The Miracle of Dialogue
The conversion experience of Ron McClain, and how race has been a part of his experience as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
How does Black Lives Matter intersect with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? This question is important to us all, and especially to African-American members of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. On February 21, as part of the Bay Area Genesis Group Black History month discussions, more than 170 members and friends listened to a dialogue between Ron McClain and his daughter, Laney M. Armstrong. This article is a brief summary of this discussion.
For the full recording, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcsI-4j3waY&t=3811s ).
As the McClains began the evening, Laney reminded those listening that the discussion was not intended as prescriptive, to address systemic bias in community, country, or church, but simply to share thoughts and experiences. As former Oakland Stake President Dean Criddle likes to say “The gospel is retail.” It is found locally in the gifts and exchanges between us. Faith is local, made of dialogue, personal revelation, and experiences that become our shared history. Church history, Black history, our stories of the past, are best understood as local knowledge.
The cultural divide.
Brother McClain grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Laney asked him what he remembered about early Church meetings. He recalled the spiritual power of a gospel choir. “It gets the blood flowing, the spirit moving. Shouts of praise for our Savior is something I miss… When I joined the LDS Church, I had some theological questions. But the culture of the LDS Church was very different from what I was used to.”
The decision to join the LDS Church.
Laney: How did you decide to join a church that had recently removed a ban on full priesthood fellowship for black men?
Ron: “I bring a lot of baggage with me, about how blacks are treated. I had a choice to make. I saw in the Church, the warm, close Ward family, and great relationships among family members. I wasn’t doing that well in my relationship with my son at that time. I knew the Church would help us raise our family.” Ron reported that these values and the Gospel truths he found eventually took precedence over any unanswered questions, and blessed his life and his family. He moved forward with faith in the goodness he saw and the Gospel teachings he knew were true.
Experiencing bias as a Church member of color.
Laney: What was your experience as a black branch President?
Ron: “I was called to the Stake High Council, and traveled around on Sundays to different Wards. I received some stark, questioning looks when I went into some Church houses, like “What is he doing here?” Surprised white members’ attitude changed when Ron was introduced as a member of the High Council. An authority had spoken. Then it became, How do I feel about someone who doesn’t look like me? … It took someone in authority to welcome me in. The ability to come in wasn’t always something I carried with me.
What’s important is how we teach our children, so they can be better than us. In my years working in the Oakland Temple as a sealer, I never felt that prejudice or bias in the Temple.”
Laney: Talk about cultural differences when you were a Branch President
Ron: “(Black) Investigators came based on their faith in Jesus Christ. They had little or no problems with the Gospel. The problem was these new things, frustration, and sometimes not being able to overcome these hurts.”
The Book of Mormon was new to them, and the culture in the LDS church was very different than what they were used to. Sometimes it was overwhelming for new members of the branch to embrace new teachings, new culture, and overcome frustration of past hurts.
What can we do?
Ron and Laney stressed the importance of making a difference one on one. President Russell M. Nelson, the current prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has challenged us to root out racism wherever it may exist. It can feel uncomfortable when people act or look differently, in whatever way that may be. Doing our best to show love for everybody doesn’t just mean being “nice.” It means engaging others in dialogue. It means listening and learning about who they are and what their journey has been. Without truly listening and putting aside our own assumptions and expectations, we’re only practicing our monologue, which tends to be one-sided. The miracle is in dialogue, in prayer, and in truthful exchanges between people who learn to trust and be trustworthy.
President Nelson counsels, “We need to foster our faith in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. We need to foster a fundamental respect for the human dignity of every human soul, regardless of their color, creed, or cause. And we need to work tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than creating a wall of segregation.”
It takes time and trouble to find out who people are. Our Savior knew people. He sat with them to learn where they were coming from, and what they were suffering through. Through His listening and care, they found the Messiah, a new joy, and the waters of the living God.
–Michael King, Tom Cain, Nathaniel Whitfield. SF Bay Area Genesis Group
View the entire discussion:
Ron McClain- was a long-time resident of Oakland and practiced law for almost 40 years until he and his wife moved to Salt Lake City. A former Black Panther, Ron joined the church after he met his future wife, Deena, at UC Davis Law School. Ron has served as a bishop, high council member, director of public affairs, and leader of the Genesis Group. Ron also served as a temple sealer in the Oakland Temple. He and his wife have three daughters.
Laney McClain Armstrong- is the oldest daughter of Ron and Deena McClain. She earned a BA from Harvard University in Afro-American Studies. She later received a Master’s and Doctorate in music. While she is busy raising four young children with her husband, Josh, she teaches music at a school in Oakland and serves as an artistic director for a women’s vocal ensemble, Musae, in San Francisco