A Star Act Helps Unite The Faithful With Song

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It almost looked like a Gladys Knight concert, except there was no "Midnight Train to Georgia."

It could have been a Pentecostal revival, but it was a Mormon-sponsored event starring the R&B Grammy winner.

For two days, there they were: Blacks and whites rocking and clapping together in a church that was once segregated.

Knight led her 100-member choir, Saints Unified Voices, and preached to 3,000 people during two services over the weekend at the Suitland Stake Center, headquarters for 12 Mormon congregations in the District and Southern Maryland. The choir won Best Gospel Choir Album in February at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards.

"I am pressed so surely in my spirit to give you my testimony," said Knight, telling the crowd about her conversion from the Baptist Church to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1997. "They thought I was crazy. They thought that I had lost my mind. 'What are you doing over there with those Mormons? They don't like black people.' Yes, when I came to this church, I asked, 'Do y'all like black people or not?' "

As Knight joked, Bryan Powell laughed in the audience. Powell, a 43-year-old African American mortgage banker from Upper Marlboro, left his Pentecostal church 12 years ago to become a Mormon after two missionaries stopped at his home.

"Initially, I had been very closed-minded," Powell said. "But they were very persistent, so I decided to listen to what they had to say. I found out that much of what I believed, they believed." Today, Powell is an elder in the Suitland ward.

It was not until 1978, under prophet Spencer W. Kimball, that the Mormon Church admitted blacks into full membership, allowing them to hold the priesthood, marry in the temple and receive the same privileges as other members. Since then, missionaries have pushed hard to be inclusive, and the church in the Washington area has grown significantly.

Ken Page, president of the Suitland Stake, said 20 percent of the 4,500 Mormons in his stake are African American. He said the Knight event, called a "fireside," was another effort to reach out to the community.

"We want everyone to realize that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is welcoming to all people regardless of race, creed, heritage and walk of life," he said.

Attendees who listed their addresses were promised a free CD of the choir, a copy of the Book of Mormon and a DVD called "The Restoration: Introducing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," delivered by two representatives of the church.

Malcolm Jordan, 32, an African American from Southeast Washington, said he became a Mormon five years ago after a visit from two missionaries.

Knight's husband, William McDowell, said his wife converted him to a church that he was skeptical about because he grew up in a segregated North Carolina community. "I had heard that the sister had lost her mind. . . . Today, I know without a doubt in my mind that this is one of the greatest gifts my wife brought to me."

In her testimony, Knight, 61, said: "I am grateful for the missionaries on those bicycles. When they knock on your door, let them in."

Powell said he paid a price to become a Mormon. "People were saying, how could you join that white man's church? I corrected them to say that it wasn't the white man's church, but the Lord's church. This is why the event was so important because it showed that the church is open to all races, creeds and colors."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company