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The Saints Go Marching In
One Monday, Malcolm and wife Charlita have two of the missionaries over for family Bible study at their apartment in a public housing development called Benning Terrace. The point of the Bible study is to have some family time and to introduce the children to the basic concepts of the church. The missionaries plop down on one arm of the deep L-shaped sofa in the Jordans' living room, which also houses the backdrops and tripods of Malcolm's freelance photography business.
While Charlita passes around glasses of ice water, the missionaries talk with Malcolm about an elderly member of the church who recently, as the missionaries say, "got offended," a phrase that seems to be a catchall for any number of ways in which members may object to the policies of the church. The woman got offended, says one of the missionaries, a dark-haired young man from California named Jared Shillingburg, when then-bishop Joseph Forson prohibited her from "praise-dancing in Sunday School class" and giving the kids candy.
Malcolm shakes his head. "If I become bishop," he says, "she'll be the first person I go see." This reminds him of something. "I was going to tell you guys," he says, "I got a call from the elders quorum." There are no paid clergy in the Mormon church, and the daily work of every ward is performed, more so than in any other denomination, by both its missionaries and its members. The elders quorum, which hands out "callings" in the ward, has called Malcolm to be president of the Sunday school. Malcolm is currently a "first counselor of young men," which means he works with teenagers in the ward; being president of the Sunday school would give him responsibility over all the ward's classes, including adult classes, but take him away from the young men he currently works with.
"Wow," Shillingburg says.
"What do you guys think about that?" Malcolm asks, curious.
"Well," Shillingburg says, "with a lot of responsibility comes a lot of blessings."
They discuss the new position for a few minutes. Finally, Shillingburg says, "As Nephi said --"
" 'Let me serve where I am needed,'" Malcolm choruses with him.
"IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY, THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHURCHES AND NEIGHBORHOODS has fundamentally transformed over the last few decades," says Eddie Glaude Jr., an associate professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton. Many who moved to the suburbs during the '80s and '90s retained their membership in their old churches, which means that today, neighborhood churches can have the often-difficult task of serving a constituency with disparate needs.
Many churches in Southeast Washington are active in larger community groups, such as the East of the River Clergy-Police Community Partnership, an association of dozens of faith-based organizations, law enforcement agencies and community organizations that targets the area's youth. Churches also provide community outreach such as AIDS ministries and soup kitchens.
Still, some residents believe that the role of churches here is not what it should be. Tendani Mpulubusi, an artist involved in youth outreach for the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative, says he has had no luck trying to collaborate with churches. "You have youth hanging out within five blocks of a church," he says, "and you don't have pastors going out and talking to them . . . When you have so many churches, they become forms of divisions, just concerned with maintaining their own spheres."
Hannah Hawkins runs the youth center Children of Mine in Anacostia, which provides tutoring and meals to an average of 50 to 80 kids daily, and runs on donations and an all-volunteer staff. "It used to be," she says, "that churches knew when you weren't in church, when you were down on your luck, if somebody had been incarcerated, if you were pregnant, and on and on. They do absolutely nothing now."
Glaude says that "the changing demographics of an area, the competitive religious marketplace and the complexity of the social problems surrounding these institutions" all have affected how churches work in neighborhoods that may need them most. By expecting that the black church is the answer to all of a neighborhood's issues, he says, "we're asking an institution to be at the center of a problem when it has been de-centered in the community."
So what does the presence of the Mormon church look like in these neighborhoods? Price said the missionaries put in thousands of hours a year on citywide projects, such as picking up trash and distributing gifts to the poor at Christmas, for which the church partners mainly with the city. But the ward on Southern Avenue itself is not deeply involved at a community level. It is not a part of the network of neighborhood groups working here, and it does not currently provide services to the neighborhood, says its bishop, John Russell.
Within the ward, however, the picture is somewhat different. As in every Mormon ward, missionaries provide a gamut of services for members, whether active or lapsed. In addition to leading scripture study sessions, missionaries drive ward members to and from prayer meetings and doctors' appointments, and do odd jobs for the elderly and shut-ins. They take them to the Mormon church's regional job resource center, in Upper Marlboro, for job counseling, and help them with their résumés. They take them to a warehouse of foodstuffs produced mostly by the church, also in Upper Marlboro, called the bishop's storehouse, where ward members in need can get free groceries.
"The Mormon church takes care of their own," says Russell Adams, emeritus professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University, "and that is an organizing and attractive element." Some residents of the neighborhood, though, are drawn to the church for other reasons. "For some folks, there is an old-fashioned rectitude" in Mormonism, Adams says. "It's about discipline, duty, respect and belief . . ."
Among the reasons new converts give is that they relate to the historical persecution of Mormons, who journeyed to Utah because they were attacked and run out of Illinois. Twenty-one-year-old Kendra Fowler, who recently joined, says: "The way I think of it is, for most of history, black people were like nothing. And that's how Mormons were treated, too."
Once in the church, the path may not always be smooth. "I've been called an Uncle Tom," says Malcolm Jordan, who says he has friends who left the church because of racial issues. As for the issues of discrimination in the church's history, those seem to be present, if not always openly discussed. Malcolm tells the story of when he and Charlita and their children were joined together as a family, for eternity, in a ceremony in the temple. On a mural in the temple, Jesus was standing with his arms outstretched; on one side of Him were wretched souls in darkness, on the other side, happy-looking people washed in light. "We were joking around," Malcolm says. "We said, 'Look and see if . . . black people are on the side of the sinners.'"
Though current Mormon church president Gordon Hinckley has made comments denouncing racism that were widely interpreted as an indirect comment on the ban, the church has not issued an apology for the priesthood ban or directly discussed it, which church members both black and white have said limits the church's ability to move forward. Darron Smith, who with Bringhurst edited the anthology Black and Mormon, says, "You have to be honest about the representation of history, and most Mormons have tried to put it on a spoon and sprinkle sugar on it." What progress has been made, Smith calls "rhetorical progress. Blacks were treated as cursed . . . and they are left to bear the burden of that view themselves."
For many black members, the issue is now one of "finding our voice," as Malcolm Jordan puts it, in an institution that still has few African Americans in positions above the ward level. There are few black missionaries, and Malcolm says he has been encouraging his sons to go on a mission when they are old enough. He also says he has been thinking recently about something that Charlita, as well as Price and a missionary couple, have pointed out to him, that there are rarely any nonwhite faces in the church's publications. In any event, he says, "Part of growing in the Gospel is asking questions."
THE SUNDAY MORNING THAT MICHELLE COPPEDGE IS CONFIRMED A MEMBER OF THE CHURCH happens to be the day before missionaries receive their assignments for the next six weeks. Severson is certain to be transferred, having served his maximum of six months with the ward, and several church members pull him aside before services begin to have their pictures taken with him.
Services are held in a Baptist church of late-modern vintage, converted for use by the Mormons. Sunlight streams in, the stained-glass windows having been replaced with clear glass. The Jordans' four children sit quietly with Charlita while their father, imposing in a suit and tie, offers one of the opening prayers, an unscripted but heartfelt delivery in which he asks God to "remove anything that would hinder us receiving your message." In addition to the six young missionaries placed with the ward, there are two senior missionaries, Bill and Jan Vasas, a married couple from Blackfoot, Idaho, sitting in a pew toward the front.
Senior missionaries go on mission after their children are grown; unlike the young missionaries, they are allowed to choose their destinations. The Vasases had requested positions at the visitor's center in the Maryland temple but were placed with the ward in Southeast Washington instead. Upon receiving the assignment, "our feelings were those of nervousness because of the danger, "says Jan, 58, who has cropped brown hair and a habit of squinting through her glasses. "We had talked to a few people who had been there."
Bill, 64, says that someone they knew had a car stolen in the area. "This is not Idaho," he says. But after one day in the ward, Jan says, they "fell in love with the people."
When Michelle Coppedge is given the Holy Spirit, it is in the center of a circle of priesthood holders, including Robert Wallace, Malcolm Jordan, Forson, Severson and Nielsen, who stand with one hand on each others' shoulders and one hand on her head. Coppedge sits motionless under their hands and, at the conclusion of the ceremony, moves slowly back to her seat looking dazed.
After church, the Vasases give Coppedge a ride back to her apartment. A few days ago, the Vasases took Coppedge on a tour of the visitor's center at the temple in Kensington, and she and Jan resume the thread of an earlier conversation about area restaurants. Coppedge pulls out a picture of her 12-year-old grandson, in his soccer uniform, and passes it around the car. Jan, who is organizing a meeting of the Ladies Relief Society, as the women's Sunday school group is called, asks Coppedge if she would like to attend.
"I want to do everything," Coppedge says. "What do you want me to make, mac and cheese?"
"Yes, please," Bill says hopefully.
"I make a really good mac and cheese," Coppedge says. "Also banana pudding. What are you going to make?" she asks Jan.
"I could make a taco soup," Jan suggests.
Coppedge looks faintly alarmed. "That won't go with mac and cheese," she says. "You need a meat."
"A meat," says Jan, as her husband pulls up to the curb at Coppedge's apartment building. "Well, I don't know."
Coppedge opens the car door and puts a hand on the back of Jan's seat. "Okay," she says. "We'll talk about it."
Lauren Wilcox is a writer who lives in Jersey City, N.J. She last wrote for the Magazine about Branson, Mo. She can be reached at email@example.com.