Sarah Jane Weaver: The surprising lesson I learned about race from an unexpected friend

In the midst of riots and unrest across the United States yesterday, I read an article about race relations by an African American woman I admire very much. It made me uncomfortable.

I needed to know why.

I met Reverend Theresa Dear almost a year ago in July at a convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

We listened together as a former student of Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We have more in common than that which may superficially divide us,” Reverend Amos C. Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, had said.

Moments later he quoted the words of the NAACP national hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — an anthem that for 100 years had voiced a cry of affirmation for African Americans — and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” — the anthem for persecuted 19th century pioneers in the Church of Jesus Christ.

“It can be well in this nation when we lock arms,” he said. “Not as black and white. Not as Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Baptist. But as children of God who are about loving everybody and bringing hope, happiness and health to all of God’s children.”

As Reverend Brown spoke, I remember looking at Reverend Dear. We both knew we were participating in something remarkable.

Since then, we have shared meals and conversations. She called and prayed with me after my father died. I want to travel to Chicago to hear her preach.

We are friends.

Still her column published in the Deseret News, titled “Black America can’t Breathe” and detailing the death of a black person at the hands of white police officer, made me uncomfortable.

She even acknowledged the imagery of such events sear “psychological trauma” into our nation’s consciousness.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about racism in these stark terms,” she wrote. “Is it painful for black and white people to talk about this issue? Of course it is. However, if we don’t talk about it, we become passive participants in an unrighteous, immoral culture.”

With her, I condemn hatred, bigotry and violence. I agreed with everything she wrote. Yet I was uncomfortable.

People protest police brutality at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protesters joined others across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week. Video showed an officer kneeling on his neck while he implored, “I can’t breathe.”
People protest police brutality at the Public Safety Building in Salt Lake City on, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protesters joined others across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, a black man, who died while being taken into custody by police in Minneapolis earlier this week. Video showed an officer kneeling on his neck while he implored, “I can’t breathe.” Credit: Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

Maybe this was not because a conversation about race would be painful, but because I simply don’t know what one would look like. Or what I would say. Or if my belief that major race relations were a larger issue for my parents than they are for me somehow makes me part of the problem.

I turned on the television — watched rioters in downtown Salt Lake City overturn and burn cars — and realized that it does.

I am part of the problem.

I have traveled the globe for my work and never had a bad experience related to race. In fact, most of my career has been spent covering Latter-day Saints of many nationalities and races united by their belief in Jesus Christ and in His Church.

So as I watched riots on the streets near Church headquarters and Temple Square, I searched for meaning in Reverend Dear’s words.

My desire, as I watched those who incite violence, was for true insight. I started to think about what Reverend Dear meant by “conversation.”

I have family and dear friends who could teach me something about race, but I have never asked them how their race has defined their identity and their experiences.

In all the interviews I have done for the Church News, I have only asked about race two times — both when interviewing newly sustained African American leaders. I wonder now if my tone accompanying those questions was apologetic.

Even during meaningful conversations with Reverend Dear, I don’t recall ever asking about her own experiences as an African American woman. And we met at a NAACP event.

I wish I knew why.

Maybe it is because in all my efforts to show my children — and myself — that I am tolerant, I have refused to acknowledge race at all.

I have been so fearful that I would cause hurt or pain — or that I may make myself or another uncomfortable — that I missed the insight that could have blessed my life and others by deepening my understanding of a very real part of the human experience.

In a recent interview, President Russell M. Nelson spoke of the responsibility parents have to help their children. Strong families, he said, will be reflected in strong communities and strong nations.  

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson share a laugh with Reverend Theresa Dear and Dr. Amos Brown at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson share a laugh with Reverend Theresa Dear and Dr. Amos Brown at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Conversations about race need to start in our homes. From there they will flow into our communities and elevate our nations.

“Ultimately, we realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women,” said President Nelson at the Church’s 2018 “Be One” event. “That understanding inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.”

Today I returned to an interview I conducted with Reverend Dear on the first day we met last July. Just as when I read her article yesterday — her words again blessed my life with insight and understanding. Her words dispelled my discomfort, replacing it with a desire to know more and do better. They echo President Nelson’s words and give all of us a sure place to start this conversation about the brotherhood and sisterhood of the human family.

“When you come together in the name of Jesus Christ,” she said, “that in and of itself is liberating.”