It was January 15. By my reckoning, the year was 1979, or maybe it was 1982 or 1983. I’m really not certain, but for sure it was January 15: Martin Luther King’s, Jr.’s birthday.
This was before Dr. King’s birthday was designated a national holiday. I was an undergraduate at UCLA, and the Black Student Alliance or some similar on-campus organization was commemorating the reverend’s birth by sponsoring a rally in his honor at Meyerhoff Park—a small patch of grass at the center of campus set aside for just such purposes. I didn’t know what to expect at such an event, but I felt sufficiently moved by Dr. King’s efforts to make our nation a better place that I decided to attend. It seemed like a good place to be and a good reason to be there.
Arriving early, I took a seat on the grass and waited for the rally to begin. As the smallish crowd gathered around me, I became increasingly aware that I was more than a little out-of-place. I was, in fact, just about the only Caucasian in the group—a middle-class white kid from a nearly-all-white high school in a nearly-all-white town. And as if my physical appearance weren’t enough to make me feel like I did not belong, I then listened to speakers whose references to “we” quite clearly did not include people like me.
Had I not arrived early, I could have hung near the edge of the crowd before making an inconspicuous getaway. And no doubt I would have—gladly. But there I was, smack in the middle of it all, the awkward, white undergraduate, in it for the duration.
My self-consciousness reached its peak when one of the speakers invited everyone to stand and join in the singing of the National Anthem. The Black National Anthem, that is. The Black National Anthem?, I thought. I didn’t know blacks had their own National Anthem! And you can bet I didn’t know the words. I wanted to crawl away.
Then, as the crowd joined hands and began swaying and singing, something remarkable happened. From behind someone grabbed my left hand, and then someone else grabbed my right. No doubt detecting my apprehension and embarrassment, they had found a simple way to gather me in and let me know that I was among friends. It has been over 30 years, and I still cannot share this memory without becoming emotional. How glad I am that I stuck around that day.
Does this story perhaps sound familiar to you? I fear that sometimes we Mormons can make those visiting our congregations feel a bit like they have stumbled into someone else’s rally at Meyerhoff Park. We do tend to talk alike, dress alike, act alike. We have our own vocabulary and rituals and unfamiliar songs. To newcomers and outsiders and folks making those tentative first steps back into church activity, we may inadvertently give signals that if you don’t look or act or talk a certain way then you really don’t belong.
Well, that is certainly not our intent. I can tell you that as Bishop my goal is to make the Santiago Creek Ward a sanctuary in the fullest sense of the word: both a safe place and a holy place. Come as you are, I say, with all of your warts and imperfections. If upon arrival you feel a little self-conscious, stick it out for a few minutes and you will discover that we have plenty of warts and imperfections as well. Come worship with us, and before long you will feel yourself welcomed, gathered in, as if a warm hand has slipped into yours to let you know that you are safely among friends.