It was the jumpsuit that brought it all into focus, a jumpsuit much like one he had worn years before. But this jumpsuit was white. That one had been orange. Dressed in the white polyester garment, David was prepared for baptism into a new church. A fleeting glimpse of himself dressed in white seemed to capture the great changes in his life and outlook over the past months. White was his new orange.
God’s voice began speaking in his heart. “You’ve been getting away with some things you’re not supposed to be doing, and it’s only by the grace of God that you’re here,” Dave heard. As he closed his eyes to pray with his new Pentecostal church family, the whole room suddenly grew bright. “There are many different ministries, but one God,” someone said. The words jumped out at him. Dave opened his mouth to object: after all, hadn’t he just chosen a new church? The Spirit spoke to him forcefully: “Shut up. Don’t say a word, close your mouth. This is where they stay, but this is where you continue on in your path.”
This is the story of a young black man’s unlikely conversion to Mormonism. I met David one Sunday this fall on a visit to an LDS branch in my stake. He blessed the sacrament that morning, and when I heard him speak I knew I wanted to know him better. He graciously agreed to meet with me for an interview on a cold December evening.
David’s journey began far from Mormonism, far even from Pentecostalism. Raised in the quiet suburbs of south St. Louis County, David grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family. His parents and grandparents were devout believers, and his childhood was spent at Kingdom Hall wrapped in the tight fabric of their religious community. For young David, safety was to be found inside — inside the family, inside the community. The world was a dangerous place, and worldly influences threatened vaguely at the edges of his awareness.
But as he moved into adolescence, and as his parents’ marriage broke up, he drifted away from Kingdom Hall. High school football became his consuming passion. He spent time with friends on the team, friends from school. He began to take note of other religions, including the LDS faith of two girls at his high school, sisters in a big Mormon family.
But more than anything, he was drawn to the glittering hustle of the world. Over the next decade, as David finished high school, played a couple years of college football, and drifted around the midwest, he chased the glamour of the party culture sold to him by the entertainment industry. Moving from job to job, sometimes working with kids in schools, sometimes working in music promotion, and sometimes dabbling in darker trades, David experienced all that the world offered — the brief flashes of euphoria, and the long stretches of emptiness and despair.
Despite his wild ways, David’s inner compass bore true. “I’m in tune with myself and the rest of the universe. I’ve always had that faith, even when I didn’t think I had the faith. I always felt like what I was doing was bad, and if I was punished then so be it.” Eventually he reached a wrenching crisis. In dire financial straits, caught in splintered relationships and finding no way forward, he was forced to relinquish the personal ties that had tenuously held his life in place. “I wrestled with the decision for two years. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”
He was back to square one, alone and without direction. He took a hard look at his life. “I haven’t graduated, what have I got from all this stuff I’ve been through? This life has gotten me away from where I was originally supposed to be. You take a look at yourself and realize you don’t like yourself at all. Eventually you get honest with yourself and realize what you’re dealing with.”
It was time to move home and start over in St. Louis.
Like countless travelers before him, David finds in his wanderings an echo of ancient Israel’s forty years in the wilderness — or ancient Lehite journeyings through the desert. Through every dark valley of his long walk, he was guided by a quiet spiritual sensibility, an inner liahona.
Now back home in St. Louis, determined to make a new life for himself, David began to see God’s hand more clearly than ever. It started in a club, of all places, where a favorite song and a chance encounter with a Pentecostal girl eventually brought him to baptism in that faith. “This was when I started to make connections, what people in the church call the Iron Rod. I know this is the reason why we met.”
But his spiritual hunger persisted, and he undertook a more systematic church tour, seeking his true spiritual home. “I wanted to see the Lord from different people’s perspectives,” he said. When an old friend at Kingdom Hall advised, “Make the truth your own,” David knew he would trek on.
His journey into Mormonism is a mash-up of classic conversion and new media. Dissatisfied with all of the churches he had visited, David began to pray for “knowledge, wisdom, and understanding” — this was his mantra — to choose a new spiritual home. “I remember praying, what church do I need to go to? God said, ‘Choose your own path.’”
Pondering this one evening, David stumbled upon a TV documentary about children raised in religious cults. He posted about in on Facebook, but deleted the post, worrying that his friends would confuse Jehovah’s Witnesses with Mormons. With Latter-day Saints thus on his mind, he was astonished to see a documentary about Mormonism on television next. A main character was an African-American man attending LDS services with a white woman. The documentary highlighted the Mormon welfare program and its humanitarian service outreach. All of this impressed David. He was overcome with memories of working with his grandfather, serving him, and realized that service to his grandparents was his personal ministry in the world.
Three days later, two Mormon missionaries showed up in his neighborhood. David knew it wasn’t a coincidence. “Yo, that’s how the Spirit works. Let’s do this,” he said.
He began to meet with the missionaries every Thursday at McDonalds. He was amazed at these two young guys’ knowledge of scripture. He was downright incredulous that they voluntarily abstained from sex, drinking, and drugs. He met members of the local ward, and felt a deep sense of kinship and homecoming as they bonded over football. “I always knew I came from Heavenly Father, and I always knew I was going back there somehow.”
He dived more deeply into LDS teachings. He learned that baptismal covenants can be renewed weekly by taking the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and this felt right. So did teachings about personal revelation, self-reliance, and the eternal importance of family. He watched General Conference and was touched by President Monson’s and Elder Uchtdorf’s words. “They were saying things verbatim that I was saying to my friends, and they were saying I was nuts.” Yet here it was, confirmed in the teachings of this new church.
He was baptized on May 25, 2013.
The baptism was a new beginning, but his life was still in shambles. He had just broken up with a girlfriend, and found himself crashing on a friend’s couch. No job, no car, no place of his own.
Things began to change. He found a job, found a place of his own. Eventually he bought a car. He made friends in his tiny new LDS branch in north St. Louis county. He was called to work with the Primary children, then with the small group of teenage boys. His family, initially shocked and angered by his conversion, noticed the change in his life and began to soften toward him. “It was just all about me holding onto that iron rod the whole entire time,” he says. “Walking through the dark, holding onto it. That’s the thing I love about the church.”
There are still challenges ahead. If there’s one thing David knows, it’s that he is a work in progress. He is still growing in the gospel, and growth can be painful. “Now I’m at a point where I realize there’s Mormonism as a religion and Mormonism as a culture.” The social unrest in Ferguson, just a few miles away from the branch where he attends LDS services, has revealed conflict between his views and those held by some members of the racially-mixed congregation. And what about his old friends? Should he break ties with them and start over, or try to integrate his old social life with his new spiritual life? These are the questions that face David as he moves forward in his new faith.
Yet these perplexities bring flashes of new insight. David finds a compelling resonance between the scriptures of his new faith and the old problems of his African-American community. The golden plates and the iron rod — central religious symbols of the Book of Mormon — seem to him especially fraught with meaning for African-American experience.
For Nephites, the records engraved on the plates represented knowledge of their cultural and genealogical heritage, connection to their deepest global roots and their interconnected relationship to God and all of humanity.
David sees immediate relevance to the struggles of African-Americans. Because of the violent disruption and dislocation of slavery, “African-American culture is disconnected from its ancient roots. If your identity is lost, then you’re in spiritual slavery. What do you base your understanding and traditions on? Nephi has access to his people’s history. With your history you’re able to serve your purpose. People don’t realize that what we need is the golden plates.”
The Egyptian linguistic connections in the Book of Mormon, as well as Egyptian references in the LDS scriptures known as the Pearl of Great Price, further cement the relevance of the Book of Mormon to African-American experience, in David’s mind. Egypt’s ancient cultural and geopolitical associations with Africa are for David an important link to present-day Mormons of African descent.
This interpretation is both utterly intuitive and jaw-droppingly radical. A theology of the golden plates as a healing bridge across a people’s tortured collective history to its covenant origins — that is a Book of Mormon that speaks to black Latter-day Saints directly through their own history. “Golden plates represent knowledge of ourselves, and African Americans are missing the knowledge of ourselves as spirit beings in the universe.”
If the golden plates for David are a restored connection to his ancestors’ glorious ancient past, then the iron rod is a guide out of the labyrinth of his own mind. As I wrap up my conversation with David over hot chocolate in a deserted Starbucks, the connections keep tumbling out. The store is now closed, and a vacuum rumbles at our feet. But the ideas keep flowing over the din. The trinity as a family. The ancient roots of the word Israel. The dangers of idolizing “better days ahead.”
He’s just getting warmed up.