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The anti-racist Mormon trying to teach his fellow LDS church members

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When you're in something that feels broken, anything - a job, a marriage, a church - you basically have two choices. You walk away, or you stay and work to fix it. Depending on the situation, sometimes quitting can be just as hard as staying to try and make change. But today NPR's Rachel Martin is going to tell us about someone who chose to stay.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: James Jones contains multitudes.

JAMES JONES: I'm a podcaster, a voice actor. In a previous life, I was also a musician and a dancer.

MARTIN: He's also a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York. And most importantly to him...

JONES: I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, been a member of that church my entire life.

MARTIN: He and his mom and four sisters went to church every Sunday. He did all the youth groups, and he abided by all the social rules of the faith. He paid his tithing, no sex before marriage, stayed away from caffeine and alcohol.

JONES: I tick off nearly every box of Mormon respectability. I know the scriptures very well. I know our history very well. I feel like I've earned the right to respectfully but firmly disagree with some things.

MARTIN: And James respectfully but firmly disagrees with how the church has dealt with race. It started early. When he was around 12 years old, James was ordained into what is called the priesthood, which is what all Mormon boys and men deemed worthy get to be part of. It allows them to perform sacred rituals. But it wasn't always this way. James is Black, and until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prohibited Black people from participating in the priesthood.

JONES: I knew even as a 12-year-old boy that something's not right here. Like, there is no way whatsoever that we were actually inferior and that's why we did not get the priesthood. That made no sense to me. But that was, like, the beginning of not just my questioning around race but my questioning around church leadership in general. There's a, you know, famous quote by Brigham Young from February of 1852, where he literally called Black people the seed of Cain. And that's why they are not entitled to the priesthood or all the full blessings of the gospel. Now, if you asked the church about that now, they will repudiate that particular statement and all other explanations that were given prior to 1978.

MARTIN: These days, the LDS Church has no racial restrictions, and church leaders have repeatedly condemned racism generally, although they've never acknowledged its past racist policies as a mistake. The closest they get is this description on the church website of the day in 1978 when a small group of chosen leaders had what they describe as a divine revelation. According to the website, this, quote, "new light and knowledge erased previously limited understanding."

JONES: But that opens up a whole nother can of worms that nobody else wants to open. How do you make peace with the fact that we, for 126 or so years, had discriminatory policy that was based on false doctrine that came from a leader of the church?

MARTIN: James can't make peace with it, but he can try to make a difference in how church members understand the experience of Black people. Early in 2021, the publishing company for the LDS Church - it's called Deseret Book - reached out to James after hearing him speak at a conference. They asked if he would be interested in turning his message on racism into a digital course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: In this class, I'll help you have more confidence in your conversations about race, a better frame...

All I knew I wanted to do was be heavy on scriptures...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself - Matthew 22. Let every man esteem his brother as himself - Doctrine and Covenants 38.

...Personal stories...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: If I get followed in a store, I'm processing that experience through previous similar ones that are almost routine for many Black people in America.

...General authority quotes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: When President Oaks focused his remarks on racism in his BYU devotional, he specifically mentioned police brutality against Black folks.

I wanted to do the best I could to speak the language of, you know, my fellow Latter-Day Saints. I wanted to make it so that it was accessible to them and not so scary. Like, I think anti-racism is already inherent in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and even Mormon theology has things to offer that conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: In short, racism is a sin, and fighting it is a commandment.

MARTIN: James was hopeful that he could get his fellow saints to start to recognize their own blind spots on race. He developed this whole online anti-racism course with the help of the church's publishing company. And then something happened that complicated that relationship. James publicly called out a top church leader for criticizing queer students at Brigham Young University.

JONES: I said a lot of things that, you know, I can definitely admit were harsh words.

MARTIN: So if you're a Mormon or a member of a number of other faith traditions, what is the absolute worst thing you could say about something? That it's satanic, right? James went on Facebook and called this speech by this Mormon leader satanic, something the church would obviously take issue with, to put it lightly.

I would venture to guess that you knew that that word, that descriptor was going to feel different to people. It was going to strike people in a certain way.

JONES: I felt like I needed to be clear in a way that juxtaposed a person who was supposedly tied to the divine engaging in behavior that is not in line at all with that call. So I deliberately did pick that word to make that juxtaposition. Yes.

MARTIN: The LDS publishing company delayed releasing the anti-racism course and then decided against publishing it altogether. We confirmed with them that they cut ties with James because of his incendiary Facebook post.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: Good afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Good afternoon.

JONES: It really is a privilege to speak to you today.

MARTIN: James is still getting his message out any way he can. His anti-racism classes for Latter-day Saints are still accessible on his own website, and whenever he's invited, he talks directly to LDS groups, including his own congregation in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: We come to church to learn, to be edified by the spirit.

MARTIN: What still compels you to stay in the church when you have been disappointed in this way? When you think about the history of the church, when you think about the alternatives that exist now - I mean, there are all kinds of very diverse spiritual communities that exist that are not tethered to mainstream Christianity anymore. Why do you stay?

JONES: I believe in the church's fundamental truth claims. Like, about the Book of Mormon, about the restoration of priesthood authority and all that other stuff - I believe that stuff. And subsequently, because I believe that stuff, that demands certain action on my part to do what I can to fix things within the church. Now, there may come a day where I'm too tired or too burnt out to do that, and I will - you know, if I need to leave or step away from the church, I will most definitely do that. Like, that option is not off the table. But at this point, so long as I still have the stamina that I do, I feel like I have an obligation to stay. I feel called to stay and to do what I can to make it so people like me or people that love different than me are able to exist in this space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: I bear my testimony that this is the Jesus that we worship, a Jesus far more concerned with how we treat others than what we believe.

Mormon theology is actually far more expansive and inclusive and affirming and even queer than a lot of Mormons will give it credit for. But they're never going to know that so long as the same predominantly straight white dudes born in the Jim Crow era are the primary ones teaching it. Like, that's just not going to happen. But I want so badly to see that happen because I believe it can if the right people are teaching. And also, I don't think the right people will get into place if people like me just keep leaving.

MARTIN: And so for now, James Jones questions, he teaches, and he stays. Rachel Martin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.