Book Review: On Fire in Baltimore – Black Mormon Women and Conversion in a Raging City, by Laura Rutter Strickling
I personally believe there are perhaps only a handful of white members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I’m trying to follow the Pres Nelson!), who truly understand the black experience with the Restored Church. I’m one of them.
Raised in pasty white western Montana, my first real experience with black people was in the Air Force, especially when I was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama for almost 17 years.There, I spent a decade as ward mission leader and in the stake mission presidency. It was in 1987 that we decided it was time to actively proselyte among Blacks. Even though the Revelation occurred almost a decade before, no real effort was made to preach to Blacks in the stake. It wasn’t long before two of our wards each were baptizing dozens of Blacks a year.
I was tasked with being a group leader in Tuskegee, preparing it over a five month period to become a branch. In working in my ward, and throughout the stake, I experienced a level of racism I was not expecting. Relief Society presidencies and elders refusing to visit families in the black neighborhoods, and especially not in the Projects. Many whites demanded to know why so many of the Blacks needed rides to church? “Why can’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” My wife, Ramona, ended up being the primary visiting teacher in the Projects and black community, with me usually going with her. Our little Honda Civic received a workout, as I would drive 45 miles every Sunday morning to Tuskegee for meetings, then rush back to Montgomery to pick up many of our Black members and investigators for afternoon Church.
So, when it came time to read On Fire in Baltimore, I was interested to see if the author, Laura Rutter Strickling, would fall into that handful of white folk that really get it, when it comes to the black culture and its integration into the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.
And she does get it.
She interviewed many of the black sisters in her ward in Baltimore. In doing so, she listened to them discuss their upbringing, death, drugs, racism, their struggles with riots (both the riots at the death of Martin Luther King, jr., and the 2015 riot due to the police killing of Freddie Gray), and ultimately, their conversion into the Church.
The stories she shared were very familiar to me: The Projects, where people live in the squalor of government housing. The broken families, raised by women, because the men have never been taught to be responsible for a family. The food and job deserts people live in, because few dare to start a business anywhere near black neighborhoods. The drugs, welfare checks, and dead or imprisoned young men, are common themes in every black community throughout the United States.
In interviewing the sisters, Strickling notes her own changes, as she grew into her own skin:
In my subconscious, I had accepted that Black was the antithesis of White, and if White is desirable, then Black must not be. It surprised me how difficult it was to disentangle my racialized self in the heat of an encounter, how effortless it was to take whiteness for granted, and how easy to fall back on the racial instincts that my White American history had bequeathed me.
In addition to these complicated questions about race, I was wrestling with how to approach the race dilemma in my research. By dilemma I mean that, in terms of biology, race is a meaningless concept, yet the social reality is such that race is profoundly meaningful.
Stickling begins by giving a brief history of the Church, especially regarding the development of race issues. She notes Joseph Smith ordaining blacks and running for president of the United States with a platform to free slaves. She discusses the changes that occurred under Brigham Young to ban blacks from the priesthood and temple ordinances, and then the development of several explanations to justify the ban. Finally, she finishes with President Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 priesthood revelation, and the Church’s recent efforts to clarify its stance.
In discussing the conversions of her black friends, Strickling is not shy to share their miraculous conversions, something I noted among many of my black convert friends in Montgomery. Strickling shares Ruth’s experience:
I really, really wanted to know the truth. So it was the first time in my life I ever prayed like this, with all the faith I had. I prayed for two weeks. Then one night, I went to sleep and received a vision of the Father and Jesus Christ. I mean, I actually seen them! They were standing there and their feet weren’t touching the ground. When I looked upon them I could see the fire of eternity burning within them.
For me, such conversion stories reminded me of my dear friend Eva Oryang. I called her to be the first Relief Society president of the Tuskegee group. In doing so, I asked her to share her conversion story with me. She fled Uganda in early 1987 to safety in the United States. Some of her children lived in England, where she could have remained and receive a free house, but something inside her to continue to America and then Tuskegee, where her oldest son was attending college. Arriving, she soon became depressed, because she did not know why she was there. One evening, she knelt beside her bed and prayed all night that God would reveal to her just why she was led to Tuskegee. Early the next morning, as she was finishing her prayer, the missionaries knocked on her door. They had only been assigned in the town for just a few days.
Among the many stories Strickling shares are both tragedies and funny anecdotes. Sister Dee told of the time when she was seriously burnt in a fire, when she was about 5 years old. She was burnt over much of her body, yet no scars were visible.
“Well, my grandmother took goose poop and ground it up and mixed it with linseed oil. ”
“Goose poop?” Naomi responds before I can ask the same question.
“It was mixed with four things but I can’t remember them all,” Dee tells us. “My skin was so bad that she couldn’t use her finger to put on the ointment because when you touch the meat on my face it would come off. So she would get a goose feather and spread the poop on my skin. She told the doctor, ‘Now you take care of Dee’s eyes because I don’t know what to do about that, and I’ll take care of her face because I don’t want her scarred up.”
While all the Black sisters gushed about their personal conversion stories, there were still stories of racism occurring within the Church.
…But one Sunday, instead of going to Sunday School class, Pearl pulled me aside to tell me about an incident in the church, “I like White people,” she had begun, “used to go out with a White guy, but there are some people in the church who don’t like Blacks.” Then Pearl proceeded to tell me about a certain sister who had said certain things to her, and who walked right past her looking the other way.
“But Pearl,” I had resisted, ” are you sure it was racism and not just that this sister was preoccupied?”
“Well, it’s possible,” Pearl had answered, “but I can tell. I can feel it.”
I remember a white sister that groused because the bishop called a recently baptized black sister to be a Primary worker. This white sister didn’t even have any children in Primary, yet felt it important enough to vocally complain about it.
But race relations can improve.
As we stood to go, Pearl said to me, “I always thought you were, you know, kind of finicky.”
“What? What do you mean?” I had asked, but Pearl was not diverted from what she wanted to say.
“But, but when we connect eye to eye, you know what I’m saying? It’s such a joy. And you don’t get that with White people you meet on the street. It’s like, when we all talk,” Pearl moved her arm in a circle to indicate the three of us, “there’s no color here.”
One of my fondest memories is having my dear departed friend, Renee Olson, introduce me to Darius Gray (former president of the Genesis Group) and Margaret Barker as her “adopted black brother.” For us, there was “no color here.”
Another Montgomery sister noted to me once that before she joined the Church, the Lord’s mandate to “love thy neighbor” meant to love only black people. Since joining the Church of Jesus Christ, she said she learned that it meant to love all people, regardless of race. For me, this is ever a powerful belief.
The book continues, chapter after chapter, sharing the lives and testimonies of black sisters from Baltimore. Many of the stories are very tragic, but also very common in the black communities. To be able to see the decades of trials in a woman’s life, followed by the triumph and blessings of the fullness of the gospel in her life, is inspiring.
After my mom died I would dream about her all the time, but I could never see her face. And every time I would dream, she was in a wheelchair or sick in bed. I would see her three times a week, and this was sad for me. I dreamed like that for two years, and I was grieving, oh, I was grieving! So Laura, when I finally got to go to the temple to do the baptisms for her–now I guess people think I’m making this stuff up, but I tell you, this is the honest truth–after I did the temple work for my mother, I dreamed about her and she wasn’t sick anymore. I could see her face, and she wasn’t in a wheelchair. And me and her was being together, you know, just doing things together.
This wonderful story stands in contrast to an experience I will always remember. A young convert to the Church asked me to join him at his sister’s funeral. She recently overdosed and died. At the funeral, the funeral director gave a basic “ashes to ashes” sermon that did not discuss the resurrection nor hope. One family friend came forth to sing a song. After a couple words, she busted out crying and ran from the room. The entire event was gloomy for all in attendance. I wished they had asked me to give the sermon, where I could share the light of the gospel. For my dear young convert friend, we spoke afterward, where we talked about him being able to do her temple work, bringing both him and her eternal peace.
For me, this book is a treasure. It brought back many memories, good and bad, of the struggles Blacks continue living with in their daily lives. It is my hope and prayer that this book can transform us all: Blacks can be inspired to hear and receive the fullness of the Gospel of Christ, and Whites can learn to be empathetic to the continuing struggle Blacks go through.
As a positive note, as I retired from the Air Force and moved away from Montgomery, most of the stake was well integrated, with Black and White members embracing each other in friendship. It is an event I hope all wards and stakes can experience with those who are different, whether due to race, immigration status, language, etc.
If you want to be inspired, moved to tears, and hopefully moved to positive action, please read On Fire in Baltimore. It is an intense experience that can help you see others with new eyes, even the eyes of our Savior.