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DC Area Latter-Day Saints Respond to COVID-19 and Racism

The World is in the Grip of Two Pandemics: Coronavirus and Racism

On June 17, 2020, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that due to concern for the effects of COVID-19 and until large public gatherings are deemed safe, the open house youth devotional and rededication of the Washington D.C. Temple is postponed.

“We are looking forward to showing the inside of the temple to all of our family and friends in the area,” said Kisha Sogunro, who serves as part of the church’s local public affairs council. Sogunro further stated, “It’s better to make sure there are no roadblocks, like coronavirus, that will keep people from partaking in the peace and beauty of this area landmark.”

The temple closed in March 2018 for a significant renovation. In addition to work being done to refurbish and renovate the structure, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and lighting systems throughout the 160,000-square-foot structure have been refreshed.

The last time church leaders opened the temple doors to the general public was from September 17 to October 19, 1974, at which time more than 750,000 visitors toured the building. Church President Spencer W. Kimball dedicated the temple on November 19, 1974. The temple serves Latter-day Saints in Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“The Washington, D.C. temple means a lot to me personally, as my husband and I were married there, so I am eager to share it with our many communities of faith,” said Sogunro. “For years, we have been honored to work side by side with these congregations and we are grateful for the dialogue of respect and dignity that so many have shown us [during renovations].”

The beginning of their relationship from 2018: The First Presidency of the Church met Thursday, May 17, 2018, with the national leadership of the NAACP.  From left to right, President Dallin H. Oaks; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP;  President Russell M. Nelson; Leon W. Russell, chairman, NAACP board of directors; and President Henry B. Eyring.
The beginning of their relationship from 2018: The First Presidency of the Church met Thursday, May 17, 2018, with the national leadership of the NAACP. From left to right, President Dallin H. Oaks; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; President Russell M. Nelson; Leon W. Russell, chairman, NAACP board of directors; and President Henry B. Eyring.

“For now, Sogunro said “we are pretty much at the mercy of the pandemic. Church leaders have said they will follow the lead of governments and healthcare professionals around the world, as it considers a measured return to normal operating procedures disrupted by COVID-19.”

The coronavirus is not the only pandemic the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working through. Racism is on the minds of many of its African American church members. “The death of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officers sent a reverberating sound of protests around the world and a new level of consciousness to the disparate treatment of African Americans in this world,” said Nkoyo Iyamba, who serves as a Sunday school teacher in a French-speaking congregation in Maryland.

In a June 8, 2020, article published on Medium.com, Church President Russell M. Nelson and NAACP leaders gave this joint message: “We share deep sorrow for the senseless, heinous act of violence that needlessly took the life of George Floyd. We mourn with his family, friends and community.”

This particular partnership began two years ago with a simple conversation between leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That unlikely meeting was a first, yet it sparked insights about ways to work together to improve self-reliance and upward mobility for inner-city and minority families.

Elijah Abel was one of the few Black men ordained to the priesthood by the Prophet Joseph Smith, in early Church history.
Elijah Abel was one of the few Black men ordained to the priesthood by the Prophet Joseph Smith, in early Church history.

In response to the pandemic of racism and current world events, both organizations declared the following: “…The answers to racism, prejudice, discrimination and hate will not come from government or law enforcement alone. Solutions will come as we open our hearts to those whose lives are different than our own, as we work to build bonds of genuine friendship, and as we see each other as the brothers and sisters we are — for we are all children of a loving God.”

The joint message was released on June 8th, on the anniversary when Church President Spencer W. Kimball announced to its worldwide congregation that all worthy men could participate in priesthood and temple blessings.

The 1978 Revelation on Priesthood was an announcement by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that reversed a long-standing policy excluding men of Black African descent from the priesthood. Beginning in the late 1840s, individuals of Black African descent were prohibited from ordination to the Church’s priesthood—normally held by all male members who met church standards of spiritual “worthiness”—and from receiving temple ordinances, such as marriage. During this time, black men and women were still permitted to be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. Much is unknown about the origin of the priesthood and temple restrictions.

Like many religions, some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue to find ways to heal the wounds of racism.

“A common question often asked is ‘why did your church restrict Black people’? “Rather,” Iyamba said, “people need to start asking what the church is doing now to have a better relationship with the black community. I would tell them, they’re working with the NAACP and interfaith congregations to serve our communities, especially in the areas of genealogy.”

In their joint statement, church leaders and the NAACP said: “We likewise call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all. It is past time for every one of us to elevate our conversations above divisive and polarizing rhetoric. Treating others with respect matters. Treating each other as sons and daughters of God matters.”

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