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Black LDS members create, grow Genesis Group

As we continue our Black History Month Coverage, ABC 4 Utah takes a look at a growing group within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Genesis Group is supported by the Church. It’s made up of largely African-American members who sought answers before and after the Priesthood Revelation.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC 4 Utah) – As we continue our Black History Month Coverage, ABC 4 Utah takes a look at a growing group within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Genesis Group is supported by the Church. It’s made up of largely African-American members who sought answers before and after the Priesthood Revelation.

Some Black LDS church members say the Salt Lake Temple represented a lot of pain and frustration. Prior to the Priesthood Revelation of 1978, blacks could not enter the temple to be endowed or be called to serve missions. Now, African-American males can receive the priesthood. But the stigma and legacy of the church’s discrimination still remains.

The latest Genesis group meeting on February 2nd acts as a support group for black LDS church members. The sacrament, meet and greet, praise song, speaker, and testimony make up the normal agenda.

“It meant something for me for my children and other children to see black leadership,” said Genesis Group member Jerri Harwell.

Black leaders in a church with a checkered past when it comes to race.

“At times the Lamanites have dark skin and are out of favor with god. How, in any way does, that relate to me?” asked Genesis Group Founder Darius Gray.

That’s the question Darius Gray asked Mormon missionaries almost 50 years ago. His answer came from above.

“I heard very clearly: this is the restored gospel and you are to join,” said Gray.

And with that, Gray was baptized into the LDS Church in 1964. That’s despite knowing the priesthood was denied to him and all blacks. Gray only lasted one year at Brigham Young University, one of two blacks in a student body of 20,000, because of racism.

“There was no sense of freedom and there was a very little sense of belonging. I was the odd man out,” said Gray.

On June 8,1978, Gray heard the news he had been waiting for: the Priesthood Revelation.

“He and I just greeted each other and we cried and from his office we overlooked the Salt Lake Temple looking out knowing that everything had changed. Not just looking forward but looking back,” said Gray.

It was the moment that paved the way for new members like Don and Jerri Harwell.

“They thought I was the first black sister to go on a mission. I was second or third, among the first,” said Jerri Harwell.

Jerri Harwell went on a mission in 1980. Don Harwell was baptized into the church in 1983. But even years after the revelation, Don says they didn’t feel completely welcomed.

“Everybody thinks you can go to your ward and everything is going to be honky dory and it wasn't that way at all,” said Genesis Group President Don Harwell.

It’s the same reason why Gray and two others worked with three junior apostles to create the Genesis Group in 1971. So Genesis started, began to grow, and then faded away after the Priesthood Revelation. Don Harwell felt the need to bring it back with his wife Jerri on board in 1996.

“Why don't we start a newsletter? We can send it out to people and let them know what’s going on,” said Jerri Harwell.

The newsletter helped reach out to black across Utah who found themselves alone. But Genesis quickly became multi-cultural.

“A lot of white families adopted black kids and had no culture except for Genesis,” said Don Harwell.

White and brown faces make-up the crowds at the annual picnic and Christmas Party held by the Genesis Group. From what started as just six people in 1996, can now boast more than 400 members at any given meeting.

“People that looked like them that were accepting, that looked like them, that shared the same religion,” said Don Harwell.

In December 2013, the LDS Church issued a statement on its website denouncing racism of all kinds. Some black Mormons say they want a formal apology. But the grandfather of the Genesis Group says those words are meaningless without feeling and actions from current members.

“The important thing is that there is a change of heart. People need to respond differently to people who are different. That we need to see persons of color truly as our brothers and sisters,” said Gray.

Anyone, regardless of race, can attend the Genesis Group meetings the first Sunday of each month. There are also Genesis-like groups in other states. Click here to learn more.

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