In this episode, we speak with two amazing guests, LaShawn Williams and Yahosh Bonner.
In addition to the work they do in their communities, LaShawn is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Utah Valley University and Yahosh is the Athletic Director at American Heritage School and host of BYUtv’s Family Rules.
LaShawn and Yahosh discuss with us what it’s like to be a Black person in America and in the Church today, how we can healthily engage in introspection to find our own biases and shortcomings, and how we can move from listening and understanding to making a difference in our communities.
We’re so grateful that LaShawn and Yahosh came on the podcast, and hope you enjoy the conversation.
Aubrey Chaves: Hi everyone. This is Aubrey Chaves from Faith Matters. In this episode, we speak with two amazing guests: LaShawn Williams and Yahosh Bonner. In addition to the work they do in their communities, LaShawn is an assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University, and Yahosh is the athletic director at American Heritage School, and the host of BYUtv’s Family Rules. LaShawn and Yahosh discuss with us what it’s like to be a black person in America and in the church today, how we can healthily engage in introspection to find our own biases and shortcomings, and how we can move forward from listening and understanding to making a difference in our communities.
We’re so grateful that LaShawn and Yahosh would come on the podcast and we hope that you enjoy this conversation.
Tim Chaves: Okay, LaShawn and Yahosh, thank you guys so much for joining us. Really, really appreciate having you on.
Yahosh Bonner: Thanks for having us.
LaShawn Williams: Thanks for having us.
Tim Chaves: Yeah, it’s our pleasure. We thought we’d maybe open up this conversation by just sort of… I mean obviously as this issue of race in America and race in the church has been sort of thrust upon us in the past few weeks, maybe for many people in a more present way than it’s been for perhaps even several decades. I think there’s a growing sense that we… at least for members of the church and we’ll keep perhaps focused on the church a little bit for now. But like myself and especially Aubrey and other white members of the church, there’s been certainly a lack of understanding of what it’s like to be a black person in Mormonism in America.
And we also have a strong sense that listening and understanding is not enough. There needs to be action tied to that. But I think listening and understanding is certainly a part of it, and perhaps a precursor to informed action. And so we wanted to, if it’s okay with you guys, start up with a very open ended question. You guys could take this wherever you want, really. But we’d love to hear just what are some experiences that you’ve had or what is it like and how have you experienced, personally, being a black person in America or in Mormonism in 2020? And like I said, please feel free to take that however you want.
Yahosh Bonner: Should I go first LaShawn? Or… Okay. So one more time, reiterate that question. What is it like…
Tim Chaves: What is it like or what are some experiences you’ve had that could help illustrate what that experience of being black in Mormonism or America is today in 2020?
Yahosh Bonner: Okay, well, you’re a minority. You’re a minority amongst a lot of your family. You’re a minority in the black community. You’re a minority at church. And so you’re different, for sure. You stand out. I definitely look at it as an opportunity that I’m blessed to represent my faith and my people. As a man who loves God, who loves the savior. But also it’s like, man. People are watching me and because they don’t have very much interaction with people that look like me, what I do, they’re going to take it and run and say, “This is what this is.” And so there’s definitely pressure there. I’m definitely honored, I’ve been blessed by the Gospel. I think that you get asked a lot of questions like, “Did you really just ask me that question?” But I’m really at a point in my life where I want people to ask questions. I want people to have these uncomfortable conversations because if race relationships are going to get better, if we’re going to move better in the future together, we have to be able to communicate.
And people like you have to be able to listen and communicate as well, because a lot of times people hear things and they’re like, “Okay. I’m done.” Or they don’t want to discuss when there’s things that are going to be put out there that are hurtful and hard to hear about our history here in America and in the church. But I do have lot of experiences that kind of set me apart as a black man in America and as a black member of the church. Are you looking for those experiences specifically? Or-
Tim Chaves: Yeah. And we could get into that as we have the conversation too.
Yahosh Bonner: Okay.
Tim Chaves: LaShawn if you want to jump in with general thoughts, that would be awesome.
LaShawn Williams: Sure. To be a black person or a black member of our church in 2020 is, for me, there are some parts that are super regular. Like my son turned twelve, we’re talking about [presubordination 00:05:06]. Each time a child of mine turns eight, we’re talking about getting baptized and we’re organizing and getting parents and trying to let my kinds see generations of priesthood involvement. So for my son, when he was eight, it was really important to me to have as many black members as possible come and attend his baptism. We were way out at Eagle Mountain City [inaudible 00:05:26] and I was like, “If you can come, just please come.” And they came, and my son may not recognize it now but his entire circle was full of black men besides his father.
Aubrey Chaves: Wow.
LaShawn Williams: His father was a white latino, right. And I did that because it was really important to me for my son to understand this was not possible when mommy was born. This became possible during my lifetime. There’s those really regular things that being black adds another layer and adds another opportunity for sacred appreciation to it. For a lot of the kids it’s turn eight, get baptized, confirmation blessing, whatever. For me it was really important. Black men in the priesthood circle. My brother gave the confirmation blessing. My ex husband, my husband at the time, was super gracious to do the baptism but to let my son’s confirmation blessing come from black men. That’s really important to me. For each of my children that have been baptized and confirmed, their dad has done the baptism, my brother has done the confirmation. And I feel like my brother doing the confirmation is partly me repenting because when my brother was confirmed at eight, his confirmation blessing said that he was going to serve a mission in Africa in the church.
So I was 16 right, and I know stuff and I’m like, “You’re just saying that because we’re black.” And I wasn’t naming that they were all racists and whatnot, but where did my brother serve his mission in 2007? [inaudible 00:06:49] Yeah he was in South Africa! Oh my gosh. I’m going, I’m so sorry. Heavenly Father, I’m so sorry. Listen, I’m going to let him do all the confirmations because I was wrong. You were right. You were always right. You always right- [crosstalk 00:07:06]
Aubrey Chaves: Wow.
LaShawn Williams: So you have these very very Mormon experiences. We open mission calls, we pray. We want to support our missionaries. You have all the regular Mormon ways of being. And then you have this added experience of being an ambassador. Within the church, people will look at your black family or you as a member of a black family as the exception to whatever their rule is about black people. Outside of the church, you are an ambassador in your black families about why you are a member of that church. And there’s this really cool commonality that we have as members of the church to want to convert people. It’s the one minority experience I can think of that actually does want people to join it. There’s no other minority experience in the world that has the pleasure of saying, “Hey. Come be a minority like me and pick up all these things that we get for being minorities.” No one else has that experience the way Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, do. It’s the only minority experience that you are encouraged to go and recruit other people to join a minority status with you.
So being black and being Mormon in 2020… My Mormon-ness, that hasn’t shifted. But it’s this ongoing relationship with my blackness and my blackness in the church and my blackness in my ward congregation that has been the challenge. And for me, even in my times of decreased activity, and it’s been difficult these last couple of years, I’ve had to find ways that I can stay and gauge if it’s not me being in church in the pews every single Sunday. I have been blessed with amazing leadership, amazing auxiliary support. The priest, my visiting teachers, priesthood home teachers ministering people, the bishop [Rick 00:08:42], primary president, [inaudible 00:08:44] president. All of those leaders that I’ve had in my wards for the last five years, particularly since my divorce. With my divorce being Mormon got really difficult. But the leadership that I’ve had from my bishop and on down, I’ve had stellar leadership that have made my cultural and religious Mormonism still part of who I am.
It’s given me different sacred experiences as a member of the church that my blackness has also give me sacred experience as a member of the church. Both of those give me desires to strive toward as I continue to work on and refine myself as a disciple of Christ. Does that make sense?
Aubrey Chaves: Oh absolutely. That’s really interesting, thank you. I’m still thinking about what you started with about children and wonder if you both would talk about that a little bit more. I think that’s something that I know I’ve really struggled with, and that I think a lot of listeners will relate to, is how to talk about race with your children. I think especially when they’re young, I mean they are the definition of innocence. When our oldest was four, we moved to Boston and I remember feeling a real tension about, do I tell her? Do I tell her about our history with race in the church and in our country? Because she’s just so happily oblivious and I don’t want to give that to her. I don’t even want her to be thinking about it. But I think that this is a conversation that we’re really having now because as adults, we’re struggling with the same problem of color blindness and thinking that’s how we’re going to deal with this systemic racism, and obviously that isn’t working. So what do you do with a four year old? Where do you start? How do you talk about race in and out of the church?
Yahosh Bonner: This is something that we’ve been doing for generations. We’ve always talked about race. That’s what we did every day before leaving the house, mom and dad was like, “You’re black. You’re beautiful. You’re strong. You’re smart. No matter what nobody else tells you.” You’re getting those pep talks. “You can do anything you want.” Because like you said, systemically for hundreds of years, we have been told that we’re less than, that we’re not people, that we’re not as smart. And so now our parents for the last several generations are telling us, “God loves you. You are beautiful. You’re strong. You’re smart. Be proud of who you are and your heritage.” And nothing’s really a surprise, especially when it comes to the Gospel. And even as a Christian, it’s hard to be a Christian in this world today. I mean there’s so many different ideas and branches of Christianity, and then to be a Latter Day Saint. I mean, if you just think about Christianity alone, since we got here we haven’t been treated well.
People will say, “Oh I’m Christian. I’m this but I have slaves and I treat them this way. But I can still go to church and I’m cool.” Like, no-
Aubrey Chaves: And be redeemed at church.
Yahosh Bonner: That’s a problem that just about every church in America has. That’s nothing new. And so black people are not used to not being treated well historically, but it is hard. Especially in Christ Church, in the church that I love so much, to know that my leaders have said certain things. I don’t own that. I know they’re people. What they said, okay. I’m not going to believe that, not about my God. I know who my Father in heaven is. I know I have a divine heritage. So that’s something that I put onto my children. I’m giving pep talks too.
Aubrey Chaves: Love that. LaShawn do you have anything to add?
LaShawn Williams: Yeah, no it has to be explicit. I remember when my daughter, my middle child was four and she came home and told me she wanted to have long, straight, yellow hair. And I was like, “Really?” Because I have been natural ever since I was pregnant with her. And she’s grown up with her black side on my side of the family and her latino side on her dad’s side of the family. She’s been surrounded by black women and women of color and I was like, “She hasn’t gone to school yet so how does she still come home wanting to have long, yellow hair? She wants long, blonde hair.” And I’m like, “Huh.” Having the dolls didn’t work. Having a black mom didn’t work. Just showing it was not enough. Having black art in the house wasn’t enough because she still got the message. So we had to start talking very early about how versatile her hair is. How the curliness and the straightness is something that she doesn’t even have to pay anybody to do. Her friends will have to go through a bunch of things to get their hair to wave and to curl. All she has to do is jump in the water, that’s it.
So talking about it and making it explicit but also making it kid friendly is important. Kids are way easier to talk to about it because what you tell them is truth. If you say, “Hey. You know what? We have chemicals in our skin that when we go outside in the sun, it makes our skin a little bit darker or a little bit lighter.” My girls were like, “Mommy I’m going out in the sun so I can be black and brown like you.” And I’m like “Awesome, go for it girlfriend. That’s going to be wonderful.” And so just teaching them that, because my mother will say, “I think you’re overdoing it because maybe it’s too black.” And I’m like, “You know what, if it’s too black, they can’t slide that far away from it so I’d rather over-do it than under-do it and worry.” I’m worried either way because nobody wants to raise a racist child.
Tim Chaves: Amen.
LaShawn Williams: I don’t want to raise a kid who hates white people. White folk don’t want to raise a kid that hates black people. So how do you have a conversation besides consistently having it over and over and over again and normalizing it? Making it a reality that this is what biology did. And do you know how awesome Heavenly Father is? Heavenly Father believes in science and this what science says. Science says this to your hands and this is protective but we still wear sunscreen. There’s so many ways to talk to kids to normalize skin color differences, that then once you get to talking about it in scripture, then you can say, “Do you know that words in one language can mean a different thing in another language? And this might be the other way to interpret it.” How you’re doing your scripture study and when you’re finding the truth of different things so as far as idioms and ways that the language, especially the word black, is used.
The gift that you can give to your kids is that they can go to Sunday school and if they hear something and they’re like, “I haven’t heard that from my mommy.” Because kids tell all your secrets when you go to Sunday school. You have to be careful. “Well my mommy and daddy said this, this and that and the other,” and it’s like, “Oh, well. Okay.” But that’s when I love being a Sunday school teacher or primary school teacher because I can hear all those things and when it’s in my seven year old, eight year old classes, I never had to tell an eight year old, “You know what? Thank goodness you are getting in the water because that thing you just said, washed away. Washed away as soon as you hit the water. And I didn’t say that to a child, but I love having a classroom where we can talk about those kinds of things because kids are curious. They want to know and then the older they get, I started shifting how I did teaching for Sunday school. When I had my teenagers, let’s do mission prep.
Teenagers, how are you going to deal with this question? And then [inaudible 00:15:45] and they’re saying, “Uh… ” And so when they would start giving the answers. All the answers that we know, God wasn’t ready, we weren’t ready. Seeing the other kids be like, “That’s not true. You can’t say stuff like that. That’s stupid, it doesn’t make any sense.” But it was safe on Sunday to have a conversation. So whether they’re four or 14, they want to talk about it. They want to ask questions and they want an answer. And they want an answer that makes sense, not an answer that says, “They’re nervous. They don’t feel comfortable talking about this with me.” But even if that’s the answer, say it. Say, “I’m nervous. I don’t really know what the best way is but here’s what we believe. And I don’t know how to explain that but maybe we should work on that in family scriptures.” Say, “Let’s find out a way to make this make sense and let’s get our friends together.”
There’s so many more resources now than there were back in 2013 when I was on the internet looking up stuff and trying to find things. There’s always something there but we actually have to do that work as parents and as people who [crosstalk 00:16:42] it is that we love in our lives.
Tim Chaves: Yeah.
Aubrey Chaves: I love that. And just plowing into it, jump into the conversation and if that’s the rule of thumb, just don’t hold back, I feel like there’s so much less damage to be done by just opening those doors and leaving them open. So that it’s habit when you get older and start asking harder questions and knowing that you can verbalize that before it becomes too deep to say.
LaShawn Williams: Absolutely.
Tim Chaves: Yeah.
Aubrey Chaves: I love that.
LaShawn Williams: And encouraging kids that questioning is how we even got this faith. So who am I as your parent to tell you not to ask that question, even if I don’t have the answer? Let’s test out prayer. Let’s see how that’s working. Go pray about it. Let’s pray about it as a family and let’s see what we think. I mean there’s so many helps already there but if we are in the world but not of the world, it’s got to show. We’ve got to show that we believe that we pray about these things and that we have a responsibility that whatever leadership has gotten revealed, we have a responsibility to say, “Okay. Reveal this to me too. Help me understand because I feel like I’m struggling with it.” And I serve a God that says, “Okay, listen. I need you to think about this in this way as it applies to you, because this makes sense for you. For somebody else, it’s going to sound this way but somebody else needs that message, a sister or dear daughter of mine. Someone else needs that message. You don’t need it in the same way, so listen to it like this.”
Hone that relationship. Learn what God’s voice sounds like to you. And it might be through music. It might be through listening to the Bonner’s sing and I’m like, “Woo.” Can we just hire them? Can we just do a [crosstalk 00:18:20] and make a whole choir because I just want to hear this all the time. It’s so beautiful, so beautiful. But we have [crosstalk 00:18:28] there and I think we can start using it more actively than maybe we have felt confident to do before.
Tim Chaves: Yeah. I mean obviously as our kids get older and grow in the church, one of those difficult conversations we need to end up having with them is about our church’s own complicated history with race. Or maybe a less sugar-coated way to say it is the explicit racism that has happened within our own church in the past 190 years, since it was founded. And so I’m curious what, from your perspective, what else you would like to see members of the church doing or asking themselves right now about our own history and what are good ways to address it proactively from our current point in time?
Yahosh Bonner: So that’s a great question. Like LaShawn said, we have to ask. We have to want to know because some people just don’t want to know. But we are here to seek knowledge, to learn, and if you’re afraid, know that that spirit of fear comes from the enemy.
Aubrey Chaves: Amen.
Yahosh Bonner: So learn about the church history, learn about your current brothers and sisters right now, that need you right now, right? I think, LaShawn you said something about being intentional or something with your daughter. We have to be intentional Christians. We have to make decisions based on, is this going to make me better? How can I get to know my brothers and sisters better? How can I help? How can I serve? Because this church, more than a lot of other faiths, we’re about doing. We’re about serving. And so, if you’re just hanging out, going to church and just comfortable, you’re not doing it right. You’re not doing it right because putting yourself in uncomfortable conversations like this, for many Saints, is tough. For them to acknowledge that, “You know what, something wasn’t right” or “You know what, I want to know what your perspective is knowing that that’s not something or a story that I’m going to be uplifted after.”
And so I think that we’ve just got to be actively intentional about growing our knowledge, connecting with Saints that don’t look like us, connecting with people that aren’t Saints. That’s what the gospel is, loving your neighbor, and love is an action word. It’s about doing. It’s not what we say. We have a lot of people that say a lot of pretty things, but it’s about our actions.
Aubrey Chaves: Love that. I love that idea too that if what you’re listening to makes you feel like you don’t need to do anything, or if it makes you feel afraid, maybe that’s a good opportunity to look inside and ask yourself what it is that you’re afraid of or what it is that you don’t want to see. If I’m feeling defensive or I’m feeling like, “Oh good, it’s not my responsibility.” I mean, when is that ever how God talks? I feel like the voice of God is always this fuel. It’s like a fuel and an energy moving you to do something and it’s not ever complacency and it’s not ever fear. And I feel like those feelings are all over the place right now. I either feel defensive or I feel scared to death, and the voice of God is in there somewhere and I think I just love what you said. I think it starts around curiosity, just asking the question. Why do I feel this way, first of all?
Yahosh Bonner: Right, right. And I mean I love all LaShawn said about honing that as a gift. Being able to communicate and understand and recognize God’s voice to you as his child, I mean that’s what we have to do. And so I mean I love that you said that LaShawn, because that’s a gift that a lot of people are not fully receiving. They’re not fully receiving. And we really need it now. We really need it now because there’s a lot of Saints that are divided, and if you’re not one you’re not His.
LaShawn Williams: Amen. I love this question. I think we have to be able to engage our history for what it is. One of the things that has always given me, or that gave me hope, the more that I started asking questions about why are we not talking about racism? Why aren’t we talking about our church’s history and doing it within the context of when the church was founded? And I would go to D & C and I remember reading in D & C and how the missionaries would memorize D & C, Section 4. The field is wide, all ready to harvest. But everything in there said cry nothing but repentance to this people. For a church, for a faith founded in the United States at the height of chattel slavery, for the message from God to be, “Cry nothing but repentance to this people.” Repentance for what? Repentance for what?
Okay so one of the things I’m upset about sometimes is how we do talks about talks. I’m like, “Give me a talk about the scriptures. I don’t want to talk about what somebody already talked about unless it’s [Elder Holland 00:23:30] or [Elder Uchtdorf 00:23:30]. I’ve got my top five, my fab five. I’ve got my fab five out of the 15. But listen. Elder Uchtdorf, in his talk Lord, Is It I? I sit there and I heard this talk and I was like, “How can anybody hear this talk and not say, ‘Hey you know what, Lauren, am I racist?'” [crosstalk 00:23:49]
Listen to this. So he starts out, I’m just going to read it because he said, “It’s our beloved savior’s final night in mortality, the evening before he would offer himself a ransom for all mankind as he broke bread.” Now think about that. Sitting down, eating dinner with your friends. “As he broke bread with his disciples, he said something that must have filled their heats with great alarm and deep sadness. ‘One of you shall betray me,’ he told them.” Now I hear that and as I was getting prepared to talk with y’all today I read that again and I was like, oh my gosh. One of you shall betray me. We have this worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. “One of you shall betray me.” Each of you shall betray me. My ward family is going to betray me because they can’t have this conversation.
The disciples didn’t question the truth of what he said. They didn’t say, “Well no Jesus, you know what, no. What do you mean? Are you sure? That sounds contentious Jesus, and you know contention is of the devil.” He goes, “What do you mean, one of us would betray you?” He said the disciples didn’t question the truth of what he said, nor did they look around, point to someone else and say, “Is it him?” [inaudible 00:25:03] Jesus. Peter probably was. Peter was like, “Oh I’m ready Jesus, I’m [inaudible 00:25:06], okay? Let me just say the word and I’m ready.” Because that’s what Peter does and me and Peter, twinsies right?
But instead, they were exceedingly sorrowful and began everyone to say unto him, “Lord, is it I?” Now what does that mean? You think, we’re sitting down to eat dinner, I probably don’t even have an appetite if I’m Jesus because one of you is going to betray me. What kind of relationship do we have that if you all are my closest friends, the people that I lead with, the people I fish with, the people that I walk through crows with, that I raised the dead with. And I say to you, “One of you will betray me.” All of y’all are sharp enough and in tune enough and you’re like, “Oh, is it I? Is it me because that’s the last thing that I would want to do.”
Now then Uchtdorf says, “I wonder what each of us would do if we were asked that question by the savior. Would we look at those around us and say in our hearts, ‘He’s probably talking about brother Johnson. I’ve always wondered about him.’? Or ‘You know I’m so glad that brother Brown is here, he really needs to hear this message.’ Or would we? Those disciples of old look inward and ask that penetrating question, “Lord, is it I?” And these simple words, “Lord, is it I?” lies the beginning of wisdom and the pathway to personal conversion and lasting change. That to me, is it. Because as we have these conversations in this moment, it is a time for all of us to ask, “Lord, is it I?”
Right now, it’s racism. But when it’s about gender in the church or sexuality, I have to sit and say, “Lord, is it I?” And if it’s me, what do I do? I have to go back to David and say, “Search my heart, oh God, and see if these things are still in me because I have got to do this work.” I have got to figure out what is keeping me? What’s making me hesitate? What’s making me ask these questions? Lord is it I? And Lord, if it is I, what do I do? Then you go back to your baptismal covenants. Simple stuff.
One of the things I love about being black is the fact that we were denied a lot. Denied things that I think could have changed the face for the black communities in the U.S. Things that I don’t even have words for. The families that I know that have fought so hard to stay together, what if they could have had the benefits of celestial kingdoms and celestial marriages and eternal families, so soon after being disbanded because of enslavement? I come from those people who did not have that. I come from a people who were denied the empathy that says, “Hey, your family matters. The place of your mother and your father and your family matters. The connection between your children, and the connection from children to the hearts of fathers to sons, and children to fathers, that matters.
I look at 1830, the prelude to the civil war and the time that we had it. We had it, we could have done it to get families back together because we cry nothing but repentance to this people and we missed it. I think that’s one of our major failings is how we missed it, and how deeply we were in our own experience as a minoritized faith in this country where our survival was more important to us than our connection to others. Our history is difficult with racism, but our history has demonstrations of the times that we did get it right. We don’t have to go and make ourselves a new people, we have to return to who we were when were founded, which was a church that had brethren in the Asian community, that had brethren in the Indigenous community, that had brethren in the Black community. And because of our own fears, our whiteness, our White section of our faith, because of it’s own fears and need to survive, denied and discard relationships for the sake of their own safety. And it is complicated. It’s a complicated history.
And I think you’ve got to be able to embrace it because with complication comes grace. If I can find grace to say, “You know what? That was Brigham’s learning experience and between Brigham and the Lord, that is that work. Lord, is it I? What is my work? And how do I demonstrate that I have internalized the I-ness so that I’m going out and I’m doing the work that I committed myself to do as a disciple of Christ. Because when Christ comes and says, “Hey. I asked you all to do this work and some of you didn’t do it.” Lord is it I? You know what I mean?
And I feel like if we’re going to engage our history, that “Lord, is it I?” And to say, “Yeah, it is. And because it is, this is what we’re doing now so that we can say, ‘Search my heart oh God, is it out? It’s still a little bit there? Okay cool, I’m going back in. But I’m going to root this out of me.'” I look at it like you can either be hot or cold but you can not be lukewarm when it comes to my people and my children and I take that on. And I try and sit and battle and wrestle with all of the things that I have to sit and battle and wrestle with, whether I’m talking to my Bishop or my state President, or I’m bartering with my friends about if I’m going to say that I’m going to go get my temple recommend again, right now, like we have running. I am that friend in our group right now that like, “Lauren please, if this happens LaShawn will go get a temple recommend again.” I lie to you not because I can’t sit here and not be transparent with you, with my testimony, my belief in God, my commitment to this Gospel.
These sorts of things are how I continue to do this work in the best way that I can because I want to know that I am asking, “Is it me?” And if it’s me, get me right. Get me right, teach me. I know that I am more Peter, I’m not Judas but I’m ready to fight people. I’m Peter, I’m ready to take out knives and remove your sense of hearing, sir. I’m ready. Listen to Jesus. You know what I mean? That’s me. And I’ve got to work on me, and I’m okay with that. But I think we’ve all got to figure out, how do we engage that question “Lord, is it I”? And if it is I, what do I need to do? Because like you said, listening is not enough. I’ve got to get out there and do faith. Listening without work is what? Dead. So, we have to get out there and do that work.
Tim Chaves: Yeah, and obviously that process of introspection can be resoundingly uncomfortable, especially if when you introspect you find something that you don’t like. If I could share a quick experience with you guys. Aubrey and I went maybe a year ago to an art exhibit at BYU and what they did was they displayed the Pulitzer Price winning photographs of about the past 80 years. And it was a profoundly emotional and moving experience because these photographs depicted some of the best but also I think some of the worst of what humanity has brought us during those eight decades. It showed the worst brutality of war and racism and tragedy, and as part of the exhibit, BYU had people write on post it notes and just place their post it notes on a wall about what they thought about it, and most of them were very moving.
There was a post it note though that we found that said, “I am so upset that we can’t just focus on the positive.” That’s what the post it note said. And I was like, “Man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stronger illustration of privilege because this is a reality that people have gone through.
Yahosh Bonner: I don’t want to see that. That doesn’t make me feel good.
Tim Chaves: I don’t want to see that. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think, sometimes in the church growing up we hear that… And there’s the word, the comforter that describes the spirit and so we’re saying, “The spirit’s the comforter. I want to feel comfortable. And if I’m uncomfortable, maybe I don’t have the spirit.” But obviously if we take just even one level beneath the surface, it becomes very obviously that discomfort is an absolute key to growing and to that type of introspection that you’re talking about LaShawn that is going to get us to actually go anywhere with any of this. And so how do we do that with ourselves? How do we get comfortable with discomfort?
And I don’t know that I have the answer to this question at all, but theologically, where is it in our tradition too? And “Lord, is it I?” is a great one, maybe that’s the answer. But where is it that says you better get uncomfortable because you’ve got a lot to learn? And it’s not going to feel good.
Yahosh Bonner: But you did say that there’s a lot that we have to learn. And not knowing… What do you do when you don’t know? What do you do? You have faith, and you walk, and you say, “Lord, I think this is right. I think this is what you want me to do. I think this is where I’m supposed to go, so I must take this step and let me know. Talk to me. Let me know if I’m supposed to do something else. Or have somebody be in my way to stop me but this is what I’m doing. This is what I believe is right.”
There’s so many stories of faith and for me and my family, that’s what my parents lived by. Oh my gosh man, we didn’t know what my parents were doing moving from place to place and making the decisions and homeless people were living with us. Normal people don’t do that, it doesn’t make sense. But because they lived by the spirit, we’ve been blessed. We’ve learned. We’ve been able to help other people. We’ve been living the gospel, in action. Our parents weren’t just people who said stuff and that looked good and “All right.” No, they actually did it. And people talked bad about them, people wouldn’t help them out because they were doing what the Lord told them to do.
So it’s not always going to be popular to do what the Lord told you to do, it’s not always going to be comfortable, it’s going to be uncomfortable. So I think faith is just such an important principle of the gospel, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Not in what you can do, but in what he can do.
Aubrey Chaves: I love that. And just this idea that you guys keep going back to that your faith is in God, not in a person even. I think a lot of our problem is just we dismiss our taking responsibility because it feels safer to believe that a prophet is always going to get it right and so-
Yahosh Bonner: People want to just be told what to do.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. And then there’s no wrestle. If that’s what you believe so hard, then you never have to wrestle with these uncomfortable things and what we’re really asked to do is ask God. That is the fullness of the gospel like you said LaShawn, this trust that God still speaks. And so we can recognize that discomfort and take it to God instead of shirking that responsibility and just turning away and believing that somebody else already asked that question and so it doesn’t need to be asked again. Because I think that’s why we’re stuck. And I still feel like I hear those idea that the ban was right for its time, or that the church needed to grow. I imagine that that hurts to hear come up, right? I mean how do you wish people were talking about those almost 150 years?
I think everybody feels really good about not being racist. We pride ourselves on bond and free, black and white. We want to believe that we are these incredibly anti-racist loving people, but we reserve this little problem which is, but the prophet said this for this many years and we’re going to leave it there and not… I think a lot of people still don’t feel comfortable saying maybe that was all wrong. Why are we still holding onto that?
LaShawn Williams: It reminds me of the quote that says, “If you’re going to build a garden for God, you don’t reserve a spot for weeds.” They’re going to pop up anyway, but if you go and reserve a spot because it was right for the time, they were made in their time. We’re just going to keep this little weed section right here. I don’t mean weed like that, I mean garden weeds. Garden weeds is what I meant. I think on the one hand, I can’t get too upset with us, especially my non-black members in the church, because I know how we’re socialized to believe. I know we’re socialized to believe that if you follow the prophet, he knows the way, everything’s going to be okay. And then I grew and got a little bit more intentional about my practice as a Christian and as a disciple and I was like, “Did we already have a discussion about following somebody no matter what and they had all the answers and we didn’t have to do any work? Isn’t that actually how we got here in the first place? So should we really be picking that up as our reference point? Probably not.”
So then I had to kind of sit with that but we believe that it’s going to give us safety and you’ve got to understand, the trauma history of our faith is you have to follow the prophet. We have people who lost family on the way here because they were trying to get here. I never have forgotten the story about the little pioneer girl who went to sleep on the ground and it was frozen and her braids got frozen and they had to cut her hair off so she could get up the next morning and keep walking. My sister served a mission at Winter Quarters in Omaha, Nebraska. And I remembered that story and as I toured the temple there, the visitor’s center they had held onto one of the homes that they take you through in the tour, and at the end they talk about how the family knew that they had to leave, and it was a humble home. And the wife or mom of the home, she swept the home for the last time and left the broom up against the door jam.
And I sat there and I touched that door jam and I said, “What is must have been like to have to leave what you had behind.” I’m empathetic to our trauma experience within our faith, I am, and I can understand why people who are seeking safety are trying to… Just I can only take so much. And if this is going to keep me safe, I’m going to do it. And sometimes I’m willing to do it at the expense of others. Now that’s not my full testimony, but it’s the most that I can do right now. What we’re being asked to do is expand and to say, well if I’m not saved, nobody’s saved. And if I’m saved, how am I bringing folks with me?
I am always convinced that I’m going to get sent to outer darkness because I say so many things that I probably shouldn’t say. But I also feel like if I get sent to outer darkness, Elder Holland is going to be like, “You know what, I like her. I’m going to go get her. Y’all hang out here, I’ll be back.” But I feel like I want to show up at the gates of heaven like, “Hey, I brought my friends. Can we come in because I love these people and I know if you talk to them and if you listen to them, you’re going to love them to. I know I’m going to be right because God is love but we have these notions about what is the right way and the only way because we’re scared to expand. Because we’re like, “Well what if I get it wrong?”
Is there an atonement or is there not? If you get it wrong, you atone. You say, “I got this one wrong but I am going to change. I’m going to fix it.” So I’m actually going to go back to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk because he said, and this in priesthood session, he says, “Brother, none of us likes to admit when we are drifting off the right course. Often we try to avoid looking deeply into our souls and confronting our weaknesses, limitations, and fears. Consequently, when we do examine our lives, we look through the filter of biases, excuses, and stories we tell ourselves in order to justify unworthy thoughts and actions. But being able to see ourselves clearly is essential to our spiritual growth and well being. If our weaknesses and shortcomings remain obscured in the shadows, then the redeeming power of the savior cannot heal them and make them strengths. Ironically, our blindness toward our human weaknesses will always make us blind to the potential that our Father yearns to nurture within us. So how can we shine the pure light of God’s truth into our souls and see ourselves as he sees us?”
That’s a powerful thing. You think about your baptismal covenants at eight when they thought that you were smart enough to take this and to get it. And it says, “Your desire is to come into the fold of God, to be called his people and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light. Yay, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn, yay, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. And to stand,” that’s what is says, “of God at all times and of all things and in all places even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God and be numbered with those of the first resurrection that ye may have eternal life.”
So the question that you asked was, what do we do? How do we do it? If I don’t know how to mourn and my friend Sandra Vranes did this to me and I got really upset when she did, because she was like, “But it’s our baptismal covenant?” So I’m like, “What do you mean?” And I was so upset with her because she pointed it out to me and I was like, “But I don’t know how to mourn.” And I was like, “Nevermind.” Because now I’m convicted. I don’t know how to mourn. God help me figure out, how do I mourn with this person that I don’t know? I don’t have the experience. God, I’m uncomfortable. How do I feel comfortable? How do I invite the comforter here?
Because we’ve been so socialized for our own safety, to think if the comforter is gone, you’re wrong. Well if the comforter is gone, how do I get the comforter back and we’re told, “You have to leave. You can’t be there because wherever you’re at the comforter can’t come.” That can’t be true because I’ve heard stories from people saying that God spoke to them and told them, “Put the needle down. Put the heroine needle down. Put the crack pipe down.” So if we keep thinking, “Oh, the comforter goes to bed at 9PM.” What if the comforter is trying to help people find Jesus? Is that also an option? Can the comforter come find you when you are uncomfortable? What’s the point of having a comforter if you’re never uncomfortable? You have to receive the gift of the holy ghost but you’re also trying to invite the comforter which means if you need a comforter, it’s because you’re going to be uncomfortable so you need a comforter.
Aubrey Chaves: Exactly.
LaShawn Williams: And unfortunately we have been socialized into this psychological and spiritual safety that I think we sometimes lose the full ability of the comforter. Do I believe that the comforter will leave you if you are in a tough situation and that’s how you see it? Sure. Comforter’s going to leave you, it’s actually the worst time to leave you is when you’re in a bad situation. You need the comforter. You’re like, “Hey. You see how this is uncomfortable?” “Let me help you out.” But we’ve been socialized to believe that we have done something wrong to drive out the spirit. Now if we are people who say, “Lord, is it I? I’m trying to do this work. I don’t know how. I’m trying to mourn with those that mourn. I don’t know how to mourn.” I can’t drive out the spirit when I’m saying, “Hey I don’t know how to mourn. I don’t know how to bear this burden. What do I do?”
James 1:5. “If any of you lack wisdom, ask of God, who giveth wisdom liberally and upbraideth not.” We’ve got the instruction. We have got to start following them and believing that they’re going to help us make and sustain these changes.
Aubrey Chaves: I love that. And I just feel like over and over, it’s just this reminder that leaning into that is the way to grow. Leaning into all of those uncomfortable things is the way you grow. And we have precedent for that. I don’t know where we started believing that you had to be living perfectly to be worthy of the spirit. God found Alma. We tell these stories and then we pick and choose what we apply to our own lives ad I totally agree, that’s when God finds us. And back to the prophetic fallibility, the same thing. In the scriptures, they’re full of God working through these very very fallible people and leading people through these fallible humans. But it’s hard to know how to follow someone if you can’t know that they’re perfect.
LaShawn Williams: Even when we look at Jesus, who is a perfected being, but even Jesus was like, “Hey. This is really tough. Is there any other way? Can you remove the cup? Can you remove the cup?” Three times he asked, and what did God do? God sent down an angel and said, “Hey man, this is where we’re at. This is what we can mend.” And he said, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Imagine, not my will but thine be done. If we can say that to God when it comes to being against racism. If we can say that to God when it comes to being anti-oppressive people. Not my will but thine be done. It is going to be difficult and if Christ himself said, “I don’t know if I can’ do it. I don’t know.” And then not just Christ, Peter. “Hey weren’t you hanging out with Jesus?” “No. I was not. I don’t know him. Me? No, the other Pete, not me. That’s Pete [inaudible 00:46:29].” Three different times, you have Peter sitting here acting a fool and Christ told him, “You’re going to do it.”
And Peter’s like, “No I’m not. I cut off that dude’s ear Jesus. I’m here, I’ve got you. I’m never going to deny you.” Cock-a-doodle-do. Lord, is it I? We’re not supposed to be perfect in this, we’re supposed to be progressing. We have got to be okay with the progress but we have got to be okay saying, “You know what, I’m not perfected right now. And I’m sitting around a bunch of folks and we all want to sit here and be safe and perfected together.” But that’s why we’ve got folks who feel like they can’t bring their grief to church, or they can only bring certain types of grief to church. I can’t bring racism to church. We’re not there where I can bring racism in church.
But that is why the women I work with in Black LDS Legacy, we bring racism to the Black LDS Legacy conference every year in DC. We have that conversation, we create that space because we need it and we buoy people up. Every single Black History Month, February, in Washington DC and they say, “Thank you so much. I needed this between general conference in October and general conference in April.” It becomes ones more thing and we’re happy, so happy to do it. Because wherever we can stand, we’ve got to lift where we stand. And so I feel I can bring racism to the altar at church and be able to speak about it and know that I have a sister or a brother or two that can speak to it with me, it’s a journey. But I love that you mentioned about all of our infallible prophets. Why do we think the ones that we know have to be perfect? And then why do we allow the imperfections of one to all of them be the reason why we leave the faith?
And everybody has their journey, understand I get that. But when people are saying I can’t reconcile this person’s human failings with my faith, well okay, there’s your work. It’s okay. I don’t know that we’re really making it safe for everyone to do it because that’s exhausting. We only have two hour church now, it’s not three or four hour church. And we’re going to need extra hours to help people through that.
Aubrey Chaves: [crosstalk 00:48:32] What do you think about that? Is there a way that we can be better at making space, especially in these wards where they’re predominantly white? Do you feel like there’s something that your ward and neighbors can do to make it feel like a safer space to bring racism there when you have something to say?
LaShawn Williams: Yeah, I think it has to be internal work first because it’s a lot to invite somebody to sit there with you and to trust you with their story. If they’re worried or if they’ve been wounded before, then it’s going to get shut down. Sometimes I think empathy… We would always say Christ suffered everything. And I’m like, “Christ didn’t suffer racism, or Christ didn’t suffer addiction, or Christ didn’t get divorced.” There’s a lot of actions that I can name that Christ didn’t go through, and I’m like, “Well what do they mean when they say Christ went through all of it?” It was the feeling. It was the feeling of being abandoned, being forgotten, being denied, that emotional process.
So I don’t need my brothers and sisters to have gone through racism, or to have had an experience on their mission where they felt like somebody was racist to them or they were hated because they’re white. I get it, but your mission is over. My life is happening right now and I’m experiencing it. Can you imagine your mission, that one experience, every day in your life? And if you can imagine that, then you can kind of see where I’m at a little bit. We really have got to slow our conversations and our interactions down and we’ve got to commit to trying to do it together. And if you don’t know how to mourn with me, ask God how you can mourn. Maybe that’s baked bread, but still. Come sit down with me and let’s eat the bread together and if you feel like this is about something, take a bite. Take a bite and chew, pause that process, so that you’re less likely to say whatever you thought you needed to say before God says, “You’re hungry. Take a bite.”
Tim Chaves: Yeah.
LaShawn Williams: We have got to get into this work together, and it’s got to be slow, it’s got to be steady, and we’ve got to be committed. We’re going to stumble, fall, but let’s get back up, dust off. Let’s keep trying because I’m committed to the process because I’m committed to you, because I covenanted at my baptism that I was at least going to do this thing.
Aubrey Chaves: You said, LaShawn, a couple of days ago when you did that ABC4 interview, there was something you said that I’ve been thinking about all week. That you have to… I’m going to paraphrase, you can correct your own quote if you want. It was something about you really have to do your own work to be an ally. You can’t just raise your hand and say, I’m an ally. You’ve got to do your work and figure out your place in history. Where do you find into this story? And I’ve been thinking so much about that because I think I’ve got the message, “Lord, is it I?” I need to ask myself where is my own bias and really dissect, do I have these feelings? But I think that the wake up call for me in the last couple week is that I need to understand what I have inherited. And I just hadn’t really asked that question before.
What ladder did I climb before I was even born? And so anyway, I loved what you said. I can’t really be an ally until I understand where I fit in this whole story. Personally, and just as a white woman living in Utah. So, love that.
LaShawn Williams: For sure. Yeah, you got the quote. That was good, that was the gist of it yes.
Tim Chaves: Yeah, truly a lesson to be here. And I’ll tell you what, I got on and I said, “I’m just spiritually [inaudible 00:52:16] just emotionally drained but what lifts us up is people being able to relate or feel with you through your experiences. And I’ve been re-energized just hearing your questions and really hearing you, LaShawn, speak. And what a blessing that is, and I wish that we could do this for our brothers and sisters, within our [inaudible 00:52:40], within our wards, sisterhoods, we’ve got a ways to go to be one. And I’m just grateful for conversations like this and-
Yahosh Bonner: I’m with LaShawn. Man you’re amazing.
Aubrey Chaves: [crosstalk 00:52:52] Thank you so much guys. Oh yeah what’s your connection?
Yahosh Bonner: Yeah, so she was the head of my black student union group at Salt Lake community college and that was so… I needed it. It really helped me because even within the black community, there’s division, between the Africans and the African Americans and I remember before I went into a BSU club I was excited, “It’s black history month! It’s black history month!” And one of my friends was like, “I don’t celebrate that.” And I was like, “Why not?” And he was like, “I didn’t descend from slaves.” And he’s an African. And I’m like, “Whoa, what?” So with that division, it hurts. But LaShawn, she dropped so much knowledge on all of us. We’re a part of that group and I’m just grateful for that love and being able to communicate how I felt with her and people like me. People that could feel kind of what we go through.
LaShawn Williams: Let me tell you, the day I met Yahosh, and I didn’t even see him. I heard him. We had a sister that was preparing to go on her mission. She was one of our club’s VP and she was in her office reading [inaudible 00:54:07] Gospel, and someone walked in. And this is the beauty of community. When you know the voice of your people, you [crosstalk 00:54:15] that it’s a good day. And I heard Yahosh and the other basketball players they walked in and said, “Ah, you’ve met PMG.” He in the building? I’ve got black folk here, let me go find out who it is. So they gave me the shout out because she was ready to preach my gospel.
Yahosh Bonner: Yes.
LaShawn Williams: Do you remember that?
Yahosh Bonner: Oh my gosh, I vaguely remember that. Oh that is so funny.
LaShawn Williams: Yes. That was [crosstalk 00:54:42]. Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.
Yahosh Bonner: Me and Christian, right? Me and Christian?
LaShawn Williams: You and Christian, yup. That’s exactly right. “The PMG!” And I was like [crosstalk 00:54:56].
Yahosh Bonner: Good times, good times.
Tim Chaves: You guys are both just so incredible. And if I could just share our experience with Yahosh really quickly, we’ve never met in person before but we went to Genesis maybe six months ago and we heard Yahosh speak. He spoke for maybe 20, 30 minutes. He sang, it was amazing, it was beautiful. It was the first time I have sat in the chapel and not looked at the clock once. I just wanted to keep [crosstalk 00:55:22], honestly.
Yahosh Bonner: Thank you.
Tim Chaves: So we appreciate you both so much. And I think we would be remise if we didn’t ask, what did we miss? What questions should we have asked you, especially in a conversation like this? We don’t want to necessarily set the agenda. Is there anything else you guys would like to say or that we should have talked about?
Yahosh Bonner: Well there’s plenty of questions that you could ask, but this is good. It leaves people wanting to ask other people of color, that’s what they should be doing. Opening up those questions. Now, don’t ask them for all the solutions because we didn’t create the problem. But just opening up for a conversation and their heart being out there. And I feel your genuineness in this conversation and that means a lot. LaShawn?
LaShawn Williams: You know what? One of the things that I’m asking a lot of my friends to do, a lot of my white friends to do, especially those of you who feel like you are in the process or have gone through it because you’re used to being in one place but now you have a different understanding. I think it’s really important for you all to share that process.
Yahosh Bonner: Oh yes, oh my gosh yes.
LaShawn Williams: When I think about my own journey with feminism or with the LGBTQ communities, with my own blackness. I’m able to say, “I used to think this. This was really harmful.” I don’t have to go through all the different things because I think we understand what all the harmful things are. This is the work that I started doing that helped me. These were the bumps in the road. These were the times that I messed up. There are things that I said that I’m embarrassed about but if I’m talking to somebody who I feel like is where I was, it’s actually my responsibility more than it is the person that is marginalized by that type of thinking, it’s actually my responsibility because I know what that’s like. So what I think I would say, not that it’s missing, but what I think our next steps can be is for those of us who have done the work, to be the people that are the go-betweens. Example: We can often hear people say, “Well I can see both sides.” And they might mean it, but often times they say I can see both sides because they want to be, is it Sweden or is it Switzerland.
One of them that’s neutral, right? They don’t want to actually engage the conversation. But when you say, “I can see both sides” You actually are saying, “I have a responsibility to translate between both sides.” And so what I would love to see so much more of is all of us, in whatever privileges we have, seeking to focus and say, “You know what, I remember what it was like to be [crosstalk 00:57:58].”
Yahosh Bonner: Yes, because there’s people that you guys can reach that we can’t reach. They won’t listen to us. They want to listen to you because of who you are, so you do have that responsibility. LaShawn I am so glad you said that.
LaShawn Williams:: And they’ll try and convince you to get in the box and be safe with them and continue to believe that way. You have got the stamina, you’ve got the empathy, you’ve got the lived experiences with whatever prejudices and racism you may have had. Just sit with them and say, “I remember that. But you know what, this is what I also started learning and I want to sit with you because I know that you can see this too. Maybe you’re scared and what not, but I’m not scared. And I’m willing to sit with you and help you do this work because it’s right to be against racism. It’s [crosstalk 00:58:44] to fight against racism.” We don’t even have to have black friends, I don’t need to have a connection to black people to fight against racism. It helps, because [crosstalk 00:58:53] be all, listen. I know I don’t need the pat on the back as an ally but today could you just tell me I did a good job, please? Because it was hard.
[crosstalk 00:59:01] You need a cookie? Let’s go get some cookies, let me hear all about it. But then you’ve got to soldier up and get back in there. I need you to go back in there and do that work. I would love to hear more white people sharing their identity development process as they become more comfortable speaking up against racism, bias, and oppression. I feel like that can be the work that I think maybe we’ve been missing as a society. And when you’ve got the position of privilege, you’ve got the stamina to engage, that people who are oppressed by that privilege do not have that stamina. And it’s a responsibility that I think we can bear that burden with one another because there are folks who are mourning because we are not burdened by that.
And that’s an important thing, I think as you all move forward and do more conversations, engage some white folk who have said, “I used to be there. This is the work that I did. This was my turning point.” And now it’s like, once thou art converted, go where? Convert thy brother.
Tim Chaves: Yep.
Aubrey Chaves: Yep.
LaShawn Williams: So I feel like that could be a place that we have yet to untap.
Aubrey Chaves: That is so wise. And I really haven’t heard that yet, and I totally agree. Of course that’s the next step. I love it. Thank you so much guys.
Tim Chaves: We really can’t thank you enough, thank you so much.
LaShawn Williams: This is so cool.
Yahosh Bonner: Absolutely, and I don’t want to leave this conversation without acknowledging the past events that have brought forth these conversations with George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. This is the world we live in and it’s not something that’s new. And for people to actually be able to acknowledging it and seeing it world wide, it’s not us, it’s not just that because we’ve been yelling for years. Y’all killing us. Hundreds of years, y’all killing us. But it takes people, like I said earlier, that don’t look like us. Slavery didn’t stop because the slaves or the enslaved African said, “We’re done.” No, it’s because of people that look like the people enslaving us stepped up and fought. So thank you so much for you two bringing this up, being soldiers and allies in this war, because we want peace but it’s going to take more than just me and LaShawn.
Aubrey Chaves: Thank you so much. We appreciate your perspectives.
Tim Chaves: We love you both, so much.
LaShawn Williams: Love you guys too. Continue to do justice and love mercy, Amen.
Yahosh Bonner: Amen.