By Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell, Special to the New Tri-State Defender
Two months in, Bishop Ivon Faulkner is certain that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints will flourish in the Mid-South, especially in Memphis.
“I received a revelation from God that our church is the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream,” said Faulkner, now one of two African Americans heading the church’s congregations in Memphis.
“I was called to the decision at our Hickory Hill church (at 4520 Winchester Rd.). Full-time missionaries go door-to-door in twos. Church members are taught to witness anywhere they find themselves – at the grocery store, gas station, waiting in line – just wherever God opens a door. We are now the fastest growing church in the world.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, originally called the Mormon Church, has seven churches planted here in Memphis. It was formed in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who claims to have experienced a visitation of Jesus Christ and God, the Father, as a boy of only 12. Today’s Latter-Day Saints church has more than 16 million members.
The denomination asserts a steady rise in membership numbers throughout the Mid-South, particularly among African Americans. Much of the growth is attributed to outreach to address the needs of the poor, according to Bishop Faulkner.
“I believe that people are looking for something real,” he said.
“Lay ministers or pastors, and service workers, which are the church members, are all volunteers. We are 100 percent, non-paid by the church. So, we are not motivated by money. We are motivated to offer more services in the kingdom of God. There is nothing wrong with wealth. But is should be utilized to better people’s lives, not for leaders to flaunt what they have before those who don’t have.”
Bishop James Singleton, who leads a Frayser church (at 2450 St. Elmo), also believes that misuse of wealth by church leaders in other denominations has spawned rapid growth in Latter-Day Saints membership among African Americans.
“Poor people are just trying to survive. A church leader cannot openly abuse power and money while people are getting around on buses and bicycles,” Singleton said. “We offer assistance to our members in need. And after a while, they begin to see that it’s not the church that is assisting. It is God who gives the help. … If we do things God’s way, He will supply everything we need.”
Bishop Richard Floyd, public affairs representative in the Mid-South region, attributes the accelerated growth in the African-American community to the church’s approach to ministry.
“We have programs to assist in job preparation and placement, creating pathways to college, offering support for addiction, and other forms of assistance to address needs. There are 22,000 members in West Tennessee, Arkansas, and a little sliver of Mississippi. When new members fill out the membership form, there is one question that we don’t ask. And that is ethnicity.
“But depending on what area you are talking about, we are seeing varying degrees of growth among African Americans. When you’re talking about Frayser, 85 percent of new members are African American. If you’re looking at Germantown, it may be 10 or 15 percent.”
People of color are changing the face of the Latter-Day Saints both here and abroad.
“The continent of Africa is the fastest-growing in the world right now,” said Floyd. “We have 2,100 congregations there, and we try to keep membership to about 300. …There are no megachurches in the Latter-Day Saints church.”
Singleton was born in Brownsville, Tenn., and raised in St. Louis. He moved to Memphis in 1999. Faulkner is from Memphis.
It has only been within the last 40 years that an African American could be assigned to lead a congregation. The Proclamation of 1978 abolished discrimination in the church’s higher ranks.
“I read about the prophets, and the Heavenly Father gave me an understanding through the Holy Spirit,” said Faulkner. “My revelations came from God, Himself, who let me know that this was the true church that He ordains and supports. …I never believed in the racial discrimination of black men to the priesthood. God is no respecter of persons. So I knew that was wrong.”
Among the local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is well-known Memphis attorney Dan Norwood, who notes its evolution from its discriminatory past.
“I grew up in Memphis where all white kids were racist because we were raised to believe that blacks were dirty and dumb,” said Norwood. “I found out that was not true when I participated in a summer program at Southwestern College, which is now Rhodes. I met Carl Johnson from Hamilton High School who was over this program. Black kids participated as well. And I will always be grateful to Carl Johnson who gently helped me see that we were wrong. …
“But the church restricted African Americans from holding leadership positions. God knew that this would be a huge problem for me. So this practice was eliminated in 1978.”
Faulkner was led to the church from his Baptist upbringing through a searching of the scriptures for himself in his early 20s.
“I had a relationship with God for myself,” he said. “I prayed for direct revelation from God, and He showed me that this was the true church. People come from all over. They have been a part of many faiths.
“We just try to tell others what we know of God and give our testimony,” Faulkner said. “When people have a certain feeling or impression about our church, I just tell them if they have a relationship with God, ask Him to show them that this is His church.”
Singleton grappled with a contradiction in his Baptist upbringing that was not resolved for him until he joined the Latter-Day Saints.
“My grandmother died when I was around 14, and I remembered her tender love. I began a quest, searching for the true gospel. It was hard to understand how a good and loving God could send people to hell if they were not baptized. I met the woman I would marry, and she was studying with missionaries. I joined her and learned about the baptism for the dead. Then, I knew I had found the true gospel.”
Latter-Day Saints trace their genealogies, and when a related ancestor is discovered, they perform a “baptism for the dead” so that the deceased can get into heaven.
For Faulkner, who has four sons and a daughter, the Latter-Day Saints Church is a family affair.
“Three of my sons have served in full-time missions for two years – in Paris, France, California and Utah. They each sacrificed two years of their life. My children are pioneers in the church. They each have their own testimony of what God has done in their lives.”