African American Latter-day Saints from around the United States commemorated the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Genesis Group with a Saturday night, Oct. 23, celebration at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
A multistake activities group in the Utah Area, the Genesis Group was founded by the Church on Oct. 19, 1971.
President Davis Stovall serves as the president of the Genesis Group. Hundreds of Church members attend monthly Sunday meetings and other activities with the group.
“Members throughout the country oftentimes find themselves in wards and locations where there is not a lot of African American representation,” President Stovall said.
“To have that sense of belonging and to be able to get together with others just like yourselves, it’s very important.”
Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. presided over and spoke at the event. The General Authority Seventy served as adviser to the Genesis Group more than a decade ago. From there, Elder Curtis was called to serve in the Africa West Area.
Elder Curtis said these two experiences had a combined effect on his testimony.
“I worship differently than I did before,” he said. “My love for God has increased.”
President Stovall said the Genesis Group’s meetings feel different than other Church meetings.
“We bring our culture to this celebration,” he said.
From the echoes of “Amens” that came from the congregation to the swaying of the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir as members sang, President Stovall was right.
Elder Curtis said he was concerned he would feel out of place attending the Genesis Group’s meetings after his calling to serve with them. But the contrary was true.
“I have felt so swallowed up by the love of the people in Genesis,” Elder Curtis said.
Elder Curtis also spoke with the group about the ongoing Restoration of the gospel. He said that Joseph Smith felt the Church was more complete when the Relief Society was created and gave a formal role to women in the Church.
He then added his feeling that, “The Restoration of the gospel wasn’t complete until all of our brothers had the opportunity to hold the priesthood.”
Following Elder Curtis’ remarks, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, appeared via prerecorded video.
“We are grateful for your example of inviting all to come unto the Savior,” President Ballard said.
He thanked each founding member of the group by name and the group’s subsequent presidents who have presided over it for the past 50 years.
He concluded by thanking the group for helping everyone to know and see that “we are ultimately more alike than we are different.”
Prior to the event, President Stovall spoke about the group’s efforts to invite all to come to Jesus Christ.
“We try to make Genesis an environment that is uplifting and where people can come and talk about their difficulties,” he said. “They’ll find Saints who find strength through Christ.”
In turn, when those who attend find comfort in their shared testimonies of the Savior, the Holy Ghost touches the hearts of those in the congregation.
“Every time we worship together, you can feel the Spirit,” President Stovall said. “It strengthens my testimony every time.”
Former Genesis Group President Darius Gray also spoke at the event and shared some of the history of the group’s founding.
He shared a journal entry of Leitha Orr from Oct. 24, 1968, when she wrote about her husband’s baptism. She wrote that the two of them invited all other African American members of the Church to their home.
Three years later, under the direction of then-Church President Joseph Fielding Smith, Elders Thomas S. Monson, Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles began to meet with Eugene Orr, Darius Gray and Ruffin Bridgeforth.
President Bridgeforth was called to serve as the first president of the group when it was formally organized in 1971.
The name given to the group was unique compared to other groups or branches at the time.
“Genesis was chosen as the name of the group because ‘genesis’ means ‘the beginning,’” President Gray said.
“We shared a building with the Danish and Norwegian branches,” he said. “We were easy to pick out.”
President Stovall said those first members are revered as pioneers.
“They saw a need within the African American community,” Stovall said. “It was absolutely pioneering.”
President Gray said Genesis created a “safety net where members watched after one another.”
Natalie Sheppard shared some of the history of President Bridgeforth, who was a Melville, Louisiana, railroad worker for 20 years and was baptized in 1953. From an interview she had with him before his passing, Sheppard quoted President Bridgeforth about his reading the scriptures and his relationship with God.
“I did not read as if He was talking to only Black people or only white people. I read as if He was talking to the entire human family.”
Alex Boyé joined the choir for a special musical number he wrote about the first Black members of the Church.
“What an incredible blessing to be here on this stage,” Boyé said. “We stand up for who we are, but most importantly, we stand up for what we believe.”
The choir performed moving numbers that ranged in tone and message from “Calvary” to “Man in the Mirror” before President Stovall gave his concluding remarks.
“We put our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ first in all that we do,” President Stovall said.
Elder Curtis concluded, saying, “Genesis has been such a blessing for people over the last 50 years.”
He added: “It really is a place of people being able to come and be fellowshipped.”