This evening the LDS Church will host a “Be One” Celebration, commemorating 40 years of lift of the priesthood ban for those of African Descent.
With respect to that endeavor, I offer my heart in this matter. I do not speak for the church. I speak only for myself and to my experience. I hope to contribute to the dialogue concerning my Black Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who deserve our contributions in righting the wrongs of the past. I hope to do that with grace, humility and courage, because what I am about to share may strike at the very core of who we are as humans, and who we should be as Christians.
First, I think it’s important to note that I did not know about the priesthood ban when I joined the church. This might surprise you, but it’s not in the brochure. The purpose of the missionaries is simply to teach the basic tenants of the gospel. God, Jesus, eternal families. In my experience to date, very few in my generation (and the ones that follow me) have any real knowledge of these past teachings.
When the missionaries came into my life twenty years ago, I was very much in love with an African American young man. Although my family had very little to do with raising me, from the moment they heard I was dating a person of color, some went out of their way to very cruelly, state their opinions. Ones that had nothing to do with his character. The things that were said to me during those years were unforgivable. In an effort to spare him, I never shared what was said. I just walked away from my family. By the time the missionaries entered the scene, we had two children together.
If the missionaries would have presented me with the history of the priesthood ban during that season of my life, I never would have joined the church. There is no way I could have seen past it. I made no room for grace in this arena.
After a year of study in Mormonism, and with the death of my son – the promise of eternal families beckoned a great change in me. I joined the church and built my entire world around the gospel. I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted that decision. I don’t know if I could have designed a better framework to get out of the multigenerational abuse and poverty on my own. I wouldn’t be where I am without it.
There’s something very beautiful that happens when you join the church. All of the sudden, you find a common bond in people and it creates a huge sense of community and connection. As alone as I had felt for so much of my life, it filled the holes in my heart in a lot of ways.
However, my time in the church has also been quite messy. It’s not an easy life, because we are also a community riddled with pride, judgement, weakness, doubts, fear, jealousy and a severe lack of intimacy. In so many ways, we do a lot of harm to one another. A lot of tears have fallen in those pews at the hands of each other. Some of the first I had shed were in learning of the priesthood ban.
I had been a member for a little over a decade by this time, and was sitting in a Relief Society lesson. It was a lesson on the priesthood. During the course of the lesson, the 1978 revelation was mentioned. My ears perked up. What is this? People started going back and forth on who, what, when and where. I was trying to process this information, but my head was spinning. What just happened?
The teacher tried to move on, it being very evident she opened a can of worms that she couldn’t get away from quick enough.
I raised my hand, “Ok, wait a minute. I’m sorry, I need to go back for a second. You mean to tell me at some point in our church’s history, my son couldn’t hold the priesthood? Why is that exactly? Where did this teaching come from?”
The room fell silent. No one knew what to say. When it was first introduced everyone was all sorts of talkative, and had no problems sharing their opinions as fact. However, my questions made everyone realize that my first time hearing about this was from them, and all of the sudden no one wanted the responsibility to fill in the gaps.
I looked around the room, and for the first time – I noticed every person I worshipped with was white. Up until that point, it always just felt like church. Now, I felt completely alienated.
The lady teaching the lesson very curtly, asked me to move on. I was asked to “Put this spice back on the shelf.”
I just had my world rocked. I can’t put this spice back. I needed to open the jar and eat this crap raw, no matter how bad it tasted. I needed to know.
With an impending sense of doom, I was able to muster up the courage to say,
“Sisters, I know this is uncomfortable for you. I promise, it is even more uncomfortable for me. But the difference between you and I is that you do not need this answer. All of your children are white. You have the luxury of not having this talk with your children. I do not. I have a beautiful child with a brown face that is going to ask me why at the wrong time in church history, the blessings of the gospel couldn’t be his. I need to be ready with an answer.”
After some back and forth dialogue, I was eventually silenced with the words, “Sister, this is not an appropriate time or place for this discussion, and I ask that you take your questions elsewhere. Your questioning of this ordained law begs me to ask, Where is your faith?”
The sting of her words felt like a sucker punch to my soul. This wasn’t the place for this discussion?!!!! YOU BROUGHT IT UP!! You cut me with these words and now you want to leave me here bleeding.
I got up in tears and left the room. I felt angry, hurt, and most of all, ashamed.
I grabbed my son from his class and headed home. As I clung to his little brown hand, I was in a world of hurt. I never wanted to go back to that building again.
I told Craig what happened, he explained what he was taught growing up, which was very little. That it just wasn’t “their” time. That back in biblical times only a select few had the priesthood and it wasn’t given the everyone, and this was a similar situation. Then what was the big secret at church? and what’s the deal with the “curse”?
That afternoon I watched my children play on the swing set. Two white babies, one black. If God loves his children like I love mine, how could he ever hold one in less value than another? When I put that belief to my heart, I refused to believe that could ever be the nature of God. Plus, Jesus was a Jew. In the scriptures he was described as dark skinned and hair like wool. Call me naïve, but I always figured Jesus probably looked a lot like Anthony. What did this even mean? Nothing made sense and there was a great conflict in my heart.
A few weeks later, I met with my bishop. We talked at length and he apologized for how things were handled. He told me that there was no “curse on black people”, and that everything I heard that day was opinion and that people tend to speculate when they shouldn’t. He encouraged me to do what he did, to correct these false teachings whenever it came up and that the truth is, we don’t know all of the whys. I told him it sounded to me like there was prejudice that existed in the church back then. He told me that he honestly didn’t know, but it would be easy to draw the conclusion. We just know that now, there is nothing withheld from any worthy member of the church. That Anthony was a blessing to the ward, and so was our family.
I took to the scriptures, and tried to find more resources to the origins of this belief. That was when I discovered that this whole “curse” idea was the handy work of theologians dating all the way back to the slave trade. The curse was a common belief in the 19th & 20th centuries, initially started by some Protestants and then adopted by some Catholic sects, and Baptists. The curse was used to justify slavery in the mind and hearts of Christians.
Being a newer religion, I found very little on Mormon theology at the time. I just figured that all of our converts came from these other religions, and probably carried these beliefs into Mormonism. I made it my mission to correct people that spoke out of turn in regards to this subject.
Over the years, I would endure many things that caused me to question where the heck people got some of these crazy ideas. I honestly chalked it up to ignorance. That people weren’t aware of their own church history or of their own bias. Through those experiences, I came up with the gospel according to Dawn Armstrong, and that’s what I taught my kids.
When I taught my children about the priesthood ban, I told them many will say that “we don’t know why.” However, my belief at the time was that if our leaders were constantly petitioning the Lord to have this ban lifted, and God didn’t see fit to lift the band until 1978, then it had to be that he withheld the priesthood until the white members of the church grew up enough to honor the space of a black man holding it. That although God’s love for us is perfect, before 1978 – man’s love for one another was not. He knows our hearts, and most likely, the white people of the church weren’t there yet.
So God let us suffer and learn from our ignorance. Our choices are not benign. They always affect others, and because of the great bias that existed during that era, we kept the priesthood from blacks and as a church, we suffered greatly for it. That I believed if anyone was being “punished” it was the white members. God must have waited until they came to repentance, and were on their knees begging for forgiveness and for things to change.
Seemed like it was the only thing that made sense to me. And for years, that explanation was enough. Until about a month before Anthony went on his mission to South Africa.
An article from the Washington post featuring an interview from religious professor Randy Bott, had surfaced.
It about knocked me out of my seat. What the heck is this? The article covered a lot of church history, and again – I was blindsided. I went to BYU’s website, and looked this Randy Bott up.
Under his name I read the following:
“Areas of Expertise: Doctrine of the Church, missionary preparation, application of doctrine to life”
I felt queasy. He was a very seasoned gentleman, who’d been teaching for an extremely long time. I worried about how many times he had this discussion in his classroom with missionaries or students. If he was an expert on doctrine of the church, then is this all true? Where did he find all of this information? Up until that point, I hadn’t really found anything that could remotely bring me to these conclusions.
Very shortly after the release of the article, the church released their own statement, denouncing what he said in the interview.
“His comments absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
It went on to say that “the church’s position is clear — we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in his eyes and in the church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.”
As to the question of the now-discarded ban on blacks in the priesthood, the church said: “It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began but what is clear is that it ended decades ago.”
At the time, we were knee deep in a project with people who worked directly for the church. We had a candid discussion in my living room about the article and the church’s stance. It put me at ease. Ok, back to where I was before, even though worry lingered in the back of my mind – who else was getting this so wrong? Was the churches statement enough to squash these teachings as a whole?
Leading up to Anthony’s departure, he had some experiences that shook him, but it didn’t change his desire to go. We moved forward with faith.
When Anthony left the Johannesburg Missionary Training Center, his first area was Phoenix, South Africa. It was a predominately Indian area. He forgot himself and went to work. To paint the political landscape of South Africa at that time, I would say it was like America 40-50 years ago in regards to race relations. Apartheid had only ended in 1994. 20 years hadn’t changed much for blacks, natives and Indians. (You can learn more about apartheid here. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apartheid)
Some of the things Anthony started to experience as a mixed race person in Africa, it was mind blowing. So many he worked with hadn’t evolved past their own bias. He took it in stride, but you have to know…I was PRAYIN!
His first Sunday out of the MTC, he went to church so excited to be a missionary.
After the meetings, an Indian member pulled him aside and said, “Hey what are you?” Anthony, very naively said, “I’m a missionary!”
The guy, insistent, asked again, “No what ARE YOU? Like what are you mixed with?” Anthony responded, “Oh, I am half black and half white.”
Guy – “So you are a braino?”
Anthony, thinking he meant “mullato” responded, “Yes, yes! Wait, what does that mean?”
To which the guy responded, “Oh, well if you were totally black, we’d know you had no brain, but because your half white, we know you’re really smart.”
Anthony didn’t even know what to say. He sat with his mouth open, probably thinking this is going to be the longest 2 years of my life. I will say,.a tribute to Anthony’s character, that by the end of his time in the area, Anthony had made this guy and his family some of his best friends. Love bridges a lot of understanding. They still have a friendship to this day. Anthony has a gift like that…to love people, and to see beyond human frailties.
When he was transferred out of Phoenix and started teaching predominately blacks, that was when he hit the wall. Anthony started to write home heartbroken. With every conversation, he was blindsided with new “doctrine”, or confronted with things former leaders of the church had supposedly said. He would confront these teachings as false, because he had never heard any of this before.
By the nature of being a missionary, he was forced to try to explain to his black brothers and sisters the status of blacks in the church prior to 1978, while also trying to reconcile a past that was starting to not add up.
I was researching as fast as I could, trying to refute these statements – convinced I was going to “arm him with the truth”. Only being able to email once a week, I couldn’t get back to him fast enough before he was blindsided by something else. I felt helpless. There was no way to ease his suffering. I was failing him.
At the same time, all of this seemed like dejavu. Here we go again. Where are all of these teachings coming from? How could a nation ten years behind in technology have knowledge dating back to the origins of the church? Where are they looking that I’m not?
I think rock bottom for Anthony was when he was sitting in the living room of a member of the church, and was told that “his mother was going to hell because I gave him life.” That race mixing was a sin punishable by death. That I was an abomination and by virtue of him being my son, so was he. It took every amount of self-control to sit there while he was raging inside.
Yet, I had to tell him that those were the words of Brigham Young. It was actually called the “blood atonement.” I found his quote and as I read his words and felt sick to my stomach. This was not the Brigham Young that I learned about in church for the whole of my life.
You know, the fact that we are a record keeping people – yeah, that’s not always a good thing. You think you want the truth, until you find it, and it breaks your heart.
Once I found one thing, it just opened up the flood gates to all the others.
The Journal of Discourses. The Joseph Smith Papers. The Improvement Era. The Way to Perfection. Doctrines of Salvation. The Glory of Mormonism. Mormon Doctrine. Essentially the church history library ya’ll.
So many talks, and journals and books, all that I had hoped would refute these statements, instead it just confirmed them. Yes, I had taught my children that I thought that prejudice had existed in the church. It was naive to think that it didn’t. However, I thought it was from the rank and file, but it had come from the top. For a long season in our church’s history – from everything I could find – there was no way I could refute that this was taught as doctrine. Everything I read, blew my mind.
This was not just a priesthood ban. It was a gospel of Jesus Christ ban. The priesthood ban prevented men from serving missions. It withheld the promise of eternal families, which would keep them from the highest degree of glory. Young men couldn’t bless and pass the sacrament. There was no temple work they could participate in. No leadership positions. So every fundamental right of passage, and eternal promise was denied. Even more sad, was the only person who held less power in the church than a black man prior to 1978, was a black woman. Because a black woman’s power in the church was inexplicably linked to a black mans. Every blessing denied to males, was also denied to females by proxy. Why couldn’t black women serve missions? They didn’t need the priesthood to do that. From everything I had read, other than worship services, blacks truly had no home in the church.
Now, I was in the fetal position. I went from anger, to rage, to tears, to a great sadness, over and over and over again. I thought back to all of those conversation, where I had thought I was schooling people on church history. And after all of this time, It was me that didn’t know. I was mad at the church. I felt so betrayed. I was mad at myself, because my ignorance had left my son extremely vulnerable. I didn’t push hard enough for answers when I should have. I had failed him. The church had failed him.
It’s the worst thing in the world to have your child in his greatest depths of despair, while being half a world away.
So, what had originally started out as letters to refute these statements, and in defense of the church, eventually became letters that were just honest about the past. He deserved the truth. Little did I know, he was beating me to the punch every time. He had found the truth – all on his own.
Eventually, Anthony- through the help of his mission president, reading books, his missionary service, and a lot of prayer – he was able to make peace with the leaders of the past. He admitted to me, that he didn’t read most of what I sent. He just needed to find his own way. Faith is a very personal journey. Anthony didn’t need me, he needed God. Only God could mend his broken heart.
For me, I kept writing the letters. Most I never even sent – he didn’t need them anymore, but I did. Writing has always been healing for me. One day, I sat there wondering how I could ever reconcile the teachings of the past.
I started to look up pictures of each leader starting with the one who hurt my heart the most. I needed to see their faces. It helped me realize that they were just people. Subject to the same fallibilities as me. Born into a world where they were taught wrong when it came to race.
I pictured what it must have been like for these men to cross over to the next world, and have all the of weaknesses of the flesh be liberated from their bodies. I pictured the flood of knowledge that permeated their minds in an instant. I pictured a just God, who would let them feel the pain they had inflicted on others from the perspective of the wounded. The agony they must have felt for what the mistakes that were made. I pictured them begging God to let them go back and fix it. To let them have just a moment to say they were sorry and right all of the wrongs.
I pictured the tears that were wept by the souls that scattered around them. The souls of those who had lived and died with these policies. Both people’s eyes finally open, seeing each other for the first time, as equals. The wounded feeling the agony of their oppressors, and granting them mercy and forgiveness.
I realized that someday, I too will sit in that judgement seat. I will pass on to the next life and feel the weight of my mistakes, and those whom I have hurt deeply. I will beg for grace. I will beg for mercy. I will long to right the wrongs in my own life. Each of us will.
Then I realized, every generation since the beginning of man, has had and will have a plague of their time. Racism was theirs. It existed all throughout the world, and touched every faith. Christianity didn’t save anyone from it, and our church was not immune from this plague. Just like it’s not immune from pornography or the long list of ailments we humans carry today.
We can always look to the past and judge harshly, wondering how the people that came before us could have ever treated another human being with such cruelty. I have never been able to wrap my head around slavery, or Hitler or racism, or the host of awful things we’ve done since the human race began. The answer is simple, when we know better – we do better. That’s why our history is so important. It’s how we learn from the sins of the past.
Some may ask, how could leaders of the past pray to God and get the wrong answer so many times? The gospel according to Dawn – every single one of us go to our knees with an agenda, with the answer that we really want. I think for the most part its subconscious, and we don’t even realize. We get up from our knees, feeling good, like the Lord is in the details, only to later realize that it wasn’t his answer, it was ours. God will never take our agency by force. God’s been meeting us where we are since the beginning of time.
Learning to get out of God’s way will be a lifetime pursuit for each of us, as we learn to lean into his agenda and trust his timing. None of us are immune to pride, as we are all here to overcome the natural man. There have been times I have gotten on my knees and not felt satisfied with an answer. I’ve felt uneasy. Sometimes, when it’s God’s answer and not our answer, it will make us feel uneasy. Cause he asks us to do hard things. Things we aren’t ready for and will challenge us to the very core of who we are. That IS God’s agenda. Not to force his will, but to force growth. He will shape us, and if our hearts aren’t willing fast enough, he will shape the circumstances around us until one day – we are forced to see.
We often times look to our leaders, whether in the church or outside it, and we demand perfection. This is especially true of our church leaders. We look to them as deity’s and constantly expect a flawless performance. Some of them will spend the whole of their lives serving. A lifetime of perfection? Come on. None of us can do that.
The gospel wasn’t designed to at some point, outgrow the need for God, or the need for grace. There’s no calling that can give anyone that, no matter how far “up the ladder” we go. They are giving their lives to this work, and it’s gonna be messy sometimes. We are going to get things wrong.
For the hurt that still remained, one day not too far from then, I turned on general conference and there was Elder Uchtdorf, beginning a talk called “Come, Join with Us.”
As I sat there, wondering if I was wrong to doubt and have questions for so long –
Elder Uchtdorf stated, “In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”
Then I wondered if I could ever make peace with all of the unanswered questions, to which Uchtdorf replied:
“Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.
Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction.
Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the “facts” really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others.”
And then when I wondered if the church would ever fully acknowledge that there were mistakes made, and seriously ten seconds later, Uchtdorf brings it home with,
“And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”
By this time, I was impressed by Elder Uchtdorf’s ability to read my mind and then plan
his talk accordingly. I’m almost positive, he wrote that talk for me.
Whenever I am approached by others on this subject, I’m always asked the same questions. These are my answers. I hope they bring peace to your heart. (Again, gospel according to Dawn.)
Why hasn’t more been said about the teachings of the past?
I think at the time, the leaders thought it was enough to say, “Forget everything that’s ever been said before now.” It may feel likeit is when you aren’t the one that it directly effects. You cannot right over one hundred forty years of wrongs in one sentence. One sentence also cannot reshape an entire churches character, when racism has been a fundamental part of our theology. Sadly, too many church members have not forgotten these teachings, and continue to carry them forward, or have not clearly understood that the church has disavowed any teachings that diminished in any way, the children of God in every shade and circumstance.
Why haven’t current church leaders done more to denounce these teachings?
Frankly, It’s hard to speak for the dead. We were not in those prayer rooms, nor were we in the mind of the ones on their knees. I think it’s important to remember, that former church leaders do not only have a legacy of mistakes. They got a lot right too. There was also a lifetime of beauty, service, love and compassion. They spent their life in service to their fellow man. Yes, there were things they got wrong, but none of us are ever only one thing. Sometimes, it’s hard to honor the Christian part of the legacy, while at the same time finding a way to condemn the mistakes. That’s tricky. Imagine if people took turns standing at your funeral, remembering the worst acts of your human experience. None of us want to be remembered by the worst things we’ve ever done.
My family, the ones who held those deeply engrained prejudices that I had to walk away from for a season. Well, it was through me loving them in their weaknesses, they had a mighty change of heart. When I sat at the body of my grandmother and grandfather – The “unforgiveable comments” weren’t at the forefront of my mind. It was the sweetness of their last moments. The times when they showed great kindness and charity. As they moved to the other side, I didn’t want my lack of forgiveness to plague their hearts. I longed for them to be free. It’s a grace that I will hope for myself.
I think current church leaders are trying. Part of my healing came when the church came out with the Race and the Priesthood essay. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng Is this enough? No, but it’s a really good start. In the last year, I’ve seen more about race than I have in my entire membership of the church. More and more talks are being written that further enforces the churches stance.
How many times do we have to acknowledge and talk about the priesthood ban?
Well, how many years did we teach it? (mid 1800’s to 1978)
I think we have to unsay it about as many times as we’ve said it.
Most people I talk with have never heard of the “Race and the Priesthood essay”
That’s a problem for two different reasons. First, there are still three generations above me that grew up in this era. A lot of these people aren’t online and it’s never been read from the pulpit, so unfortunately some still cling on to those teachings and promote them as doctrine, thus spreading a message that the church has denounced.
For my generation and below, it’s a history that most of us don’t know, and need a resolution to. If you take the time to ask our black brothers and sisters their experiences in the church, I think you’d be shocked to find there’s a lot of hurt.
Similar to the struggle in American culture, racism still exists. Bias still remains.
Why can’t black people and people in general, just get over it?
There is a lot of hurt in these teachings. They still touch us today. Some, like me – had no idea about them and get shook to the core when we find out. Some people are finding out for the first time through this post.
With all due respect, we don’t get to “command that ye be healed”. Only Christ can do that. People will find healing in their own time, and in their own way, but no one has the right to diminish or judge the process.
I do know that healing always begins with the acknowledgement of suffering. So, I say to you my black brothers and sisters. I’m so sorry. For all of it. For all the times we held you back. For all of the hurt we have caused. For all of the things we taught. For all of the ways we diminished you in our buildings and in our history. I’m sorry that we robbed ourselves of your gifts and your contributions to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m sorry we robbed ourselves of your leadership and your insight. I’m sorry that we withheld the blessings of forever, which were rightfully yours. I’m sorry for all the names, and for the exclusion, and for the deep loneliness you may have felt.
And I as walk into that building tonight and celebrate every single thing about you that we have missed out on, may we finally and wholly lift you up to where you have always belonged. I love you. I honor you, and treasure you.
Elder Armstrong (my son who is currently serving a two year church service mission in Washington, DC) wrote this little pearl this week, and I combined it with one of his last emails in the area he just left. He was transferred to Belmont Ridge after leaving Reston, Virginia. He leaves behind 7.5 months of loving people, working hard and growing up. <3
“The week… wow its great to be a missionary 🙂 So sorry if this email might be a little long.
A main focus on this transfer is promised gifts in our patriarchal blessings. (a personal blessing, kind of like a road map for your life in a lot of ways) President Huntsman asked us to share (to our comfort) a promised blessing we have received, and it was such an eye opening experience. Part of my blessing shares the promise that if I forget the things of this world, then I will be blessed with a greater appreciation of the Savior and Heavenly Father, and will also be blessed with any spiritual or temporal need.
I have come to see this continue to be fulfilled, many times. I know that if I continue serving God to the best of my ability – God will continue to open up doors for me.
This last Friday we got to go to the temple again! This time for baptisms with our recent convert Glenn. (Also, ask me about Glenn after my mission, and I’ll probably talk for a few hours just about what an amazing person he is. Such a cool dude.)
You’ll never find a sweeter feeling than when you’re serving in the temple, that I have a testimony of.
First week in Belmont Ridge down, and can I say… wow.
I know that my “hope for a better world” is why I am out here, and why I will not be deterred by anything. My hope is that somehow I might be able to be the servant of Christ that my Heavenly Father wants me to be, and that I might share that hope with those I serve. I love this gospel and look forward for whatever amount of time I have here with the wonderful people in the Belmont Ridge Area.”
I come from a long line of broken women and bad men. By the time I was 14, I had experienced so much suffering and abuse that I was tired of being scared all of the time. One day I packed a bag and headed for the city. I didn’t know where I would go, or what I would do…but I knew that I had to get out of there.
No one came looking for me, either.
By nature, I am an introvert. I was always quiet and reserved as a child, never asking for much. Needing things got me into trouble. I learned to stay shadows to avoid that trouble. Being homeless however, it taught me how to be an extrovert. I knew that if I wanted a meal or a place to sleep, I had to learn to make friends quickly. I learned to read people well and to listen when they talked. I always knew when it was time leave. It was around the time that parents started asking,
“Do her parents know she’s been here for three days?”
“Should I call her mother?”
“Why is she still here?”
Yep, time to go.
Making friends became my job. Getting food and shelter was how I got paid. When you aren’t old enough to work, you become very resourceful. As soon as I was of legal working age, I held down a job and went to school. Working was never a problem for me. I was an Iowa farm girl. I knew how to work. I took any job I could get—mostly fast food or as a waitress. It was quick money, I had somewhere to eat, and I was warm for my whole shift.
There were times where there just wasn’t a friend to be made. I would sleep anywhere and everywhere I could find. There was one night in particular that’s burned into my memory.
It was right in the middle of a harsh Midwest winter, and it was frigid outside. I had no coat. I just had this basketball sweatshirt with my name on the back of it. Man, I loved that sweatshirt so much. I had bought it with the money I earned de-tasseling corn for a local farmer a few summers back. Something about that sweatshirt made me feel normal—like I was just this kid on a basketball team who had a great life and was not a homeless beggar. That cold, winter night I walked up and down the streets of Council Bluffs, Iowa, not sure what to do. I remembered that one of the friends I’d stayed with had recently moved. I wondered if the house was still vacant. In complete desperation, I ran to the house and found that it hadn’t been rented yet. I went to the back, scaled the house, popped open the window and crawled inside. To my despair, the heat was turned off. It was still so cold. I looked around for anything that had been left behind to cover myself up with. Nothing remained, so I found a carpeted room in the middle of the home and laid down. I rolled up in a ball and shoved my knees as far up my sweatshirt as I could. I put my hands inside the sleeves in an attempt to warm them to any degree. I sat in the dark and cried.
I felt so alone in the world. My hands hurt. My stomach was so hungry. The weight of my situation was so heavy. As I sobbed that night, I could see my breath in the dark, another painful reminder of how cold it was even inside the house. Exhaustion set in. I could feel my body start to succumb to how tired it was.
My last thoughts that night were wondering if I would freeze to death. If this spot in the carpet would be my final resting place. Would this be the way that I died? I wondered if there would be a funeral. I couldn’t think of anyone who would come. How would they even know who I was if no one was looking for me? I was afraid to go to sleep, not certain that I was going to wake up. I was just so tired.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of someone entering the back door. I was startled and shot up like a rabbit. I heard them talking. It was the landlord showing the house. They saw me, and I ran out the front door in shame. Shame that they saw my need. Shame that they knew. Shame that I had broken into his home because I had nowhere to go. I ran for three blocks before I stopped. That adrenaline was the first warmth I had felt in a long time. The tears came back.
At the time, I didn’t even know I was pregnant with my first child. Being homeless was becoming very inconvenient. Things that people don’t realize:
You can have a baby at 16, but you can’t sign a lease. You can’t buy a car. You can’t turn on your utilities. You can get welfare, but technically I made too much money. In time, I made enough money to support myself to some degree, but none of it mattered because I wasn’t legal. I found a few friends that let me stay here and there, but there was no stability. Everything relied on me never being underfoot and always perfect. I always tried to disappear or remain in the room of the friend I was staying with. I did this somewhat in hopes that they would forget I was there, and I’d get to stay longer. My survival was completely based on the generosity of others creating space for me in their life. At seventeen, hoping for a miracle, I reunited with my child’s father and found myself pregnant again. Upon this news, my boyfriend left us for his full-ride scholarship.
I had no choice anymore. I had to keep Anthony safe. He would not survive freezing temperatures. I went to a homeless shelter which broke the rules and let me stay there. I can’t tell you how humbling it was to walk through those doors with one hand on my pregnant belly and the other holding the hand of my one-year-old—especially knowing that this was all I had for them, and it wasn’t even mine to give.
I would stay in this homeless shelter until the day I turned 18.
In the homeless community there are two subcultures. There are vagrants, and there are homeless.
Vagrants are those who have accepted homelessness as their way of life. They come to shelters for a meal and a bed. They have no interest in rehabilitation or getting off the streets. Something in their way of thinking shifted in life. Homelessness grants them anonymity. They are able to escape expectations, responsibilities, and heartbreak. In my experience, most have some mental illness. They seek refuge in friends who need that escape, too. A high percentage of them are riddled with addiction because that’s the way they truly get to “disappear.” When the generosity of others wains or the drugs run out, they aren’t above committing crimes or hurting you to steal what you’ve got.
The homeless are the rest of us. I spent four years in that world, and I can tell you firsthand who these people are. They are people who were in similar situations to mine, either experiencing teen pregnancy or escaping abuse at home. Some were battered women who took their kids and ran. Some had lost jobs, and for others, medical bills were the cause of their financial demise. Some were people that had been shunned by the world for one reason or another and had just shut down. Back in my time, there were a lot of LGTBQ people or girls who had gotten pregnant and had been kicked out of their homes for disappointing their families. They had nowhere to go.
We were all ashamed to be there. Deep shame. The kind that makes your soul quake. At first, we all just tried to stay in our rooms. It was easier to not have to look people in the eye. During meal and chore times, we were forced to interact. Sometimes the thought of having to face people made me really not hungry. I only went into the kitchen because my baby needed to eat.
One evening during another awkward meal at the dinner table, I got brave and asked the person sitting next to me, “So what are you in for?” The whole table laughed, and we all started to open up about what had gotten us there—the roads we had traveled. Every single one of us wanted a chance to say that we were more than just our circumstances. It helped with the shame. When people came into volunteer, it made us all uncomfortable in a sense. We scattered like roaches. We didn’t want to be seen or treated as less. Some of that stemmed from how we viewed ourselves, being in one of the weakest moment of our lives. When we had chores that brought us face to face with staff or volunteers, we were quick to tell our stories. We didn’t want to be lumped in with vagrants. We didn’t put ourselves above the vagrant population, but it was vital to our long-term survival for those around us to know that WE WANTED OUT! We didn’t want to be here. We needed people to stop judging us long enough to see that. No one could judge us as critically as we judged ourselves. We, too, wanted so desperately to hold our heads high and do well for ourselves. Our chances at that point relied solely on people’s willingness to see beyond our circumstances. We needed someone willing to open a few doors for us—doors we couldn’t open for ourselves, despite our best efforts.
I signed the lease for my first apartment on my 18th birthday. I walked through that door with pride. I owned nothing but the two towels assigned to me by the homeless shelter, along with three children’s books given to me that I read to Anthony every night. I bet the people who donated those books had no idea how much I’d come to treasure them. They were three of the five things that I owned. My apartment wasn’t much by the world’s view, but those were the most beautiful four walls I had ever seen. They were my four walls.
I wish I had the time and space to tell you the whole story, because the first 20 years were absolute hell and this post makes it look like Candyland. It got so much worse. I only give you this rare and very private view of my life because I want people to see that
struggle…has a face. It’s my face.
For months I have watched cities throughout Utah consistently reject bringing homeless resource centers into their communities. This week it happened in my own home town of Draper, Utah. A proposal to house a resource center for women and children was brutally rejected, no questions asked. As leaders tried to calm the angry mob and address concerns, they were booed or yelled at. Threats and insults were flying everywhere. I can’t tell you how much it broke my heart. I don’t think my community realized they were rejecting one of their own. 20 years ago, that was me.
Draper’s response was no different than any other proposed hosting city. Every meeting has had the same result, each proposed site being shot down with the same vigor. Rooms filled with anger, resentment and awful words spoken. This happens in cities all throughout our nation whenever the subject of homelessness comes up.
The heart of the message is always the same: “We don’t want you.”
I can’t help but feel the sting of that sentiment. I can guarantee that for some of the people walking the halls of those homeless shelters, they’ve heard those words before…and it’s part of what landed them there.
There is also a very important part of the story that you aren’t hearing—the end.
After struggle… comes triumph. I normally wouldn’t give my resume (I’m not about that life), but I think it’s imperative in this instance because people need to understand that someone’s beginning does not determine their ending.
I went on to have a beautiful life. I worked HARD. I fought my way OUT of poverty. I worked multiple jobs and never turned my nose up at an opportunity to further myself. All of those desperate times shaped my character in ways you can’t even imagine. It gave me the grit I needed to stare down the obstacles in my life, including myself. People’s willingness to see my potential—rather than my circumstances—gave me a chance to move on and to do beautiful things. I outworked everyone, because I wanted a good life.
I spent a long career as a director at a local hospital, where I specialized in addiction recovery, motivational workshops, marketing and strategic planning, clinical care, and sensitivity training. I was the first person in the State of Utah to achieve several National Awards for Excellence. I served as a consultant for several hospitals throughout the Intermountain West. In 2009, I walked away from my six-figure salary to stay home with my (Surprise!) twins.
For several years now, I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to humanitarian service every month—thousands of hours per year. I spend time investing in communities around the globe. I sit with the broken. All day, every day… I walk people out of the dark. Some of the time is spent in mentorship programs for young single mothers. Some of it is spent at the women’s prison, or juvenile detention centers. I’ve also worked with bereavement groups. I’ve held dead babies in my arms while mothers wept from their unspeakable loss. Often times it’s in a church. I work with men, women, and youth around the world, counseling them through abuse, addiction, marriage, suicide, grief, loss, LGBTQ issues, and a host of other heartbreaking circumstances. I love my life and I don’t make a dime, although I have been able to help raise money for others in need. In fact, sharing a tiny bit of my story helped to earn the American Red Cross 1.2 million dollars.
I have been happily married to an incredible man for 20 years this summer. We have eight well-educated, nurtured and loving children that go out to serve with us. That is ten people serving communities. And the generations that follow them will, too.
My son Anthony… he’s currently in the Junior Core at the Marriot School of Business, one of the top business schools in the country, highly focused on integrity in business. His education follows two years of service in South Africa, where he had the chance to lift up and offer aid to some of the world’s most humble and impoverished people. My next oldest son, Andrew, has just sent in the paperwork to serve for two years as well. Upon returning, his plan is to attend medical school. My other children are too young to know their futures, but I know they will serve their communities well because it’s modeled at home.
My point is that we have to look at the return investment. I am confident in saying that it worked out for those who invested in a tiny homeless girl in the Midwest. We won’t always see the ending, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a beautiful one.
We have got to recognize what Charity is and what it isn’t. Charity is not going down to the homeless shelter on Thanksgiving and serving dinner, then snapping a picture for Instagram. Charity is not being willing to help those in need, as long as they stay out of our communities. That’s the worldly and human need for a social pecking order, with the elite always remaining on top.
We might as well be saying, “I am fine helping you, but know your place. The only way you are welcome in my community is if you can afford to buy your own ticket.”
Can we truly call that the pure love of Christ? Christ entered the world homeless, and was of humble means throughout his life. Yet his contributions are quite literally our saving grace. I think his view on this subject was pretty clear:
“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not…
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Good people of the world, I challenge us to search our consciences—to channel our Christian hearts. Good deeds are not done by walking into a church. They are done when you walk outside of that church and help others.
We have got to change this “No Room in the Inn” mentality. There’s room if we make room. True charity is sacrifice. True charity is giving to the point that it hurts a little bit, or sometimes an awful lot. That’s the very essence of Christianity: loving sacrifice. It’s what shapes our character and defines our hearts. I beg of our communities to share in the sacred responsibility to serve our most needy.
Stephen Colbert said it best:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Dawn L. Armstrong is a humanitarian, speaker, blogger, and lover of all people. Her autobiography, “A New Dawn”, highlights the struggle to break the chains of abuse, neglect, and poverty. In it she provides insight on how to heal from the wounds of this world, and go on to have an extraordinary life. Look for it in book stores later this year.
I’ve waited a really long time to write this. I felt like this is such an important topic that I wanted to wait until I had a broader reach, in hopes that I had the chance to open more eyes. I thought that if I could earn enough respect in the eyes my peers that maybe my words wouldn’t be tossed aside, as they so frequently are whenever I broach this subject. I realize now that I haven’t met anyone with that kind of influence. Most of us tune out when the dialogue no longer fits our ideals, regardless of who’s doing the talking. To change the hearts of men is a task. Consider this my contribution to opening up the dialogue to a conversation that’s been often misunderstood and at the very least, unrepresented.
Let’s get the stereo types out of the way up front, shall we? Some will dismiss my comments if I lean too far one way or another politically. I’m right in the middle – a compassionate conservative that votes independent. I believe in people’s ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and I believe there is no better place to do that than America. I love my country. My heroes in life – military, police officers, teachers and nurses. Quite frankly because they get paid the least yet do the most to contribute to our society. That’s a lot of character in my book. Enough said.
When they laid Anthony in my arms almost 24 years ago, he truly was a miracle. After so much abuse and suffering in my own young life- I held someone completely untainted by the world. There was hope in that…in him. For most of my life, love had eluded me. Yet here it was laid before me – in the shape of tiny brown fingers and tiny brown toes. Anthony was truly the first love of my life. To learn to love and nurture someone along was the hardest yet, most beautiful gift in the world. Every positive change I made in my own life was because he gave me something, or rather someone, to fight for.
Throughout our country there consists a great debate on whether to kneel or whether to stand. A lot of you have come to the party late my friends, because I’ve been doing both for almost two and a half decades.
To preface -I have always viewed the world through rose colored glasses. I’m serious, they are glued to my face. While raising Anthony, I never thought his brown skin would be an issue. I was convinced that racism was a thing of the past. I mean, we had all out grown that right? Yeah, there were some older folks that had some whacked ideas – but it was easy to put those aside. My son had all doors open to him, and it was up to him to decide which ones he would walk through.
Anthony grew up being taught the following values:
- You are smart, important and have great worth.
- You have a special place in the family. You are the oldest, the leader, the example.
- You can do anything you set your mind to. Dream big and work hard.
- You aren’t a victim – you are a victor. There may be people that do not like you because of your nose, your skin color, your personality – it can be a host of different reasons. It’s not fair, I know – but learning to navigate difficult people is part of life. Although their actions may hurt, don’t be crippled by it. You get to choose your own destiny. Don’t let anyone rob you of that. Either win them over or find a way to move around them. If you let someone stand in the way of your dreams – the blame is on you. This is YOUR LIFE and no one holds more power over it than you.
- You have been bestowed a beautiful gift through your heritage. You are black and white. Through that you have a lens that can transcend two different languages. In all of the great debates you can show people love and a perspective they didn’t even realize. That’s one of the most precious gifts you could ever be given.
Honestly, I felt like I was rockin’ the whole mom thing. I was giving my son a strong sense of self, right? Yet as time went on…I started to notice some things. I continued to push them aside…thinking that there’s always going to be a few people in society that don’t get it, right? But then the older he got…the more it was there. The more I could no longer “rose color glasses” the situation. I was forced to see.
Now the second I say “white privilege” white people are going to wince. Some people think it means that white people have never struggled, don’t know suffering, or didn’t earn where they are in life. That everything was handed to them on a silver platter. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is no “participation trophy” for being white. White people have it hard too. I did. I fought like hell to get where I am. I think most people do, in one way or another.
However, as the mother of two black babies and six white ones…I’m here to tell you that it’s different. There are things that my white kids will never have to know. There are things you will never have to know as a white parent to white children.
And here they are:
You’ll never know what it’s like…. to have families take their kids out of daycare when they find out their children are playing with your black baby… and then have them offer the owner more money if she’d get rid of the “problem.” Anthony was one at the time.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son come home crying from school because he’s been told his black skin was a curse – or when he volunteers in the lunch line, some kids refuse to accept his service because they “don’t want brown people touching their milk.”
You’ll never know what it’s like to have a nurse curtly send your five-year-old back to the waiting room because “he doesn’t look like he belongs to you.” Then go on and on about how dark he is compared to your other baby – right in front of him.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your black son be forced to empty his pockets at church in front of all the white kids because something came up missing before he even entered the room. No one else emptied their pockets. Then when you confront the teacher he says right in front of your son, “Why do you care…does he live with you or something?”
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son participate in your church’s Pioneer Trek only to be called “Nigger*” for three days and asked to do extra chores because that’s “what he would have been doing during that era.” It was super spiritual. (*I’m not calling it the “N” word either, cause it never sounds that nice coming out of someones mouth. If it offends you by reading it, then it gives you some sense of how hard it is to be called it. I hate this word!
I can’t even have my mouth form it.)
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son be called “Nigger” every day, several times, all throughout high school.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have someone give your son a campus tour and as they survey the grounds, his “friend” tells him, “Isn’t it amazing that fifty years ago you’d be hanging from one of these trees?”
You’ll never know what it’s like to have “team” sleep overs where your son gets called “Monkey” and “Nigger” all night long. Finally after asking nicely several times, he gets so angry he pushes the ring leader up against the wall and says, “STOP IT.” To which the kid responds, “We’re only joking man…you know that we’re your friends, right?” Yeah, cause that’s what friendship feels like.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your son come home on the bus with all of his “team mates” and have someone behind him make a hangman’s noose out of athletic tape, dangle it in his face in front of everyone while saying the words, “I’m gonna rope ya boy.” as everyone laughs. I do thank the one kid that stood up for him. <3
You’ll never know what it’s like to have to make a million uncomfortable phone calls to parents because their kid called my son a “Nigger” only to have them not believe that little Johnny could ever say such a thing. When little Johnny does finally apologize, it’s “Sorry, Nigger.” And you call back only to be told you are raising your son as a “victim”.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have someone say to your kid, “I’d shoot some Niggers,” or “I can take care of the racism problem at our school with five bullets”, because there were five black students.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have coaches rave over your sons athletic ability, but not want to be burdened by his problems. To have his playing time directly related to his willingness to take being called racial slurs by most of the team. To have a coach get angry and up in your face when he’s forced to punish a white kid who’s a really good player… because your son’s respect and inclusion isn’t worth losing a game. To have your teenage son lay his head on your lap night after night, sobbing because his coach told him, “As long as I’m coach, you’ll never touch the ball,” cause that’s the punishment for being a “whiner.”
You’ll never know what it’s like to have a person’s eyes go from friendly to hatred because I’m saying something that causes them to acknowledge their own bias.
You’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman who’s physically intimidated while standing up to an angry man – yet you choose to stand firm because your black son is watching you defend him – and you can’t afford to have him see you flinch.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have a police officer stop your son as he waits on the sidewalk for us to join him at his state wrestling tournament, only to be asked if he’s there to cause trouble and then be warned that they have their “eye on him.”
You’ll never know what it’s like to have to make 21 years worth of phone calls, schedule meetings with coaches, teachers, administrators throughout the entirety of your son’s life and school career. Meetings where no matter how awful things get for him, it’s always chalked up to – “Boys will be boys.” or “They didn’t mean it.” or “It was just a joke.” To have every single thing he goes through constantly minimized.
You’ll never know what it’s like to sob because you realize there are some circles in your son’s life that will never be open to him. To certain people he will always be less. To realize he will always have to work twice as hard to get the same respect as a white kid. To have that so clearly evident as you raise your own white kids.
You’ll never know what it’s like to tell your white friends all of your struggles and have them be so shocked and outraged that “all of this still goes on.” Yet never once offer to come and stand with you, because it’s not really their problem.
You’ll never know what it’s like to be “one of THOSE people,” Because you are only allowed to complain so many times about the treatment of your child before you’re labeled “sensitive” or a “special snow flake”.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have your child cry and wish he was white so he didn’t have to deal with this every day… and have times that you secretly and shamefully think those thoughts too, because you are just so damn tired.
You’ll never know what it’s like to have most of these people share your faith or even go to church with you. To find yourself praying every Sunday that God will help you forgive them of their offenses, or of their silence.
You’ll never know what it’s like to raise your child to not be a victim, only to eventually realize that he is – and there’s nothing you can do about it.
If that’s not a privilege, then I don’t know what is.
It has to be said that Anthony has also had amazing white coaches, teachers and mentors in his life. My son’s life has been and continues to be filled with incredibly good white people. I thank God every day for their positive contributions in his life. They will never know how much it truly means to him, and to me. So, how many amazing people does it take to reverse the damage of the “few”? I still can’t answer that, because it’s not like it won’t ever happen again.
What I do know is that for 24 years I have knelt in prayer trying to find the strength to keep having the same talks over and over on endless loop. For 24 years I have stood in rooms and fought for the voiceless and the unrepresented. We can talk all we want about whether or not it’s appropriate to stand or kneel at a football game, but does that even matter?
It does beg the question however, when IS IT an appropriate time to have a discussion that everyone refuses to have because it’s so uncomfortable? When is it a good time to participate in dialogue that actually leads somewhere? There are problems on both sides of the aisle. Both blacks and whites need to take ownership of that.
However, so many white people are quick to say – “Well, I’m not prejudiced, I’m being judged for the actions of others,” and wash their hands of the situation because their feelings are hurt. It’s not only your feelings that are hurt..and it’s not your actions, friends. It’s your silence. Silence is the great betrayal. It feels like you don’t care, or at least you don’t care enough to say something. You quite literally don’t have skin in the game.
Part of your privilege is that there is nothing forcing you to participate. You get a choice. That’s great for you…. but where does that leave me? Where does that leave my son? More importantly, where does that leave our country? When you are in the minority, the only way change is ever going to happen is if the MAJORITY helps.
Anger, resentment and hate only come when you don’t love someone enough to be phased by their suffering. At some point they start to self-protect. I see that in the faces/attitudes of my black brothers and sisters and it’s heartbreaking. They are worn down and feel defeated. Yet, I also know that my white friends are incredibly good people. Amazing people. They just haven’t been forced to see. Neither was I for the first half of my life.
At the end of the day, we all want the same things. We have just lacked the work ethic to get there together. It’s time to rip off the bandaid and let this wound bleed until it starts to heal.
Do I still believe in all of those things that I taught my son every day as child? I do… but I also believe that he shouldn’t have to fight so hard to be an equal. That skin color shouldn’t play a role in respect, and that he shouldn’t have to take a certain amount of abuse in order to be accepted. That’s the part of the playing field that isn’t level.
So the question isn’t whether to kneel or to stand. It’s will you speak up?
If you’ve taken the time to read this article, consider yourself educated. With that knowledge comes accountability. I pray you’ll use your powers for good.