JV is the kind of person one notices right away in an LDS chapel, the kind of person one remembers. I’d seen her at various stake activities after I moved with my new husband into our micro-studio apartment in a transient-urban ward; when we moved into student housing in the neighboring transient-student ward the next year, hers was one of the few familiar faces that greeted us that first Sunday. It was impossible not to like her instantly: JV is outgoing, exuberant, affectionate, interested, and an intent listener. She also happens to be African-American.
JV and I quickly became dear friends, an unusual development for a person like me who finds friends easily but discovers dear friends rarely. JV deserves the credit for the relationship: because I often feel like an outsider, and suspecting that JV must occasionally feel the same way at church, I made an extra effort to reach out to her, but it was really JV’s persistence and openness that brought us close. I enjoyed a kind of intimacy with JV that I have never experienced with other LDS friends: we greeted each other with an affectionate kiss on the mouth, and we often held hands as we walked and talked together. My relationship with JV required some effort, as real friendships always do: she asked me to give her rides, to listen to her concerns and challenges, to accompany her to doctor appointments and attend her recovery when she had medical problems. And she repaid me manifold in affection, gratitude and understanding.
I was not JV’s only or best friend in the ward; on the contrary, it is evidence of JV’s character that many members of the ward felt very close to her. Although she was the only long-term active black member of the ward–and one of the few in the stake–JV was well integrated into social and ecclesiastical structures: she served in a variety of leadership positions and had many friends. Her integration was eased by the fact that she shared the socioeconomic and educational context of our student-dominated ward: she was college-educated and worked at the university, she spoke and dressed like most of us, she shared the same political and social outlook with most of us. She was especially beloved by the youth: her open and informal manner appealed to young people, and many of them confided in her.
Differences remained, though. JV had never married, and this was a source of keen disappointment to her; she occasionally suggested that this was due to her race, and she was probably right. And despite her commitment to the church and her inclusion in the ward, she did feel a sense of social isolation. When R&B or hip hop music was played at youth dances, for example, she would dance vigorously and affectionately shake her head at the flailing around her: â€œMy peopleâ€?–meaning African-Americans–â€œfeel the rhythm,â€? she would say. Her style of prayer and testimony was more direct, informal and emphatic than most LDS chapels witness, and this sometimes made members of the congregation uncomfortable. After college she had become inactive for a period, disillusioned and disappointed at her lack of marriage prospects. But JV had cultivated the surest testimony of God’s goodness and love, of his involvement in her life, of his utter trustworthiness that I have ever encountered, and the joy she found in the restored gospel ultimately overcame the social obstacles to activity she faced–and helped me overcome a number of obstacles, as well.
Friendship with JV did not require much of me, in the end; our similarities and the rare sympathy we shared easily overshadowed any difference in color. In truth, finding common ground with those who share my color but differ from me in socioeconomic or political background often requires more charity and effort on my part. In fact, JV and I rarely spoke about race at all: wary of making her feel like the sole representative of a class of people–as I often felt at school where I was the only Mormon and the only mother–sometimes even avoided the topic, and I now regret that choice. I wish I had encouraged her to share more of her thoughts and experiences as a black person, if she wished, as well as a woman, a Saint, and a friend.
JV is not my only African-American friend, in or out of the church, but she is certainly one of my dearest friends of any color. Today I am grateful for the many conspiring circumstances that brought JV into my life. I’m grateful for the social and political changes of the past half-century that allowed JV’s native intelligence and drive to bring her to a university community in La Jolla, California, and I pray that more African-American individuals and families will follow her path into the church and into my life. I’m grateful for a church that, no matter its current and past imperfections, teaches that Christ “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Mostly, I’m grateful for the restored gospel and for JV’s steadfast testimony of its truth. Thank you, JV.