Group seeks to expand LDS cultural awareness

As early as New Testament times, the Lord revealed to His apostles that He is no respecter of persons "but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness is accepted with him." (Acts 10:35.)

Little wonder that the restored Church in latter days would beckon to "every nation, kindred, tongue and people" (See 1 Ne. 19:17), and that over the years, people of increasingly diverse cultures and backgrounds would be gathered into the gospel net.Recognizing this plurality of cultures, an organization of Church members called Latter-day Saints for Cultural Awareness has been formed with the purpose of providing fellowship, brotherhood, education and understanding to peoples of all cultures.

Each issue of the non-profit organization's newsletter, Uplift, contains this statement: "Our mission is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through personal testimony; perfect the Saints by increasing their awareness of other ethnic groups through cultural awareness and faith promoting history."

The statement, said Joseph C. Smith, president and one of the founders of the group, is designed to be consistent with the three dimensions of the mission of the Church as expressed by Church leaders in recent times.

"We focus on perfecting the Saints," he explained. "We feel that in order to be perfect, we need to be sensitive to other cultures."

For the moment the focus is on African American culture. "But in the future even that will expand as we incorporate other cultures and groups into our circle," wrote Randall and Dawn Wright in the Fourth Quarter 1992 issue of Uplift.

The newsletter, with a circulation in 22 states, is the main vehicle for accomplishing the group's purposes, according to Brother Smith, a member of the Lindon 4th Ward, Lindon Utah Stake, where he teaches a Young Adult Sunday School class.

"The first section of the newsletter talks about things the Church is doing to promote cultural awareness, and we always try to find out as much as we can about that," he said. "We always have a personal testimony of an African American who has joined the Church. We also have a section on history, and in that we focus on LDS African American history. We have a cultural awareness section. For example, in this issue, we talk specifically about how a person can be a better member missionary if he knows a bit about a person's culture."

Brother Smith, who works as a program project manager for a computer software development company, is publisher of the newsletter, assisted by a nine-person editorial board and his wife, Marilyn, who is circulation director.

Recent issues of the newsletter have covered such items as LDS participation in the Salt Lake Chapter NAACP Freedom Fund banquet, the exhibit at the Museum of Church History and Art on Latter-day Saints in West Africa, and the Christmas lighting ceremony at the Washington Temple that strengthened ties with African nations by inviting their ambassadors to attend.

Any subscriber to the newsletter is considered a member of the group. It is not necessary to be LDS or African American to belong.

Each year, the organization hosts a banquet at which is presented the Ammon Award to a person or persons instrumental in promoting cultural awareness in the community. It is named for Ammon in the Book of Mormon, who risked his life to take the gospel to the Lamanites. He was willing to be a servant and live among them as long as was necessary. Through respect and love, he converted Lamoni, the Lamanite king, and thousands of his subjects.

"We have been very fortunate to have Elder David B. Haight of the Council of the Twelve attend our dinner in the Lion House," Brother Smith said. "Each year he has spoken to us and assisted in presenting the award."

Spectators at this year's Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City July 24 were introduced to the work of Latter-day Saints for Cultural Awareness. The group entered a float that depicted the contributions of three LDS pioneers who were African American: Elijah Abel, Green Flake and Jane Elizabeth Manning.

"We were very thankful that the Church gave us a grant to help build the float," Brother Smith said. "It got us closer together and helped us see that we could achieve something like that, because I know when we first took the assignment we were a little fearful."

"It was late in the season; it was May, and none of us had float experience," said Thomasania (Tommie) M. Leydsman, a member of the board of governors who handles public relations duties. "But everybody just rallied around."

"The thing that comes out of all of this is that people start to realize that we're so much alike and we have common goals," Brother Smith commented. "Once that happens, then color or race doesn't make a difference anymore."

Sister Leydsman, a fifth-grade school teacher and a Mia Maid adviser in the West Jordan (Utah) Bingham Creek 5th Ward, added: "It's also a vehicle for those African Americans who may feel isolated in areas where they are the only Church members. They get the newsletter and are motivated to feel good about their membership, to hang on to the gospel and not lose it, to realize that you don't have to give up your cultural identity to be a member of the Church."

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