The Genesis of Change in the LDS Church | An Interview With Darius Gray
Darius Gray is an author and historian who has had a wide and varied career in television broadcasting, publishing, business management and church leadership.
Raised in a devout Christian home, Gray converted to the LDS faith during the time of the Priesthood ban for black members. His commitment to a church that for years denied him full participation is a story of testimony, hope, courage and perseverance. Working with other pioneering black Mormons and with LDS Apostles, Gray helped found the Genesis Group in Salt Lake City, the church’s official congregational unit for black Latter-day Saints. For many years, he served as its President.
As a historian and genealogist, Darius Gray headed up the massive Freedmen’s Savings and Trust research project, which yielded the records of nearly half a million individuals, mostly African Americans. These names were then made available for temple ordinance work.
Darius sits down with Terryl Givens to tell these and other remarkable stories in this conversation.
Terryl Givens: Hello and welcome to Conversations with Terryl Givens, a videocast
sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation, devoted to exploring the experience of lived Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good. I’m your host and our guest today is my good friend and beautiful human being, Darius Gray. Happy to have you with us today.
Darius Gray: Thank you, my friend.
Terryl Givens: I want to start by asking you to kind of introduce yourself to our audience.
If this isn’t too morbid for you, let’s imagine that someone’s reading your obituary at some day in the distant future. What three things are they likely to include?
Darius Gray: How distant?
Terryl Givens: Oh, long – 25 years from now.
Darius Gray: Good, good. Okay. I thought about that some years ago and I came up with what I would want on my gravestone. It’s kind of hokey.
Terryl Givens: Hokey’s fine.
Darius Gray: To those whom I’ve loved, I love you still. To those who have loved me, thank you. See you soon.
Terryl Givens: That’s lovely. I hope you’ve left directions with somebody.
Darius Gray: I have, but I don’t know that it will be carried out.
Terryl Givens: Well, that’s lovely.
So talk to us a little bit about your rich and varied life. You’re an author,
you’re a frequent lecturer and speaker, you have been a journalist at one
point in your life –
Darius Gray: Yes.
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Terryl Givens: You’ve been a movie celebrity in PBS’s documentary The Mormons.
Darius Gray: Yeah, but I’ve repented of all of that.
No, I grew up in Colorado Springs, CO and Colorado Springs was a small
town back then; just a tourist town in the summer. Two parents in the
home and it was really an ideal childhood. I had one birth sister and then a
cousin who had been raised as a sister. She was out and gone, really,
before I came along, but it was good. Raised in the church and a Christian
My mom was a member of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal
faith, and Dad attended the AME: African Methodist Episcopal. Dad only
went to church one Sunday a year, on Father’s Day. He died when I was
young and I never got to ask why only one Sunday.
Terryl Givens: As far as you remember, was there harmony in the home about religious
Darius Gray: Well, there was harmony enough that both parents saw that we went to
church every Sunday; to Sunday school and with Mom to church in the
afternoon and the evening.
Dad and Mom both insisted on that. There was a white church – I think at
one point it was held by the Baptists, other times by Presbyterians – but
that was just a block away and we went there for vacation Bible school
I had a broad Christian upbringing and I’m very, very grateful for that.
Terryl Givens: So tell me about some of the values that you learned in your family.
Darius Gray: The Christian values as we understood them then and hopefully we still
do. Honesty and loving God. Early on, I knew that there was a distinction
between God the Father and Jesus the Christ. I don’t know where that
came from, but it was always there.
The values were those consistent with the scriptures. I was gifted a Bible
by my parents when I think I was 7 or so. I still have that Bible and it’s
marked – that was the days before highlighters, so I used pencils.
Those were the values, but the personal values – we were taught as blacks
in a white community to conduct ourselves in a certain manner and
always, whenever we were out. I remember our parents wouldn’t allow us
in the front yard if we were unkempt; if we didn’t have on clean clothes
and our hair combed.
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We learned simple lessons. I remember one weekend, Dad was working,
trying to dig a fence hole for the fence that adjoined the house to our
south. He had a spade shovel and he was having difficulty. As I watched, I
knew that the owner of the property to the south had a fence post shovel –
I had seen him use it. I went to my dad and I said, “Dad, why don’t you
ask Frank if you can use that shovel?” That was a learning experience.
Dad stopped what he was doing, came over to the driveway, knelt down to
my level, and said, “Son, you don’t borrow from anyone. If you need to
dig a hole and you don’t have a shovel, you take an empty tin can and you
dig it that way.”
That’s one of those hard core lessons that I learned. Again, Dad died when
I was quite young, but that one stuck.
Terryl Givens: Happy childhood?
Darius Gray: Very. My Mom and I were very close. My dad and my sisters were close. I
had a very happy childhood. I couldn’t think of anything better except for
Dad not having died early.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Darius Gray: He and I were just starting to form a relationship.
Terryl Givens: How old were you?
Darius Gray: 10, almost 11. We’d gone fishing together a few times and we’d gone
hunting a few times. We were just starting to have that father-son bond.
Terryl Givens: Did you take to religion? Was it something that you willingly accepted or
was it a struggle getting you to Sunday school?
Darius Gray: I took to it like a fish to water.
Terryl Givens: From the very beginning?
Darius Gray: From the very beginning. I think there might be a reason for that and this
is a stretch, so forgive me – my mom had had several miscarriages before
she was pregnant with me. She was having difficulty with that pregnancy,
so she called the mothers of the church, the older black women of the
They came and anointed my mother’s belly with consecrated oil and gave
her a blessing, and dedicated me back to God before I was born.
Terryl Givens: Wow.
Darius Gray: I think hearing that story sort of set me up to go to it very naturally.
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Terryl Givens: Right. So you were satisfied with your religion; you were happy.
Darius Gray: I was happy, but I always felt that there was something more. I remember
taking a course in Comparative Religions of some sort in high school, and
looking at world religions and wondering which one was the true faith. I
did some studying back then in high school and visited different churches
– the Roman Catholic church, as an example – and yet I never found that
which just said, “Yes, this is it.” Frankly, I had given up that search until I
met this Mormon family that made the difference in my life.
I was happy, but I just knew there was something more.
Terryl Givens: So tell us, if you would, about that encounter with that Mormon family.
Darius Gray: It was probably about June of 1964. I had been out of school, gone to the
West Coast, and was staying with my older sister. I went back to Colorado
and Mom said, “There’s a new family in the neighborhood.” She said,
“They’re a white family but they seem awful nice. They’ve got a whole
slew of kids.”
Mom said that the two youngest children came over often and just
conversed with her. The next day, I was walking around the block with my
friend Butch and as we passed in front of that home, the kids were out in
the yard playing and they saw us come by.
This is something that has stuck: they came running, threw open the gate,
and they called me by name because they had talked to my mom and knew
I was coming home. They said, “We’re the Felixes. We’re Mormon, you
know.” It was seriously just that way. My comment to them was, “The
hell, you say,” because I thought of Mormons like Quakers and
Mennonites – and we had Quakers and Mennonites there in Colorado
Springs, and I was accustomed to a certain style of dress and demeanor.
Then here were these kids in summer togs, just having a ball – it didn’t
seem to fit.
I met the parents, John and Barbara Felix, and their home was the kind of
home you gravitate to. I don’t want to put a label on, but in their form of
living the gospel of Christ, having a cup of coffee wasn’t a sin – so they’d
invite you in for a cup of coffee and just be easygoing, accepting, and
That was the trick. They offered me a copy of the Book of Mormon – I
didn’t want it, but they gave it to me anyway. They started asking
questions from that book. I hadn’t read it. I felt foolish, so I started reading
and had questions. They answered what they could, then had me meet with
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About six months after I met the family, I was baptized.
Terryl Givens: How did your mother feel about that?
Darius Gray: Mom was not amused. I think the missionaries only gave one of the
lessons in my mother’s home – it might have been two, but I think it was
just the first lesson. Mom was in her room listening and hadn’t come out,
but after the missionaries left, she called me in and she said, “I don’t want
those two young men back here.” I asked, “Why not?” and she did the
black mother thing: “This is my house and I don’t want them here. Is that
clear?” “Yes, ma’am.”
Later I found out that before we kids came along, two young men had
come to the house and wanted to talk about religion. She invited them in
and shortly after that, one of them said, “Excuse me; this is great,” and I
think he said, “but are you Negro or do you have Negro blood?” because
my mom was a blend with Native American and they weren’t sure what
they were seeing.
When my mom said, “Yes, of course,” they got up and made a hasty exit.
Well, they had been members and missionaries from the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mom saw that church as racist and she didn’t
want me to be a part of that.
Terryl Givens: Now probably, I’m guessing, the question that you’ve been asked more
times than any other question: how did you deal with that? Why was it not
an obstacle to you?
Darius Gray: In those six months, it never came up. I didn’t know. It was honestly the
night before my scheduled baptism that I found out. Baptism was set for
Saturday, December 26 th : Christmas day evening.
I met with the missionaries at their apartment – which I don’t think is
standard procedure – but I had what I call “the exit interview.” As they
were asking their questions, they said, “Brother Gray, do you have any
questions?” I had raised that question earlier on because reading the Book
of Mormon, talking about the Lamanites and the Nephites and the
Lamanites at times being out of favor with God, and having a dark skin, I
wondered, “How does that relate to me?”
So when they asked if I had any questions, I raised that question again that
night. We three were seated on a single sofa – sort of edging out to see
each another – and one of the two missionaries got up and left, and walked
over to the corner. It turns out it was the senior companion who was left
there. His comment was, “Well, Brother Gray, the primary implication is
that you won’t be able to hold the priesthood.”
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He went on to say more but I did not hear anything more after that. My
impression was that I had been duped. My mom’s concerns that she had
voiced earlier were valid. I sat there and I listened and I thought, “There’s
no way in hell I’m going to be baptized tomorrow.”
I went home. I couldn’t tell Mom because I knew how she felt. I didn’t
know how the Felix family really felt. Had they been a part of this,
knowing that I was seen as cursed because of my race? So even though
they were three doors away, I didn’t feel like I could go there. So I entered
into prayer. After closing that prayer, I just tossed and turned in bed, then
entered into prayer a second time.
The truth is I received personal revelation. I did not see angelic beings; I
did not see God the Father or the Savior; but I heard – I heard – “This is
the restored gospel and you are to join.” There was no mention of the
priesthood restriction – whether it was of God or of man or whatever –
just, “This is the restored gospel.”
Based on that and based on my Christian upbringing – and when you hear
that voice, that voice of Deity, it’s not the burning of the bosom – you
have a very clear choice. So the next day, I was baptized.
Terryl Givens: How many years after that was Genesis was formed?
Darius Gray: That was in ’64 and Genesis was established October 19 th , 1971.
Terryl Givens: So a few years. What were your first years in the Church like?
Darius Gray: Lonely. You know, you say that and I remember the ward building out in
Broadmoor and whatever the youth functions were for the young folk. I
was there on this given evening – whether it was Friday or Saturday; I
don’t even remember – and everyone was then going to leave the church
and go to a pizza parlor. They started to pair off, boy-girl.
All of the sudden, I looked over at the one remaining girl – white – and I
could see that headache: “Oh, gee.” It was that sort of thing; just feeling
on the outside of everything: not invited to go to Priesthood at church. Just
really, really being on the outside.
Later, when I was at university at the University of Utah, I was in a
student ward, sitting on the aisle, the sacrament being passed. I partook of
the sacrament and reached for the handle of the tray, and the brother pulled
back the tray and reached around me to the next person. He didn’t even
want my hands to touch the tray.
So, they were lonely.
Terryl Givens: Did you ever second-guess your decision to be baptized?
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Darius Gray: No. Couldn’t. Again, that voice – the strength of that has carried me
through. Whatever else has happened – and there has been the good, the
bad, and the in-between – it’s all been based on that one experience on the
evening of December 25 th , Christmas day, 1964.
Terryl Givens: Now, I like to quote a passage from Wordsworth as a way of thinking
about our lives. He reminisced once, “There are in our existence spots of
time, that with distinct pre-eminence retain a renovating virtue.”
You’ve talked about a pretty powerful experience that you had on that
occasion. Were there other experiences – moments – that stand out in your
life as formative, transformative, pivotal?
Darius Gray: (Holds up six fingers)
Terryl Givens: Six of them?
Darius Gray: Total.
Terryl Givens: Great. Let’s go through them.
Darius Gray: No. (Laughs)
Terryl Givens: No? No other ones you’d like to share?
Darius Gray: I feel uncomfortable doing so because I’m not someone who’s walking
around having visions or that sort of thing, but in the course of 52 years –
the length of my membership – I’ve been blessed to have those six
experiences and then the strongest is that first one.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Darius Gray: Everything has been consistent with that, but you know, there are those
points and they help you along. They’ve helped me along. They have
come for me when I’ve not sought them; there they are. You recognize it
and it’s manna from heaven; the grace of God giving you something more
that you benefit by knowing in more ways than you realize at the moment.
So you know, there have been those.
Terryl Givens: You’ve worked throughout your years in the Church from a position of
some disadvantage, underappreciation, and yet you’ve been a remarkable
change agent in many ways. Can you talk a little bit about your
experiences in the Genesis Group? Maybe explain a little bit about what
that is for those who don’t know.
Darius Gray: In 1971, there were three black male converts to the Church. There was
Ruffin Bridgeforth, native of Louisiana, who had come to Utah I think in
the late ’40s, early ’50s to work in the industries in Clearfield. He joined
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the Church after his wife did. His wife was of Hispanic origin. Brother
Bridgeforth joined in 1953, 11 years before I did.
Gene Orr, a young man from Florida, came to Utah in ’68 to work in Job
Corps. We three got together. It was up at the University of Utah; Gene
worked in the copy center at the Marriott Library and on his lunch hour,
we met. We’d talked before and we were concerned because where were
those descendants of the early black pioneers? We knew of those black
pioneers – we didn’t have the information that’s available now – but we
knew of them; we knew of some of the families. Where were those
Terryl Givens: I’m just going to interrupt to say that you went on to write a remarkable
series of books about some of those early pioneers: Elijah Abel, Jane
Manning James –
Darius Gray: Jane Manning James and a number of others, and co-authored that with
my friend and partner, Margaret Young.
Terryl Givens: Beautiful series.
Darius Gray: Thank you, thank you. But where were their descendants? Where were the
black recent converts to the Church? So with those issues having been
brought up in other discussions, we met that evening or day at the library.
We went into a little classroom and I remember there were those orange
plastic chairs that you find in every lunchroom or classroom, and we knelt
beside a chair and we asked God to guide us in what we ought to do to
address these issues of the missing black Latter-day Saints.
After that, we felt led to approach the senior brethren of the Church.
Joseph Fielding Smith was presiding at that time – that flaming Liberal
(laughs) – and it’s interesting; there were steps that took place, but it
happened very quickly.
President Smith assigned three junior apostles to meet with us – not a
member of the Seventy; not a member of the Twelve, but three members
of the Twelve. We had a series of meetings talking about the issues –
Terryl Givens: Was that a more receptive response than you hoped for at the time?
Darius Gray: Yes, frankly. Who could have thought that three apostles would really be
willing to sit down and talk with three black guys? The tone at the time
was such. The meetings went well; some of them were a little bit
Ruffin was the stage man – he had been around and he had a calming way
about him. Gene was the fiery young man who was pushing. I see myself
as the guy who was watching. I remember one of the meetings did not end
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in prayer where the others did, but it had been heated enough. Gene
continued to push – “Why do blacks not have the priesthood? Why can’t
blacks have the priesthood?”
Terryl Givens: So the conversations were mostly of a doctrinal or a theological nature,
trying to understand and get a basis for the doctrine?
Darius Gray: Not fully, but obviously that had to be an element of it. You know, if we
are asking where the individuals are that are out there and can we find
them and bring them back – well, what are the stumbling blocks to their
coming back? What were the stumbling blocks that caused them to leave?
Obviously, those issues of doctrine and attitude came up.
Long story short, I received a phone call on an afternoon asking if I could
be at the office of the senior apostle of the three. I thought, “Geez, I
wonder if the other two – Gene and Ruffin – had been called?” I had no
clue what was going on. I found the answer about whether they had been
contacted because there they were in the parking lot at the same time.
“Do you know what’s going on?” “No,” and “Do you know what’s going
on?” “No.” Well, one of us knew, and that was Ruffin. He had been
contacted previously. The three apostles then were Gordon B. Hinckley,
Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer. So here we were in the office of
Elder Hinckley and he told us – and this language, again, is one of those
things you remember – “After prayer and consideration, the First
Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have felt led to establish a
support group for blacks.”
We three had been called to serve in its leadership. Ruffin had been called
to be president. He had accepted that call. He had nominated me to be first
counselor and Gene his second counselor.
Terryl Givens: How’d you feel about that? For you, did that signify a success?
Darius Gray: Yes. It was a surprise. We hadn’t thought about anything like that – an
organization. Maybe Gene had, but I don’t think Ruffin or I had. It was to
be established as a depend branch – dependent because we didn’t have
priesthood. We were in the old Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City and yet we
were to report more directly to those three brethren.
So here we were, a branch presidency without priesthood, and yet in the
conversations, it was said that we would have all of the rights and
authorities necessary to get the job done.
Our first assignment was to come up with a name. We thought, “It’s a
beginning,” so we gave it that name: Genesis. It was organized on October
19 th , 1971, with those three apostles presiding. We were established as a
branch presidency – and that’s where I was – but as soon as that hit the
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newspaper, there were all sorts of questions from lay members around. “A
presidency of black men? Are you giving Negroes priesthood?”
So instead of being called a dependent branch after that, it was called a
group, the Genesis Group – but we were presidents, branch presidents, in
the Genesis Group. It was interesting.
Terryl Givens: Let me ask you a question: during these years, did you have any
expectation – spiritual intimations or confidence – that the day would
come when that ban would be lifted?
Darius Gray: None.
The reading that was available and the material were so sparse. It didn’t
tell you a lot about those black pioneers or the history of them. You would
find writings of certain individuals that were quite negative. We would
share that with one another and my sense was, “This won’t get resolved
until the Second Coming.”
Terryl Givens: You know, we all remember where we were when Kennedy was
assassinated. Most Mormons remember where they were when the
revelation was announced. I was in the best place on planet Earth to be, I
think – I was in a Brazilian mission, just finishing up my mission. I don’t
think it mattered to any group of people anywhere in the world more than
it mattered to those Brazilian Saints because of their history of
Darius Gray: And working on the new temple.
Terryl Givens: That’s right. In fact, I had been at the cornerstone ceremony with President
Kimball just a few months previous. We were teaching families whom this
I don’t know what the Second Coming is going to be like, but let me tell
you that that evening in the stake president’s home was as near a
similitude as I can imagine.
Tell me what it was like for you.
Darius Gray: We have just passed the 39 th year as of this moment – June 8 th , 1978 – and
here we are in June whatever in 2017. 39 years and I still start to tear up
thinking about it.
I won’t go through the long version, but I was at work – it was Ottobock
Paper Company – and another employee stuck her head in and said that
they were going to give the negroes the priesthood. I became upset
because she persisted in saying that to me. That was unlikely, number one,
and it was in poor taste to say that.
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Long story short, I turned on the television in my office radio thinking
something of that weight would be on the media and there wasn’t anything
– so I did what seemed to me to be logical: I picked up the phone and
called President Kimball.
Terryl Givens: Did you get through?
Darius Gray: I talked to the secretary and they knew me. I had worked at KSL –
Church-owned KSL – and I had covered the Brethren repeatedly over the
years, so yeah – they knew me, I knew them.
It was confirmed. President Kimball had returned back to the temple, his
secretary said, and it was confirmed that indeed, yes. The thing I wanted at
that point most to do was to go greet a friend of mine, Heber Wolsey – I
don’t know if you knew Brother Wolsey. At one point, he was over Public
Relations at BYU, then he was head of Public Affairs, as we refer to it
He was head of that and Heber and I had been on Church assignments
together at the request of the Brethren, and I wanted to share that moment
with Heber Wolsey. I went over to the office in the tower at the Church
Office Building and Heber and I looked out his office window, which
overlooked the Salt Lake Temple, and we wept.
The world had changed in a way that I didn’t know if others realized, but
it was not only from that point forward in time, but it would reach back in
time. Those blacks who had been identified in census records as the
Church was doing proxy work – those blacks did not have their work
done. Their names had been put in a basket off to the side.
Terryl Givens: It’s not often that the present can reshape the past.
Darius Gray: It changed the past, the present, and the future. It was a glorious moment.
Terryl Givens: A lot of progress has been made since then –
Darius Gray: Yes.
Terryl Givens: – a lot of progress still to be made.
Darius Gray: Absolutely, and I’m happy to say that the brethren are aware of that – the
need for increased efforts. I’m not so sure that this element – this path
forward – is going to be any easier. In fact, it may be more difficult,
because what we’re really talking about at this point is trying to heal
hearts and change attitudes.
Terryl Givens: Right.
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Well, let me say something at this point: I didn’t invite you on because
you’re African American or because you’re one of the founders of
Genesis. I invited you on because I think you’re a great example of
I want you to talk to us a little bit about what you’ve learned; what these
experiences and others have taught you about what it means to be a
Darius Gray: I’m proud to say I am attempting to be a disciple every day. Maybe the
emphasis should be on attempting. There is nothing that affects my life
more than my faith, my belief. I’m not a Sunday, go to a meeting
Christian, then the rest of the week, a hellion. No. My faith directs how I
treat others everywhere – not how I see others, but just treat them; how I
see them in relationship to me.
You are my brother. Others that I meet are my brothers or sisters. We may
not see things the same way, but I know who you are and I know that we
are here for a purpose, and I have a sense of what that purpose is – and
that is to help one another and not to be angry with, contend with, or have
hatred for one another. No, but to help one another get back to Father.
So if that’s a part of discipleship, yes; I work at that. I am not a daily
scripture study person, but I get deeply into the scriptures – and I do that
more often than I really think about, come to give it a little thought now. I
was doing that last night; I was doing that this morning. It’s patching it all
together for me – my scripture study is patching the purpose of this
existence together for me.
I feel that we all have a responsibility to one another. We have the
commandment from Jesus – the first two commandments: to love the Lord
thy God, then the second one is to love thy neighbor as thyself. I was
sitting in a sacrament meeting a while back – and because I don’t hear
well, sometimes sacrament meetings are a little boring. I was doing a
private scripture chase and I came across those commandments. My
thought was, “Is God so shallow that He needs us to love Him?”
As I explored that, the answer is no. Well, then why do we have that as the
first commandment? I thought, “Let me go now to the second
commandment to love my neighbor as myself,” and how that is spoken of
in the gospels, in the complete gospels. As I explored that, I came back to
the first one. I really believe that God wants us to love Him enough to trust
Him and what He says. If we trust what He says, then how we treat one
another; that I should truly love my brother and sister and see them as
such, and do all that I can to help them and not put stumbling blocks in
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It all weaves together for me.
Terryl Givens: You know, Jesus referred to the challenge to “take up our cross” and
follow Him. For some people, life is largely about carrying the burdens
that they have and just enduring. For some, they experience what we read
about in Mosiah, right? “The blessed and happy state,” – those keeping the
You’ve experienced a tremendous amount of pain, loneliness, and
alienation, as you described it. Have you also felt, at the same time, a
compensating kind of belonging and community?
Darius Gray: Absolutely – and it’s the greater part. It’s the more important part to focus
on. The pains come and go, but the joy sort of lingers.
I think Father gives us the experiences, positive and negative, to help us
grow. I think that is so we can have the compassion in our souls and our
bowels to be moved to care about one another the way He and the Savior
care about each one of us.
When we talk about sin, is there some immutable law in the universe that
says, “You stole something and now the laws of the universe are no longer
enforced.” No. Then why is it important that we not steal and commit all
those other sins that we talk about?
I think it really comes down to this: when you sin that way, you are
harming someone else. You’re taking something from someone else. If it’s
adultery, fornication – you’re taking something from someone else. If the
goal is to love and care for one another as much as Father and the Savior
love us, then we shouldn’t “sin.” We should do those things – have the
behavior – that are helpful, not harmful.
In that, there is joy.
Terryl Givens: Are we getting to a point – or will we ever get to a point – where an
organization like Genesis isn’t necessary?
Darius Gray: I hope so.
Terryl Givens: But we’re not there yet?
Darius Gray: No, not even close.
It was in the early 1990’s that I noticed a resurgence of racial tensions
growing in this country, and also, therefore, in the Church. Here we are
this many years later and it has only increased.
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I’ve read the studies from Pew Research Group and it’s sad to see where
we are. We have vitriolic language in our politic and our political speech;
we are taking up armies and having camps one against another. At times
that involves race; at other times, it’s maybe ethnicities, religion, how
much wealth someone has, how much poverty.
We are not who we ought to be. We are not who we claim as Christians to
be. We are not behaving as we ought to – so, you know, there’s a lot of
work to be done.
At times, I guess, life is a step forward and a step back, and we’ve taken
several steps back. It’s going to be a chore to step forward because there
are a lot of forces marshalled against everyone to do that. We’re all dug in
with our heels into a particular viewpoint and seldom, if ever, does it have
anything to do with the message of Christ.
Terryl Givens: You talk about Christ more often than is sometimes the case with Latter-
day Saints –
Darius Gray: Mm-hmm.
Terryl Givens: – who often find their rhetoric infused with Joseph Smith, gold plates, and
the Book of Mormon. Do you think that was your religious upbringing?
Darius Gray: Absolutely, and I’m very grateful for that.
Terryl Givens: So that laid a foundation that the Church just built upon?
Darius Gray: Absolutely. I don’t know a time – and I’ve thought about it – in my
existence when I did not know that God existed and Jesus, as a separate
entity, was there as my Savior.
So I mention both. They’re very real.
Terryl Givens: Yeah. It’s occurred to my wife and me – we just finished up a little project
looking at the Mormon Christ – that we know priesthood restoration was
important, temple work is important; we know the Plan of Salvation – but
those are all appendages, Joseph Smith said. The great central truth is the
Atonement of Jesus Christ.
It occurred to us that if the Restoration doesn’t have something new to say
about the Christ, then the Restoration wasn’t complete or necessary – so
we’ve tried to examine, “What really are we teaching about the Savior that
is different?” I think we are, but I think sometimes it’s hard to sift through
our kind of Protestant inheritance –
Darius Gray: That’s what I was about to ask you. May I ask you a question?
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Terryl Givens: Yes.
Darius Gray: What do you see as the distinction between Latter-day Saints and the
restored gospel and our Protestant brothers and sisters and how they see
the Atonement? Is there a distinction?
Terryl Givens: I would like to think there is, and I’ll tell you some of the distinctions that
When Jesus healed people in the New Testament – the Greek word for that
is “sozo”; He healed the blind, the lame, and those with issues of blood –
it’s the same word that is translated in other places as “Savior.” So it
seems to us that we could, with equal validity, translate that expression as
“Jesus Christ: Healer of the World.”
One reason why I think that’s a particularly beautiful way to think about
the Savior is that Protestants revisiting Saint Augustine came to emphasize
depravity and sin, and that’s central to their understanding of the human
condition. “Jesus saves us; rescues us from this sin that we all inherit
Darius Gray: Are we not in that same mode now within the LDS Church?
Terryl Givens: I think we are, but as Joseph Smith said, “We don’t need to blame Satan;
we seem to be pretty capable of most of the sin ourselves.”
Darius Gray: But in terms of our mindset, how we approach even the Atonement?
Terryl Givens: What I think is that Mormonism has a much more optimistic view of
human origins, human nature, and human potential. So the way I see it,
and the way Fiona sees is, is that sin is often a consequence of social
conditioning, genetic inheritance; of our weak human corporeal nature.
When Joseph Smith translated 1 Nephi 13 in the first 1830 edition, there’s
a passage in 1 Nephi 13 where he says, “Because of the plain and precious
things that have been taken from the scriptures, we are in a wounded
condition.” We are wounded. Our spirits are hurting; we’re in pain – and
Christ comes to heal that.
Now I think sin is real. I think we’re fully capable of sin. But I think if we
think of Christ more often as the one who comes to heal us – to restore us
to healthy relationships, to restore us to our proper relationship with our
Father – I think that’s a more beautiful way of thinking about our
Darius Gray: And what does that entail to restore us to a more proper relationship to our
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Terryl Givens: I think first of all, we have to understand the true nature of our Father. I
think that’s also one of the great gifts of the Restoration. The Protestant
creeds all refer to a God without body parts or passion: He’s not capable of
feeling human pain and human suffering; He’s ineffable. I think to
understand Him in terms of an actual kindred likeness – that we are of His
species that alienate from Him by the choices we make, the conditions or
our mortality – and that Christ restores us to a premortal condition of
community with Him, but greatly enhanced –
Darius Gray: Let me offer something.
Terryl Givens: Okay.
Darius Gray: I see things somewhat differently. I think the price has already been paid
for you and me with the sacrifice that the Savior gave, and it was a pre-pay
– like on a prepaid phone, like on a card or something. Therefore, the
purpose of this life is to indeed become closer to the Father by doing that
which He has done – which is what His only begotten Son has done – by
learning to have that love, that compassion. The Earth experience is for us
to have that experience; therefore, the sin that we do commit – and it is
real – is that we are doing those things that are opposed to bringing joy to
If the purpose is that men can have joy – I don’t know if I’m explaining
this well; I’m sure I’m not explaining it well – but to me, it comes back to
the fact that Satan’s plan would not have had a sacrifice. Everything would
have been settled because there would have been no agency: “Do it my
way, you’re home free.”
He wasn’t willing to suffer as Christ was willing to suffer. He wasn’t
willing to pay a price; He just wanted the glory, and that was
If there was no price to be paid, there would have been no crucifixion; and
with no crucifixion, there would have not been the morning of the
Resurrection. Christ was willing to go through all of that so that we didn’t
have to, but we are not this demeaned creation of God that is seeking and
scrambling for a return to our Father. It’s there as a gift – a free gift – if we
will accept it.
But the key, in my perspective, is how we live; how we approach one
Terryl Givens: I don’t think you’re saying anything I disagree with. I think we’re
describing the same thing; maybe coming at it slightly differently.
Darius Gray: Okay. I’m not doing it nearly as well as you; forgive me.
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Terryl Givens: I love the fact that the New Testament and the Book of Mormon alike
always use the language of “drawing” – that Christ “draws” us to Him
through His act of love; through his sacrifice. There’s no compulsion;
there’s no coercion.
As you said earlier, it’s not about a God demanding obedience or
reverence; it’s about a God who realizes that by living in the way that
Christ taught, we will enrich our relationships to each other and to Him.
So I think that the power of the Atonement is largely affected through that:
the power and the immensity of that sacrifice before which we are in awe
and are drawn to Him.
Darius Gray: And it seems so all-encompassing. For those who have gone to their
reward without even hearing the name of Christ, having had an
opportunity – we believe they’re being taught; not forced, not coerced, but
taught. They have an opportunity to accept – but scripture says that
ultimately, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.
I think that all that really is saying is that we will acknowledge that Christ
paid the price.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Darius Gray: We will accept the gift that He has had out there for us all along and in so
doing, we become whole again – not through any measure of our own
doing, but through that priceless gift that He’s offered.
Terryl Givens: Right.
I know that it was just a few years ago in Conference that one of the
brethren mentioned that He recognized that Christ and the Atonement had
not been at the center of our discourse, our language, to the extent that it
should have been, reflecting an inspired gospel that puts Christ at the
center – so I think there are indications that that shift has begun in good
and healthy ways.
Darius Gray: I think you’re right. But, you know, there’s a little bit of pushback on that
from elements within the black community, interestingly. I have heard
more than a few times black members who have been “wounded” – safe
word – and troubled by attitudes of their white brothers and sisters. So
often, they’ve been told, “Just concentrate on the Atonement,” with no
answering, no addressing of the issue and the individuals and what was
said, but, “Just concentrate on the Atonement.”
There’s some resistance to that… “Wait, I didn’t cause the problem. I’m
not the one who needs the Atonement in this case, and yet that’s what
you’re throwing in my face – that I should just rely on that. Well, am I
worthy of having to go and seek restitution from God or make restitution
Page 18 of 22
from God for having done something?” If, when we speak of the
Atonement, are we doing it to hinder conversation about something that is
occurring that needs to be spoken to? Then that’s not a positive thing.
Terryl Givens: That’s right.
Let me ask you about another project that you were engaged in some years
ago: the Freedman Bank project. Not enough people in the Church are
familiar with that project, and I think there’s a great story behind it. Could
you talk about that?
Darius Gray: A great woman, Marie Taylor, genealogist with all of the degrees and
certifications, she worked at the time at the Family History Library and
she was the resident expert on African-American Family History and
genealogy. Marie was a friend – is a friend – and she’s since retired.
She called me one day, just full of excitement. She had discovered that a
set of the microfilm records from the Freedman Bank were there at the
Family History Library. So what does that mean? At the end of the
American Civil War, an institution was established by an act of Congress –
the Freedman Bank – where the now freed slaves who would be receiving
pay, likely for the first time in their lives, would have a place to put their
money and to have it safeguarded.
There were – I can’t remember now – I think 30-some branches and 20-
some stakes, most in the South and in the Southeast. The bank existed for
a nine-year period, from 1865 – 1874 when they went belly-up. All of the
directors of the bank were white and the charter initially said, “This is
savings with no loan,” and the monies were to be put in safe treasury notes
and those sorts of things to safeguard this hard-earned money.
Yet at a point in the middle of that nine-year period, there was quite an
economic depression and the director saw fit to lend others – not the black
depositors, but others – money, and it went belly-up; but it became a
repository for great information.
For the individual opening the account, he or she had to fill out a form –
typically a one-page form – and you would see things like, “Name of
Master; Name of Mistress; Name of plantation on which last served;
Description of the applicant – their name, age, spouse, children; and later,
military service, occupation.” You had a genealogy goldmine in those one-
page application forms.
That was necessary because no one had a driver’s license or a social
security card back then. When the applicant went to the bank to retrieve
his or her money or to add to their account, they needed to be able to
identify themselves. With that application, they could be asked specific
questions that would say, “Yeah, I’m me.”
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But now here we were with that information having been microfilmed –
and that’s what Marie Taylor had discovered – and yet it was in a format
that made it very, very difficult to research. Short answer: it was
hodgepodge, and it needed to be digitized – so she and I tried several was
to do it, and the final answer was that we invited men at the Utah State
Penitentiary to work on digitizing; to go through those microfilm records.
It was an 11-year process and more than 550 inmates worked on that
project over those 11 years. I took a count once, and it involved 484,083
uniquely identified individuals – not all black; some white people in the
community who worked at the bank, and others who wanted to have a safe
place to put their money. 484, 083. Each soul matters.
Well, they lost their money – the vast majority of it – and some received
pennies on the dollar; some nothing. We were able then, with that
information being digitized, to send that to the family file in every temple
in the United States and in South Africa, and do the work for many
thousands of individuals.
Terryl Givens: And those records are all now part of the Church’s genealogy database?
Darius Gray: Yes. We donated that to the Church, Marie and I did. We were happy to be
the co-directors of that project, but we didn’t have the means to get it out.
We turned that over to the Church and they made it available for less than
$5.00 on a CD so that any individual can go grab that and do work.
Terryl Givens: Almost half a million names.
Darius Gray: Mm-hmm.
Terryl Givens: That’s fantastic.
So what have I missed? What other projects and schemes have you been
involved in or what are you working on now?
Darius Gray: I’m working on being a better disciple and I’m working on that which God
has put in my heart – again, working on trying to do better than I’ve done
here in speaking to what it really means, from my perspective, to be a
Christian; what it really means to be a Latter-day Saint Christian – what
are our end goals, what are our responsibilities?
That is really where I am. I’m troubled; I’m concerned by the negativity
that I see in our world – not just in our country, but in our world and the
fever pitch that’s there. I’m trying to see what can be done – what can I do
– to maybe remove some of that heat, that fever. I don’t know.
Terryl Givens: Let me end with one last question. Krister Stendahl was a dean at Harvard
Divinity School and he spoke of the concept of “holy envy.” He said that
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we should cultivate a holy envy of other faiths and their practices and
So if you had to choose one practice or characteristic of another faith
tradition that you think we would do well to better emulate or adopt, what
would that be?
Darius Gray: Inclusion. A non-Christian faith comes to mind: the Baha’i faith. I was
introduced to the Baha’is when I was an undergrad student at BYU in ’65
– ’66. Here were individuals from various parts of the world – different
ethnicities, races, languages, cultures – and yet they, within their faith,
were taught to embrace one another: to find joy in the diversity that each
brought. It added to the whole; it didn’t subtract in any way.
I would love to see us as the restored gospel – those in the Mormon
tradition of Christianity – embrace that concept. In a sense, we do it when
we go out on missions, but sometimes when we come home, we forget the
love that we had for those we met on our missions. We see sometimes
people as “the other,” rather than seeing them as our brother or our sister.
That acceptance – we need to accept cultural diversity.
There’s a distinction between the culture in the LDS Church and the
restored gospel. The restored gospel is constant. Culture changes; it’s
changed since the pioneer period in Utah. We need to make room for
different cultural inputs. I miss those songs that I grew up singing in the
black church. I miss the joy, the energy of those songs – not to speak ill of
our hymnal; it just doesn’t work for me.
I had stake conference this weekend and I came away thinking after
hearing the messages presented on Saturday evening, “We needed to have
more joy in our message,” because there wasn’t any joy there. That can
come from a different cultural perspective.
Terryl Givens: Right.
Darius Gray: So that’s what I’d love to see come in to the faith.
Terryl Givens: Darius, thank you for your example and your words that have inspired us
to a more joyful and Christ-centered discipleship.
Darius Gray: Thank you and I’ll just leave it at that.
Terryl Givens: It’s been wonderful to have you with us. Thank you.