A few years ago, my travels as a legal humorist brought me to Hot Springs, Arkansas. As with any town that has a hot spring running underneath it, the people of Hot Springs are very excited about their hot water. In fact, I got the distinct impression that they were unaware that other cities had found a way to accomplish this modern miracle because complete strangers would stop me on the street and practically insist that I enjoy one of their hot springs baths. And despite the fact that I normally only bathe on Saturdays, they had worn me down by Thursday of that week and therefore, I reluctantly made an appointment at the Arlington Hotel Spa.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by Charlie, who explained that he would be my “attendant.” He handed me a robe, a towel and a pair of slippers and asked me to follow him. We went into a small room that simply consisted of a large metal tub and a wooden stool. Charlie turned the knob on the tub’s faucet and out poured water from the hot spring.
As it churned and bubbled in the tub, I shouted to Charlie, “That looks really good. I think I am going to enjoy this.”
He shouted back, “I believe you will, Mr. Carter.”
For the next ten minutes, we repeated this conversation several times because after each such repetition, I expected Charlie to depart the room, so that I could disrobe and hop into the tub. Sensing my frustration, Charlie finally explained that he would “attend” to me during the bath, as that was part of the “Deluxe Package” I had charged to my hotel room bill.
Now, you will find this hard to believe, but up until that point in my adult life, I had not been bathed by a complete stranger. In fact, I wasn’t even sure of the proper etiquette or protocol. Being in the south, I suspected that it consisted of talking about sports, bass fishing and elk hunting, but I didn’t know for sure. What I do know for sure is that you’re not going to be able to ignore a “stranger bath” altogether and you will talk to this person about something.
Needless to say, Charlie and I became fast friends. One thing that aided in our bonding process was the fact that he was an African American gentleman about my father’s age. As we became better acquainted, I learned that he was not originally from Hot Springs, but rather Little Rock, Arkansas. As I did the math in my head, I realized that he was likely in Little Rock at the time of that epic school desegregation struggle. Out of curiosity, I asked if he was part of that movement and he confirmed that he had graduated from Central High School a few years after those brave little boys and girls had first entered under the protection of armed federal troops and the Arkansas National Guard.
I quickly became sick to my stomach because I realized that my spa experience was all wrong. I was the one who should be bathing Charlie. It is because of his courage that I am able to travel the country, charging spa packages to the organizers of the events at which I speak. In fact, I owe everything that I have to Charlie and the thousands of nameless and faceless people who were willing to face down angry mobs, police dogs and water cannons to fight for the rights of equal access to transportation and places of public accommodation that I so often take for granted.
And so I resolved right then and there, that I would pay back their sacrifice in either one of two ways. I could either run around the country bathing old black men. Or alternatively, I could “pay forward” their efforts by lending my assistance in the fundamental work of humanity – the progressive elimination of the distinction between us and them. For now, I’ve decided to go with Option #2 – to work towards equality for all of God’s children and what better place to start than in our beloved church?
And while the sisters of OW certainly don’t need my assistance as a man in this Church, I think that my experience as a black man in this Church could provide a helpful perspective, particularly for our beloved brothers and sisters who have yet to grasp the need for gender equality in the Church. After all, less than 40 years ago, I would have been denied not only the priesthood, but even the blessings of the temple. And while this is something that we have tried to forget as saints, the rest of the world has not forgotten it; particularly black Americans.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently African American. In fact, I’ve been black almost my entire life (I don’t usually count the five years that I lived in Boston). And not only am I black, but the same is true for both of my parents. In short, I was raised in a predominately black household. Furthermore, some of my very best friends are black. In short, I know A LOT of black people. And without exception, they were all shocked that I joined the LDS Church four years ago.
I’ve undergone quite a few “interrogations” over my conversion. Interestingly, none of my inquisitors asked questions about the reliability of the Book of Mormon or the validity of our claims to the Restoration. In fact, very few of them had even heard of Joseph Smith and most thought that Brigham Young was the son of founder of Brigham’s Ice Cream in New England. However, every one of my friends and family knew about the priesthood and temple ban, and that our church was pretty much the last church in the modern world to get the memo on equality. As a result, just about every one of these interrogations started with, “But I thought Mormons didn’t like black people?,”, “How could you join such a racist church?”, and of course, “Why are you still drinking Diet Coke?”
I’ve come to realize that this isn’t an issue that white saints are often confronted with because people are usually too courteous to ask them such questions. A decent person simply doesn’t ask someone, “So why were your parents and grandparents such racists?” Instead, a decent person (or alternatively, one of my friends and family) will reserve that question for me. After all, it wasn’t my ancestors who were doing the oppressing, so I’m less likely to be offended by the inquiry.
Of course, over four years, I’ve learned ways to deflect the question. “Now, come on, let’s be fair now. The LDS Church changed its policies in 1978. And sure, that was a good 15 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, but it was only in the fourth season of The Jeffersons. By the time they replaced the other Lionel with the good Lionel, the LDS Church was fully on board with racial equality.” As you might expect, this approach has yet to be successful in easing their suspicions about the church, but it has resulted in some interesting debates on which actor was the better Lionel.
In all seriousness, despite the fact that it has been almost four decades since the lifting of the ban, most people of African descent still see us as “that racist church.” As a result, they are about as likely to consider our message of the Restored Gospel as George Jefferson was likely to consider opening up a dry cleaning store with Archie Bunker. Tragically, millions of God’s children will likely have to wait for the hereafter to consider the fullness of the Gospel. This is something that we saints need to seriously consider in connection with the issue of ordaining women, because we run the same risk of being remembered as “that sexist church” 40 years from now.
The rest of the world is inching closer and closer to gender equality. Every year, more women assume roles as CEOs, university presidents and even military generals. In fact, at present, the person most likely to be the next President of the United States is a woman. In such an event, our current priesthood restriction is going to look downright absurd. I certainly don’t want to be the one trying to explain to my mother how a woman can be the single most important figure on planet earth, but the Lord can’t trust her to pass out bread and water on a Sunday morning.
And while many of our brothers and sisters sincerely believe that we must wait on the Lord to make changes in His Church, it’s likely that He is waiting on us. In response to members of the Christian community who were asking him to be patient in waiting for civil rights, Dr. King replied:
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.”
It seems to me that we must do our part and struggle to get ourselves mentally and spiritually prepared for the inevitable ordination of women. In the Church’s most recent essay on the priesthood ban, it speculates that perhaps one of the reasons that it took so long for the Brethren to receive the 1978 revelation was because the saints weren’t ready for racial equality.
Well, we will have no one to blame if we miss yet another wave of change because of our own complacently. So let’s get ready, saints. Let’s do it for Charlie! And let’s also do it for our pioneers, whose courageous acts of sacrifice made life different for us today. It is incumbent upon each of us to speak up. Change is not inevitable; we must put our collective shoulders to the wheel.
Honoring our past,
Envisioning our future.
Sean Carter, the author of this post, is on Ordain Women’s Social Media Committee.