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The Saints Go Marching In

"I just want to tell you that I know this book is true," Severson says. Severson is soft-spoken and articulate, and his tone, as he talks to the woman, manages to be both mild and fervent. The woman watches his face. "And it's not just because I've read it," he says. "It's because I've prayed about it, and the Holy Spirit, like we talked about, spoke to me. If you pray about it, the Holy Spirit will speak to you."

Severson asks her if she will read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. There is a moment of silence in the stairwell as the missionaries wait for her reply.

THE MORMON CHURCH HAS BEEN SENDING OUT MISSIONARIES SINCE ITS INCEPTION, ever since, as Washington's North Mission president William Price puts it, founder Joseph Smith's brother Samuel "threw copies of the Book of Mormon in his satchel" and went out telling people about how John the Baptist had appeared to his brother. The missionary program today is one of the most extensive and organized of any religion; each year, the church sends about 60,000 missionaries to about 150 countries.

But even as the church worked to expand its membership around the world, it excluded blacks from full membership. The church was founded in 1830 on the writings of Joseph Smith, which he said were the translation of texts given to him by God, which contain "racist concepts of nonwhite racial inferiority," writes Newell Bringhurst, whose book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks explores the history of Mormon-black relations. Blacks were held to be descendents of Cain and as such were particularly cursed, according to Mormon texts. This lineage, the church decreed early in its history, would prevent blacks from holding the Melchizedek priesthood, the highest form of membership in the church, open to all other adult males. The priesthood ban, not originally a church practice, was formalized in part by the church's second president, Brigham Young, in the late 1840s. A notable exception was Elijah Abel, an escaped slave who was given the priesthood in 1836, reportedly by Smith himself, and went on to become a high-ranking official in the church.

Even so, Mormon missionaries largely ignored the black community, and much of the church's expansion abroad took place in countries with predominantly Anglo, Asian and Hispanic populations. But in the second half of the 20th century, the church's missionary efforts found purchase in Africa and Central and South America, which meant that the church increasingly dealt with the question of withholding the priesthood from its many black members there. There was also a fledgling black membership in the United States.

During the Civil Rights era, there were protests by the NAACP and boycotts against sports teams at Mormon-owned-and-operated Brigham Young University. In 1978, church president Spencer Kimball announced that by divine decree, all males in the church would be eligible to hold the Melchizedek priesthood. Kimball also announced that missionary efforts would begin in earnest in Africa and the "inner city" in the United States.

The reaction to the repeal within the church, among both blacks and whites domestically and abroad, was overwhelmingly positive. But converting American blacks proved, for the church, to be a difficult task, and membership growth among this demographic in the years after the ban, though difficult to assess, seems to have been comparatively slow, according to Armand Mauss, a Mormon scholar and church member.

About 12 years ago, church officials put the Washington area under the jurisdiction of a single mission president, setting up what local church official Ken Page calls "seed congregations" of a few families each, meeting in each other's homes in neighborhoods throughout the city, and began sending missionaries into those neighborhoods. In 10 years, Page says, church membership inside the Beltway grew from a handful to almost 2,000. (The ward, known in the church as the "Anacostia" ward, includes most of Southeast Washington and Maryland inside the Beltway.) Through the church's efforts, the ward has grown, over the same period, to a modestly successful 300 families. Still, the missionaries' work here is complicated by the church's history. "The most common question people have," one missionary says, "is, 'Why don't y'all like black people?'"

ON A MUGGY WEEKDAY MORNING, SEVERSON CHECKS FOR THE ADDRESS of their first appointment in his day planner. They have scheduled an hour of scripture study with a woman named Michelle Coppedge, with whom they have been meeting for several weeks. Along the way, the missionaries pass an acre or so of open field, where, Severson says, a housing complex was recently razed to clear the way for new apartments. "New houses," Nielsen says. "I don't think that's really going to cure the problem."

"You have to cleanse the inner vessel," Severson remarks,.

Like the 170 other missionaries in the greater Washington area, Severson and Nielsen prepared for their mission with a two-week stint at a missionary training center in Provo, Utah, where they learned "people skills," as one missionary put it, as well as a general approach to proselytizing. Until recently, missionaries memorized a script to use in their conversations; now they are encouraged to speak as they are moved to.

Unlike Nielsen's home town in Utah, where, Nielsen says, "you were weird if you weren't Mormon," Severson's community in Bentonville, Ark., was home to few Mormons. "Living where I did strengthened me more," Severson says. "I was used to answering questions about the church." In high school, his friends, mostly nonmembers -- "a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist" -- defended him against the less godly aspects of high school life. "When someone who didn't know me swore," he says, "they would say, 'Hey, we've got a Mormon here.'" It wasn't hard, he says, to live according to the church's code of conduct, which includes eschewing alcohol and tobacco. "Outside of a doctrine perspective," he says, "my intellect is what I've got."


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