A search on Mormonwiki will tell you that Cathy Stokes is a retired deputy director in public health and a community volunteer. Born in Mississippi into stark poverty, she moved north as a young child with her great-aunt and her husband who raised her as their daughter.
In the north, she had the privilege of going to school. She earned a BS in nursing at DePaul University and had a long, successful career in the Illinois Public Health Department. At the time of her retirement, she was a deputy director for the Illinois Department of Health. She served as vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Chicago Inner City Youth Charitable Foundation for 16 years. She moved to Utah in 2006 after her retirement. In Salt Lake City, Cathy was a member of the Utah AIDS Foundation board of trustees. She was named as a member of the new Editorial Advisory Board for the Deseret News. She is a member of the Utah chapter of the African-American Genealogy and Historical Society. She greets and directs patients at the Huntsman Center Hospital one day a week. She serves on the board of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
Cathy first heard about the Mormon Church while attending a business conference in Hawaii in the late 1970’s. After months of study and prayer in Chicago, she was baptized. In Chicago’s Hyde Park Ward she served as Relief Society President, Young Women’s President and served on the regional Chicago public affairs council for the Church.
What Mormonwiki can’t possibly know is that she cooks the tastiest barbecued ribs in the world. It also doesn’t tell you that it is always love at first sight when Cathy and babies meet. It also doesn’t quite capture the spunk and sass of this 81-year-old “do-gooder” in the very best possible sense of the word.
Cathy’s perspective as a dynamic Mormon woman, a straight-talking builder of faith and an African-American convert who candidly shares her joys and trials makes her a sought-after speaker throughout the Church.
One of the topics she often addresses is the scriptural call for us to be “repairers of the breach.” Racial tensions abound in the US and have their own manifestations in the Church. God’s call to us is this:
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?… And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. Isaiah 58:6, 12
Join us for a conversation with Cathy Stokes
Segullah: This year we celebrated the 39th anniversary of the lifting of the Priesthood and Temple Ban which prohibited people with African lineage from receiving the priesthood and the blessings of the temple. Have things improved since you joined the Church in 1979?
Cathy: There remains an awkwardness in the Church regarding race relations. Wherever there’s awkwardness it has to be dealt with. Conversation will help to do that. Offense may result. When there is an offense we need to do what we’re told in Matthew 5:23-24:
…[I]f thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Matthew 5:23-24
We have to talk to each other.
Reconciling with our brothers and sisters is an ongoing task. We are called to forgive 70 times 7. As a Church we are still a work in progress. But Truth, like Charity, never faileth.
We need to know and study the accurate history of the Church and its development. We should be forthright about the priesthood ban, bring it up in Sunday School and Relief Society classes and investigator lessons and sacrament meetings. It seems like the current standard is to never discuss it again and dismiss it as fast as we can if it ever does come up.
Segullah: Do you have some sources you particularly like and recommend?
Cathy: I think everyone in the Church should own and read Greg Prince’s biography, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. They should also own and read Edward Kimball’s biography of Spencer Kimball’s Church Presidency years, Lengthen Your Stride. It’s the one that comes with a great CD that has expanded content. For general information on the African American experience, I strongly recommend reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and Robin Miles.
Much of this racial stress is rooted in our country’s own history. We need to remember that our nation has yet to resolve the Civil War. From the time of Lincoln’s Executive Order (1863), those who were committed to white supremacy, bigotry, racism, and nationalism have, thus far, not been seriously challenged. Different forms emerge decade after decade.
We cannot embrace being an international church if we do not address domestic problems.
Segullah: What suggestions do you have for this ongoing task of reconciliation within the Church?
Cathy: We can admit and acknowledge that offense will and has happened. We can learn to apologize and learn how to accept apologies. We can have joint Relief Society and Priesthood meetings where we have lessons on topics related to race and understanding one another better. And I specifically mean joint sessions so men and women are getting the same message.
Guys are at a disadvantage because they may be afraid about their next level of priesthood leadership if they say something that might be viewed as controversial. Women don’t have to worry about that for themselves, but they might feel some sense of responsibility for their husband’s reputation. An old single lady is somebody you should consider listening to. She is free to tell the truth. She has nothing to lose.
Segullah: There were some specific shout outs against racism and bigotry in October Conference this year. Elder Ballard said, “”We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism…. Let it be said that we truly believe — and truly live — the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi: ‘(The Lord) inviteth … all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female … and all are alike unto God.’”
And Elder Cook said, “Anyone who claims superiority under the Father’s plan because of characteristics like race, sex, nationality, language, or economic circumstances is morally wrong and does not understand the Lord’s true purpose for all of our Father’s children.”
Cathy: Yes, they did. Remarkable. That was a wonderful start. Will it trickle down, or is a well-planned effort required like planning a rescue – for which we are known worldwide as the A-Team?
Typically after General Conferences, friends would call and share what was of particular interest to them and inquire how a particular talk struck me. And so, after this past conference, I prepared for this custom, setting up refreshments for myself by my phone, because a senior apostle had cautioned the saints against bigotry, racism, sexism and nationalism! Never in the history of the modern Church, to my knowledge, have those specific words been used before. I thought that fact would light up the phone lines!
To my surprise, not a single soul call. There was silence. Not a creature was stirring.
So, on fast Sunday, I shared my puzzlement. I knew that talks following Conference had the option of choosing a topic from a talk in Conference or some spiritual experience. There was not one talk on the counsel concerning bigotry, racism, sexism nationalism. Not even an acknowledgement of it. I had also been told to avoid the “ban on the priesthood essay.” Supposedly if topics weren’t talked about over the pulpit at conference or sent to the Bishops, signed by the First Presidency to be read to the congregation, they were not the formal position of the Church.
Cathy: Exactly. It was disappointing to me. The sad fact of the race issue is that while it’s about us (“us” meaning Black folks or African Americans), there is really nothing that “us” can do about it. This is in actuality, a white or Caucasian problem. Until there is the desire and the commitment to the second Great Commandment – to love their neighbor as themselves – that includes “us”, there is no hope.
This will be especially hard for entrenched white folks because in addition to the “white superiority mountain” to be laid low, there is the mountain range of religious elitism. By that I mean the kind of hubris that says, “because I am a member of the ‘true church’ I am better than everyone else.”
Segullah: Was this your experience with the Church in Chicago as well?
Cathy: Oh, Lordy, no.
Segullah: There are now younger generations who have not lived during the time of the priesthood ban. Do you worry about them?
Cathy: No. Actually, I’m quite hopeful for them. Younger generations are more aware of issues in the Church and are more open to engaging in questions. Partly it’s the temperament of youth. And part of it is the access to information with technology. They like questions. They like discussing topics without fear. Most younger people that I have met believe the Church has to resolve the racial question rather than to keep sweeping it under the rug. They’re more open.
It’s my generation and those after me that need to raise and struggle with these issues. The generation just under me will have to solve the problem. This is not on the kids, and we should not try to dump it on them.
Segullah: Are there other reasons for hope?
Cathy: Mormon Women for Ethical Government and their efforts in bridging the black/white chasm gives me hope. Some of their members have developed an instrument to help white people assess where they are on black/white relations. That is impressive. That is a start on a challenging journey. And I thank them for it. I am also impressed that it’s a group of women. Women are leading on the race issue, and I look forward to watching these women continue to exercise their leadership abilities.
Segullah: One last request. Can you share the story of when you met Rev. Al Sharpton?
Cathy: When Mitt Romney was running for president, Al Sharpton was part of a panel. Someone asked the panelists what they thought of Mitt. Al’s response was something like “Romney, the Mormon? Those of us who are real Christians will take care of him!”
He must have realized he had made a gaffe. He called up the Church and apologized to two of the apostles. The apology was accepted, and the Church thought that was all there would be to that.
But Al Sharpton wanted to come to Utah. He wanted to learn about the Mormons.
So, a couple of Public Affairs people and I picked him up at the airport. Elder Ballard took him to dinner. Then Elder Ballard took him to the North Visitors Center on Temple Square. They stood by the Christus Statue, and Elder Ballard shared his testimony with Al Sharpton.
Al Sharpton was so impressed by that testimony that he was talking about it all the next day. We took him all around – to the Humanitarian Services, the Bishop’s Storehouse, and to a stake president’s house for Family Home Evening where the lesson was given by the wife.
Driving back to his hotel, we talked about a variety of things. Seeing how Al couldn’t stop raving about Family Home Evening, one of the Mormons in the group asked if they had something like it in his church. That led to a discussion about the church Al Sharpton is part of. His denomination isn’t structured in the same ways as ours. Each church is independent. There’s an organization to share information, best practices, and so forth, but each congregation makes their own decisions. Somehow it got around to race. His is an all black denomination. There was a white group of that same denomination that wanted to merge with the black group. But the blacks didn’t want to merge with the white.
I laughed and asked, “How racist is that?”
He allowed it was. Our conversation acknowledged that the extent of racism is wide. There are still issues between blacks and whites in other Christian denominations that are far from being resolved.
He has become one of the best friends of the Church. He has defended the Church. That’s called making friends. The visit may have begun with his wanting to make amends for his faux pas, or he may genuinely have wanted to learn about the Mormons. In the end, he was sincerely impressed.
We gathered at 4pm at the Family History Library for a final press conference. Sharpton’s staff person, a very polished young man, announced that at 4:30 the General Authority present would be baptizing Reverend Sharpton. Then with a wink he added, “That’s the goal, isn’t it?” We all had a good laugh.
It was amazing how far the relationship between Al Sharpton and the Church had come from the time we had picked him up at the airport! We were friends. It was all done in a sweet way. If you can laugh together, any relationship is enhanced.
Segullah: Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Cathy.