreo, an Uncle Tom, and I just didn't need that my life. I finally talked to this young lady and I told her she’d do more for a family in the church and she ever could outside of it. And I left. We jumped on our bus, traveled to Kansas City, June 8, and we had lunch with my mom and we sang songs, we got back on the bus and we start going through Kansas. I went to sleep. Cause Kansa, it’s flat, there's nothing there and I'd seen it before. I went to sleep. They woke me up when we got to Salina, Kansas and told me to get off the bus. I got up, I got off the bus, didn't know what was going on. When I got back to our equipment van that had our costumes and instruments in it, Gary, our piano player was driving that when he said, "Isaac, we heard something on the radio. We don't know if it's true." I said, "Well, Gary, what did you hear?" He said, "Well, we want you to hear, we just don't know what to think." He kept going on and on and on. I recognized the station, it was WHB in Kansas City. I thought they had heard that my mom had been an accident. I said, "Gary, if you don't tell me what you've heard, I'm going to be all of you like stink on a monkey." He said, "They gave the blacks the Priesthood!" I said, "Don't, don't believe that, please. We're in the heartland of the reorganized church, the heartland of the reorganized church. They could be giving the cows the Priesthood for all we know out here. And don't tell anybody on that bus because I can't handle if it's not true. I can’t handle all that disappointment. No, don't want to deal with it. I got in the van, we drove to a mall, the director gets out runs in the mall. I figure we're going to go in, pass out some pamphlets about The Church get some contacts for the missionaries and sing some songs. Done it before, no big deal. Gets back on the bus. The bus pulls in front of the van and I see every, all 40 something people on one side of the bus hands and faces waving. At that point, I knew that they had told them about this fictitious rumor about this Priesthood thing. I went, "How could they do that to me?" and then on the CB radio, I hear, "Elder Thomas, it is true."
My entire life passed before my eyes. And I went, wait a minute did I sleep through the Millennium? I was always told what happened in the Millennium. And then I went wait, well who's coming in these clouds? And I didn't know if I should look or not. It was like being in a dream. I get on the bus and they say "Bare your testimony!" I couldn't think of my name. I don't know what I said, I said something and I sat down by the director. At that point, people start singing songs, "The Spirit of God like a Fire is Burning," and then someone would bear their testimony. "I am a child of God." "I know that my Redeemer lives," all of those harmonies from all those talented talented people floated across Kansas. But everybody that I'd ever know from the Laotian border from Karamursel, Turkey, San Angelo, Texas, the family that got me in the church was trying to find me that day. For they had been there supporting me all this time. Praying along with me for this day to come, like many, many, many of the silent majority of the members of The Church, praying for this very, very special thing. It wasn't my letter, either one of them, it was a collective effort for those that wanted this to be done and for the Lord to hear the prayers of His children that were given in righteousness and in devotion unto Him.
After the revelation, our last show was in Loveland, Colorado. The bus pulled up and there was like, hordes of people there to welcome us and at that show that night, the audience was great. Several encores, several testimonies, but when we got back to BYU, it was a little different because there were people that would speak to me and thought I could walk on water because I didn't have the priesthood. Now that I could, they would not speak to me. There were also advertisements taken out the newspaper denying the priesthood revelation that made me feel bad. And it took me a while to understand that that was their choice if they were cheating themselves out of their own exaltation. That was hard, but for the more part, it was grand. I wanted to write someone black, the only black person I had, which was this young lady I met in Toronto, Canada. Well, she came down for General Conference because they were going to be you know, ratifying and talking about the Restoration of the Priesthood for conference. So she came down, stayed with her missionary's that converted her. I met her and we, you know, went to a couple of sessions together and then Sunday night, we were walking on Temple Square, and we were just talking and I asked her what she was going to be doing and told her what my plans were and we got up by the Christus, and all of a sudden I heard these words come out of my mouth, "Will you marry me?"
And I was so startled by what came out of my mouth. I couldn't believe it. Because I promised I would never have a Mormon romance, you know what I mean? And she said, "I'll have to think about it." I'm going, it's a good thing somebody's thinking because obviously I am not. She came back a couple days later and said, "Yes." And we talked about will we get married civilly first? Will we wait and get sealed? And we decided to wait to get sealed. And we got married June 15, 1979. We were the first black couple to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. There were so many people at my sealing. I can't tell you who was there. All I know is there was standing room, people everywhere, halfway out the door. And when we walked out of the temple, there were all kinds of people taking pictures, it was in the Deseret News and I'm going, okay. But we were, we were so dizzy just from being nervous about being married. But really, it was another surreal experience in my life, but a great one.
My testimony helps me when things aren't connected as far as race and understanding in the church. People can say and do anything, there will always be bigots, some knowingly being bigots, some unknowingly being bigots in every religion, they're there. No matter what the trial is, or what the circumstance is or what's been said to me or thrown at me, literally. The Lord is there. We sing a song in my grandmother's church, it went, "I trust in God, I know he cares for me. On the mountain tops, on the stormy sea. Though the billows may roll, he thrills my soul. My Heavenly Father watches over me."
That was Isaac Thomas. I produced the video for LDS Living that first told this story in 2018. And it's amazing to me that I've heard Isaac's story literally dozens of times. And I still heard something new as I listened.
Maybe you found yourself like I did filled with gratitude and wonder at Isaac's faithfulness and his determination, that part about choosing to serve a mission even when he couldn't formally serve, I mean, that just gets me every single time. And maybe you, like me, heard those stories of pain and wounding from Isaac and wondered if maybe you'd inadvertently allowed a bias or lack of understanding to get in the way of another child of God feeling the full stature of their divinity.
If that's the case, well, then good. Good, good, good. That is the gift of curiosity, doing its beautiful job, reminding us that we're still alive here on this earth and that our time is not over yet, we still have some spiritual growth left in us. It can be painful, a real gut punch to be curious about ourselves in that way, to search out the moat in our own eye.
But our love for Isaac and all of our brothers and sisters of color demand that we do it. Our desire to be more like the Savior demands it as well. And I firmly believe that he will help us to push past the shame and the fear that that self examination can bring up if we let him.
In the spirit of practicing curiosity, I want to share one more quick little thing with you today. It's audio from a video series that LDS Living did a while ago called, "What and what not to say at church." We did the series to help us all navigate potentially awkward situations at church with a little bit more love and a little more self awareness.
And one of the topics that we tackled was talking to our Black brothers and sisters. I don't know about you, but I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and my interactions with Black culture were really limited until I was in college in Philadelphia. And I made a lot of mistakes. And I acted on a lot of assumptions. And I know I hurt people.
I really love that saying that is making the rounds lately, "When you know better, you do better." Admitting fault and vowing to do better is the very heart of our gospel practice. And that's true of navigating cultural differences. It's a holy work that requires God to help us complete. But bridging the gap is possible, and listening to others with a different life experience, really listening to them without defensiveness, that's the first step.
So here are Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes, also known as the Sistas in Zion, with their tips for doing better at interacting with each other at church. And here's a funny thing. This video was done long before President Nelson asked us to stop calling ourselves "Mormons," so you're going to hear that in this audio, but just know that we know that we don't use that anymore. Here you go.
Sometimes people will come up to you and grab you hair.
If this has ever happened to you at church, you might be a Black Mormon.
On a serious tip, at church, sometimes we say things like, "I don't see color," which is not true, but it is awkward. And we understand that. We're going to have some awkward moments, but we're just going to ride it through. And we're going to get through this because we are all brothers and sisters, and we're in this together.
Absolutely, so we're going to give some tips.
So what do you say to people who just come up to you and touch your hair?
So we know you're curious, and that's okay. But we really shouldn't touch people without permission. So if you're interested in my hair, get to know me. Know my name, what are my interests, and once we're friends, maybe we'll get to hair.
When we serve admissions around people of color, we often like to share with them that we've connected culturally with an experience that might resonate with us.
Basically, what you want us to know is that you love Black people, and we want you to know we love you back.
But while we're seeking connections, there are some assumptions that can actually disconnect us.
For example, I'm from California, not from Ghana, where you served your mission.
And that sister from Ghana is not from the hood, where you served yours.
People think I can sing because I'm Black, so they want me to be in the choir. I'm not a good singer. Also, I'm a convert to the church to the LDS faith. She is not.
I am a convert, actually, everybody's a convert to the LDS faith, but I don't have a gangster to gospel story that you're looking for.
All Black people don't know each other. I cannot get Alex Boye to speak at your farewell.
So sometimes people will come up to me and they'll say, you know, "Oh, my gosh, I served my mission in Chicago, Illinois. Do you know champagne?" And I'm like, "Yeah!". . . I don't.
But the truth is, all Black Mormons kind of really do know each other.
Don't speak slang to me if that's not your native language.
It's okay to ask me, "Are you Black? Or are you African American?" I'm both. And I'm also Tamu.
When it comes to asking questions, motive matters. If your motive is the loving one, it'll shine through.
Sometimes we have these conversations in the church, and sometimes race is a part of it. Don't skip over the race part. We want to be a part of that conversation.
Tamu and I don't speak for all Black people, so the best rule of thumb is treat everybody like individuals, get to know them. And then you'll find out what they like, what they don't like. All are like unto God. But that doesn't mean that we are all alike. It means that we're striving to love each other, like God loves each of us.
I'm excited to see you on Sunday.
Catch me in the pew, how about that?
How about that.
And when we wear our wraps and hats to church, don't ask us to move to the back row because you can't see over them. Come on up and join us. The more the merrier on the pew.
That was Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith. We'll have a link to that video in our show notes so you can see what you can't when you're just listening to the audio. Tamu and Zandra have never been shy about sharing what it feels like to be a woman of color in a church that sometimes doesn't reflect their experience.
And I for one, am grateful for their willingness to speak up with plainness and love and self respect. They brought up an interesting point in the video that I had honestly never thought of until just now. It's the difference between a holy curiosity and a nosy curiosity. And here's what I mean.
Holy curiosity respects people's boundaries. It's motivated by love and acknowledges the godliness and the divinity in every person, while also asking, "What's it like for you to be here?" But nosy curiosity is just the opposite. It's actually all about you, and meeting your needs to know, at the expense of another person's dignity.
It's doing what I know I have done before, touching someone's hair because you want to know what it feels like regardless of how that might make them feel. Or asking someone if you've hurt them, only to try to defend yourself.
I love what Zandra said, that our motives matter. And it's going to shine through as we press forward through awkward moments in our attempts to form genuine familial connection. I don't know what it's like for you, but my church life sometimes seems like it's all awkward moments. Ministering, teaching over zoom, accepting ministering, all of these great things require me to be slightly uncomfortable all the time.
So after listening to these tips again, I'm going to try to put this into practice. To ask myself if my curiosity is holy or nosy, to pause before talking and check myself to see if my curiosity is motivated by a desire to really know someone and understand their life on their terms, or if it serves only me.
I'm hopeful that as I do that, that my comfort and ease will grow as I do the work of discipleship. We can't leave this theme of curiosity without recognizing that ultimately, we seek this gift so that we can become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ. Talk about a holy curiosity.
Despite the fact that he knew all and could perceive every single thing, Christ asked hundreds of questions during his ministry. And those are only the things that we have recorded in canonized scripture. I'm sure there was more. Christ loved curiosity. And in Matthew chapter seven, verse seven, he promised us that our sacred curiosity would be rewarded, he said, "Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
So back to that charge from President Nelson to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice, I think it all starts with engaging with the gift of curiosity, asking Heavenly Father to show us what we don't know. And listening to stories from people who've lived it, like Isaac, and Tamu and Zandra, and others. Asking questions with a motivation of love and a commitment to do better, when we know better.
If you're feeling that desire right now, we will have a list of really great resources to feed your curiosity in our show notes, including some links that offer opportunities to hear directly from our brothers and sisters of color who go to church with us. I don't think we have to wait to be perfect to lead out. We just have to be like a little child willing to let people see us and our growth and our curiosity. And then we can truly call ourselves, all of us, the children of Christ.
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storyteller, Isaac Thomas, and our wonderful Sistas in Zion, Zandra and Tamu. We'll have more info from all of these storytellers in our show notes at LDS living.com/Thisisthegospel. That's also where you can find a transcript of each episode.
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This episode was produced by me KaRyn Lay with additional story production from Davey Johnson and the producer director of that "What not to say" video, Skylar Brunner. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios, our executive producer is ErinHallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDS living.com slash podcasts.
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