How the Church and NAACP are modeling true partnership and racial harmony

Just two years ago, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People “first linked arms as friends.” 

In many ways, the partnership today is still in its infancy. Despite this, leaders of the two organizations declared this week that they “have now locked arms in love and brotherhood” and are looking ahead to bless the lives of all God’s children by building bridges of cooperation.

The partnership further solidified this week when, on Monday, June 8, leaders from both organizations co-authored an op-ed on racial harmony, published online by Medium. The article was published on the 42nd anniversary of the June 1978 “revelation on the priesthood.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hugs the Rev. Amos C. Brown after his introduction 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 hugs the Rev. Amos C. Brown after his introduction 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

Highlighting their commitment to work together for racial harmony, the op-ed by President Russell M. Nelson and leaders of the NAACP — Derrick Johnson, President and CEO; Leon Russell, Chairman of the Board; and the Reverend Amos C. Brown, Chairman Emeritus of Religious Affairs — responded to recent events, including the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots around the nation. 

The decision to write the op-ed “mirrors our two-year relationship of working together for the common good of this nation,” the Rev. Brown told the Church News. 

The Reverend Theresa Dear, NAACP national board member, said the partnership between President Nelson and the Rev. Brown “has been heartwarming and amazing to watch. It has clearly been God’s divine hand bringing these two organizations together.” 

Video: President Nelson and the Reverend Amos Brown highlight need to move forward ‘Arm in Arm’

Both organizations are committed to working together on the challenges the country and world are facing, she said. They are leading the way forward through open and transparent dialogue about their histories and are working together to respond to ongoing needs.

The friendship of the two organizations began before it was really needed, she said. And it is needed now.

An unlikely partnership

The partnership between the Church and the NAACP has blossomed over the past two years from simple beginnings. 

In 2017, Latter-day Saints in Jackson, Mississippi helped refurbish the NAACP offices there. In May 2018, the NAACP’s first-ever national leadership meetings were held in Salt Lake City and following a meeting with the First Presidency, leaders of the two organizations released a joint statement calling for greater civility and racial harmony. Just two months later, they announced a historic collaboration and launched a self-reliance initiative focused on financial education and employability — tailoring self-reliance courses from the Church specifically for the needs of inner-city black communities. And in July 2019, President Nelson was invited to speak at the NAACP National Convention in Detroit.

Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy who has worked closely with the NAACP, said the partnership is the result of work being done quietly, day by day, by the many different people involved.

The partnership is “focused on Jesus Christ and our shared understanding and knowledge that we’re children of a loving Heavenly Father,” Elder Gerard said. “That serves as the foundation for us to continue to work together and build bridges of understanding.”

The self-reliance program has been a great learning experience for how to be effective partners, said Kimberly Ishoy, a member of the strategy and innovation team in the Church’s Welfare and Self-reliance department. 

Through pilot programs and focus groups in Chicago and San Francisco, the Church and the NAACP adapted the self-reliance program for urban populations.

Samantha Butterworth, director of the content and messaging division in the Church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Department, explained that it took effort on both sides to “listen, understand and be humble and recognize that our expertise alone can’t meet the needs for every community.” 

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, with the Rev. Theresa Deer while meeting with NAACP leaders at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit, Michigan, 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, with the Rev. Theresa Deer while meeting with NAACP leaders at the 110th annual national convention for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

“We learned how to partner in different communities and question our assumptions,” she said.

Learning about the needs of the communities and how they want to be served before jumping in with a solution was important, Butterworth explained. Being willing to do the additional work to listen, overcome biases and develop a solution together were key factors in not only developing a truly helpful program, but also in strengthening their partnership, she said. 

From the outside, it is easy to think this partnership is just about a program, Ishoy said, but it isn’t. It’s about more than that. 

“In interacting with each other, we have grown in such great love and care for each other,” she said. 

Leading by example

The partnership between the Church and the NAACP is an example for the nation, the Rev. Brown said. 

“The compelling music of our communities represents a statement about struggle,” he said, noting the similarities between the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the popular Church hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints.” Both songs and both histories express a struggle as well as a dedication to achieving and excelling in spite of persecution, the Rev. Brown said. 

“So it’s natural that we got together,” he said. “And we ought to praise and thank God that the two communities were humble enough to reach out and be an embodiment of what [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.], my teacher, envisioned and taught us to strive for: A beloved community in which the worth and dignity of all humankind is respected, guarded and celebrated.”

By listening, learning, and adapting to reach a shared goal of lifting God’s children, the partnership between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ is a model for how to move forward from the past, the Rev. Brown said. Commonalities can always be found when people are willing to listen and learn. 

Reiterating the need for building bridges among communities, Elder Gerard explained that the solution to issues of racism and discontent can’t come from government or law enforcement alone. Every Individual needs to do a self-assessment and find commonalities, he said. Then they need to look for opportunities to understand and deal with the challenges of today.

“We’re grateful to the NAACP,” he said. “We have got the great start of a long-standing relationship to do good for all of mankind.”

Christ is the perfect example of how to do that, the Rev. Dear added. 

“He would step in and, with a loving, patient, kindhearted spirit, sit down and have a conversation,” she said. 

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, speaks with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at left during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018.
Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, speaks with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at left during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 17, 2018. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

For Ishoy, the Rev. Dear has been a perfect Christlike example of love by reaching out to support her personally with prayers and support during difficult times. 

“That kind of commitment says the most about our partnership and relationship,” Ishoy said. “It’s about reaching out one person at a time. … Small and simple things will change the world and transform it.”

The partnership between the organizations and their leaders are also an important example to the nation, Butterworth said. 

“I think our membership and audience look to leadership to set an example,” she said. “The public discussion about this partnership has been really important to demonstrate for our membership that building bridges is important, being friends in the public square is important and having these conversations of learning from one another — sometimes from issues of friction — is important.

The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, an independent Latter-day Saint choir, performs "Calvary" during the 109th NAACP Annual Convention at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio on Sunday, July 15, 2018.
The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, an independent Latter-day Saint choir, performs “Calvary” during the 109th NAACP Annual Convention at the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio on Sunday, July 15, 2018. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas, For the Deseret News

“We need to show what it looks like to be a friend for someone who is hurting. We need to accept their pain and sit with them until we do understand. What is so critical about this partnership in this moment is it shows what it means to be a friend in Christ.”

Ishoy added, “We are still at the beginning stages of this relationship. But we are learning and growing and I do believe that this is going to be the beginning of a way to transform peace in the world.”

Of the NAACP and the Church’s partnership, the Rev. Brown added, “It is going well … now we just need to expand it. We are working in partnership, in tandem. We are a dream team of equals and we are learning together.”