Of black sheep and #blacklivesmatter
I’ve had this post in my head for months. It still may not convey all that it means to me from the night my perspective shifted yet again. However, I’m going to share what I have in hopes that this is a correct time for it.
I was at dinner with friends and our spiritual mentor. The conversation was, as it always tends to be, about being black and LDS and the challenges that exist at that intersection. It was at times deeply emotional with hot moments and searing reminders. I’m sure we all got something different out of it, but as always, our mentor gave me enough to keep going and reminded me that we are not cursed, but called as Black members of the LDS church.
He asked, “What do you know about sheep?”
“Sheep?” I wondered, thinking what does anyone know about sheep? I felt a lesson coming. “I don’t know anything about sheep. Tell me.”
“I will,” he said. “For every 100 sheep, God makes one black. This is how the Shepherd knows how many sheep he has. If there are 5 black sheep, then there are 500 sheep.”
I remarked that that was interesting and I’d never seen the parable of the lost sheep with a black sheep. I blamed white supremacy in the LDS Church for leading me to believe that the white Shepherd was just a really fast counter and always knew when one of the white sheep was missing. He focused on what looked like him, so of course he’d know when one was missing, so He always left the other 99 white sheep to go and find the one random missing other white sheep.
I don’t know if we really went anywhere with the sheep discussion beyond that mentioning. I knew that talking about black sheep stuck with me that night. It was a Friday night. I went to Church on Sunday after a week of more news about unarmed black people being killed by police and police being killed while protecting people rallying about unarmed black people being killed by police.
I didn’t want to go to Church on Sunday.
I was so tired of dealing with racism. I was so tired of going to Church and pretending that all was well because we’re all Mormon and safe from the scary evil world “out there” of Satan trying to kill the traditional family and people just tripping on rocks and “falling away” from the Church. I was tired of going to Church and needing a refuge from my own fear and pain as a black person in a world that is so mentally exhausting because of how it erases my blackness just to go into a Church that tells me “All are alike unto God” as long as the alikeness is Whiteness and acceptable. As long as the whiteness is noble trauma experiences like pornography addiction, cancer, death (not black death though) and depression (over approved topics) but not racial battle fatigue.
I skipped sacrament meeting, even though I woke up early and sat around dressed and feeling rebellious. It was July 10th. We’d had dinner on July 8th – the one month anniversary of the Priesthood Restoration for Black LDS Families. I was tired. I was exhausted. I was empty and I was not motivated to go to Church.
My bishop had texted me on Friday – before dinner – asking how I was doing and saying that he wanted to reach out. I was honest and said that I was hurting and part of a community in pain. My bishop replied that he knew he wouldn’t understand what I was going through, but that if I ever needed anything – I could ask him. It wasn’t your regular “home teacher” message (although he is my hometeacher and now my Bishop. I’m THAT special, y’all. I get people promoted to higher levels of responsibility in order to deal with my knuckleheadedness. I’m working on getting him in the Stake or Area Authority level). it was a genuine “I don’t know what to do, but I want you to know that I’m here for you” message. So, I knew that if I went to Church and saw him, I’d end up bawling and crumbling into a heap – as I did the day they asked me to give the closing prayer the same week my Church as an organization released the exclusion policy for kids of gay parents. So, my thought process was to avoid that primary emotion in a place where people will stare, feel uncomfortable, and not know what to say or do (because this is one of those “not that kind of grief, please” categories at Church) I was going to spare everyone my emotions and just stay at home.
God, as always, had other plans.
Somehow, I ended up in Gospel Doctrine and we were talking about missionary work and I was talking to God in my head like “really? This is what you send me to sit in?” A young returned missionary answered a question about what do we need in order to teach the Gospel. I was in my head thinking, “Ah… still zealous. So precious.” And then the young lady next to him gave a response too. What she said stuck out to me, “You have to love the gospel in order to love the people you teach. If you don’t love the Gospel, you can’t love the people. If you don’t love the people, you can’t teach.” God was like, “see, LaShawn?” I was like yeah okay, whatever, God. That’s a good point. I guess I’ll listen. But why don’t’ more of us do this? Why am I here holding myself together to not cry in frustration that I feel like my type of grief isn’t okay to share in Church? Why can’t I say, “hey! Mormons! Love the Gospel so you can love me enough to hear me say black lives matter!” – Why is there no place for me and my pain here? I was ready to go home.
Instead, I sat and waited for Relief Society to start. My dear friend sat next to me. She put her arm around me and said, “How are you doing, LaShawn?” I leaned my head on her shoulder and started to cry. I sat up and told her “I need to go home. I can’t do this today.” I was crying too much. The grief was too much. She held me closer and said “No, stay here with me where you’re safe.” I cried more. Someone sat near me, awkwardly, and gave me tissues. I took them and they crumbled and then I had tissue crumbs all over my face and hands. And then the lesson started – it was lesson 12 by President Hunter – “Come back and feast at the table of the Lord.”
I started reading the lesson to distract myself from crying while God, unbeknownst to me, laid out his chess pieces.
I was one sentence in to the lesson.
“To those who have transgressed or been offended, we say, come back. To those who are hurt and struggling or afraid, we say, let us stand with you and dry your tears. To those who are confused and assailed by error on ever side, we say, come to the God of all truth and the Church of continuing revelation. Come back. Stand with us. Carry on. Be believing. All is well, and all will be well. Feast at the table laid before you in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and strive to follow the Good Shepherd who has provided it. Have hope, exert faith, receive – and give – charity, the pure love of Christ.”
“Check,” God said…
Mind you – I stopped having the ability to read after “let us stand with you and dry your tears.” I was in need of drying. We need a better tissue brand at church.
God wasn’t letting up, of course, because the first picture in the lesson was this one.
I stared at the page through blurry eyes.
“Really, God? Are you even serious right now?” I asked.
“MATE.” He replied.
I’ve never seen this picture before. Ever. I’ve always seen white Jesus and white sheep. White “excellent counter just by sight of all of my sheep” good shepherd Jesus. And little lost “I just got confused and wandered away, please come find me white Jesus” white sheep.
I couldn’t stop staring at the picture.
I researched sheep a bit on Google. I saw on a “sheep 101” forum (I’m not a dutiful google searcher – I’m happy to report that it was a farmer’s site. That could have gone really wrong) that black and brown and gray and spotted sheep are called “markers.” The site said,
Get your markers in
In the Old West, a few black sheep wandered the range. These colored animals were used as markers, one for every hundred sheep. The old timers counted the sheep and said, “Once your markers are in, your flock is in.”
Note: The Colored animals were used as markers. – There are so many layers here. Another post, another time.
Note: Once your markers are in, your flock is in. – Understand this, not-colored Mormons: your flock is not complete without your colored sheep.
Back to Pres. Hunter’s lesson. I don’t know what else happened in the lesson that day. I remember there being some talk about how we feel when our family members leave the Church and they are the sheep to be rescued and we are the ones to rescue them.
Not for me.
I was in my own space, with my Shepherd, surrounded by my friends, being rescued by the One who always sees me.
The One who made me Black – not on accident, not as punishment, but on purpose.
The One who consecrated my melanin and called me to do His work.
The One who needs ME and those who look like me, in order to know how many sheep he has at a glance. To know how many sheep are truly with Him. Who is truly following Him? Physically? Emotionally? With charity?
The One who says, when YOU are lost, I will leave these and come for you, because YOU are how I keep track of the others, Black Sheep.
The 99 and the 1.
The 1 is the black sheep.
For every family with a “black sheep” – I speak only to the black one. To you. If you are made to feel less than because your family doesn’t accept you – please know that by you and you alone, you may be how God keeps track of your family’s path. How is your family flock doing?
To Black people in the Church. This parable is ours. And this is our ever watchful Shepherd.
When our Flock refuses to acknowledge us from the Pulpit – I’m still waiting to hear about “disavowal” from the 2013 essay spokem over the pulpit. I’m still waiting for a collective book report from the Quorom of the 15 on “Religion of a Different Color.”
When the Church forgets how to count and for whom they are counting, our Shepherd does not.
When our Flock feels that all is well because they are present and we walk away because we stand out too much, we make others uncomfortable because we are so visibly different, we don’t blend in, we can’t be quiet, we can’t hold our pain but we can try to hold each other across so many miles and a little bit of social media….
Please know that if and when we leave, and sometimes we must for our own health, He comes for us.
He finds us. He comforts us. Back in the Churches of our parents. In gospel music. In praise and worship.
In our atheism. In our agnosticism. He finds us.
In our times where we feel that because the Mormons don’t get it when we are traumatized but they proactively see the trauma of those who look most like them, please remember that God sees us because God created us specifically as a reminder for his Shepherds on this earth to do their jobs in His work.
God has stopped giving out pink slips and nobody is acting bitter like Jonah these days either. The agency of others is the hardest thing to deal with when it’s a choice to remain ignorant. This is why Agency sucks because you can’t make people not be racist. They have to choose it for themselves. They struggle.
This lesson was so powerful to me because Mormons love parables. Like…. LOVE LOVE them. Mormons LOVE finding all types of layered meanings in one picture or one story or one object lesson, yet in my 35 years of being a raised in this Church, I’d never seen this picture and I’d never heard of the black sheep being the one Jesus goes after.
It was always white sheep and white Jesus.
But in that quiet moment of me sobbing on my friends shoulder while God won yet another chess game with his knuckleheaded child, one of his black sheep, I knew that God’s eye has always been on the sparrow. (Are sparrows black too? I need a pattern of behavior to verify the validation I received from this one picture.)
I was reminded that He always watches me. And because He watches me, I know I can especially watch for others who look like me. As much as Mormons love parables and love taking on the identities of others to validate their religious oppression experiences, they can never claim being a black sheep the way that I can. Not anymore.
Oh don’t worry, I know they’ll still talk about the lost sheep as a sad, pitiful, wrenching experience for THEM “because of someone else’s choices.” But they won’t understand it as God’s choice to create blackness. Not as a good thing. Not as a purposeful “this is how I know my flock is in” thing. No. There will be no acknowledgement.
Just imagine for a moment what is being missed and what has historically been missed, brazenly, in the LDS Church – because we are religiously socialized to see blackness as bad, even when it’s God’s scientific design in one of the most simple and most powerful parables out there.
Imagine that you’re part of that erasure.
Imagine that you’re being erased as the rest of the world watches you get killed and kidnapped, yet blames you because you don’t follow the rules and even if you try to follow the rules, you’re blamed simply because it can’t be anyone else’s fault but your own. Black skin is feared.
There may be no way to win in this world, Black people. This may be “but a small moment” where we have to focus on nothing but the Shepherd – and if you’ve noticed the trend in the scriptures, whenever God says “but a small moment” He means “this is going to suck and take a really long time, but I’ve got your back.”
But still… we are his markers. We are when the flock is complete. We are how he knows all are safely gathered in. And we are not safe, so the flock is not safe. The floak is not in. And maybe all the stuff the flock IS noticing is God’s way to get their attention to truly get gathered in and through our differences. Because until the markers are in, the flock is not.
This I know. And only this I know.
So, to Black members of the Church, hold on. To yourselves, to each other, and to the Shepherd. If you need a break, take one. Then come back or stay away and continue God’s work. Find those of us who see you. I’d say we should go form our own flock, but large numbers of black people in one area don’t seem to bode well in America, so for safety’s sake, stay safe where you are. Stand and be counted. Continue to do God’s work because we are called to be disciples even if we may never become apostles.
Still we stay.
I stayed for an hour after Church ended that day.
I’d missed my friend’s talk on forgiveness in sacrament meeting. “Oh, that’s why you got me up early.” I thought to myself with God in mind. As she held my hand and cried with me and said “LaShawn, I am so, so, sorry for what is happening.” She said she looked for me while she gave her talk and how hard it was to talk about forgiveness, knowing the events of just this one week. I asked about this picture in the book. I asked, “if God sees me and never forgets me, why do the people I call Brother and Sister have such a hard time with my existence when I am divinely created to be different?”
I can only, now, reconcile some of my feelings with a quote shared by a colleague recently. It’s from a French religious philosopher – Jean Luc Marion about God and about Love.
” If love is only said like it is given – one way – and if, moreover, God names himself with the very name of love, we must conclude that God loves like we love. For, in fact, God does not only reveal himself through love and as love; he also reveals himself through the means, the figures, the moments, the acts, and the stages of love, the only love, which we also practice.God loves the same way we do, except for an infinite difference. God loves (and indeed he never ceases to love), he simply loves infinitely better than do we. He loves to perfection, without fault, without error, from beginning to end. He loves first and last. He loves like no one else.In the end, I not only discover that another was loving me before I loved, and thus has already played the loving one before me, but above all I discover that this first loving one, from the very beginning, is named God. God’s highest transcendence, the only one that does not dishonor him, belongs not to power, nor to wisdom, nor to infinity, but to love. For love alone is enough to put all infinity, all wisdom, and all power to work.”
May God love us to perfection. May we see and love each other without fault, without error, from beginning to end. May we be safe places to each other and for each other.
Will we ever hear an apology for the LDS Church’s role in maintaining racism from the pulpit? I’m not holding my breath. I’m simply going to let the Shepherd continue to hold me. #blacklivesmatter