“My membership in the Church—the decision to join—was the single most important decision in my life,” Catherine Stokes says.
For someone like Sister Stokes, who seeks out ways to serve other people, the gospel has offered a cornucopia of opportunities. It has also helped her improve her relationships with others and has brought her a greatly expanded circle of friends.
Changes and growth in the Church over the past two decades have opened new spiritual vistas for Catherine Stokes and many other black members. Many black members are blessing the lives of others through their service.
Following are the stories of four of these members: Robert Stevenson, a businessman in the Atlanta, Georgia, area; David Eka, senior instrumentation engineer for the Nigerian AGIP Oil Company; Kelvin Diaz of Trinidad, retired from government service and business; and Catherine M. Stokes, administrator for the Field Operations Section of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“If There Were Prophets in the Past, We Needed Them Now”
Robert Stevenson grew up in Selma, Alabama, where he learned to despise racial prejudice. He also grew up unable to accept fully the concepts of God and religion that had been taught to him.
He became involved in the black power philosophies of other U.S. soldiers serving with him in Germany in the early 1970s, but inwardly, Robert believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all mankind. He knew that his life had been spared for some purpose when, as a boy, he had been warned by the audible voice of an unseen protector to flee from a dangerous snake.
The only thing Robert had heard about Latter-day Saints was negative—until he met Sheldon Sizemore. The young Latter-day Saint soldier taught things that Robert had long believed about God and the purposes of life.
From the beginning, Robert accepted gospel truths. He says, for example, “I had no trouble accepting Joseph Smith as a prophet. Surely if there were prophets in the past, we needed them now.”
Robert had heard before that black men who joined the Church could not be ordained to the priesthood, but he didn’t believe the reports were valid. He confronted that fact head-on for the first time in a book Sheldon loaned him. Some of his old anger about racial separatism surfaced. Robert felt pulled in two directions as he discussed the problem with Sheldon, because, as he explains, “I was standing there with a testimony.” But he was angry, and he tossed the book at Sheldon and demanded an explanation.
The discussion ended with Sheldon urging Robert to pray about whether the Church was true. “The ball was back in my court,” Robert says.
Robert’s prayer in a wooded area behind the barracks yielded no specific answer, but a calmness and peace came over him. Later, back in the barracks, the answer came—not “an angel to sit there on my wall locker” and testify, he says, but a quiet confirmation of his testimony.
Robert Stevenson was baptized on 8 February 1972. After being discharged from the army in 1973, he considered himself just another LDS student when he enrolled at Church-owned Ricks College that fall. In 1975 he went on to study at Brigham Young University, where he made news when he was elected student body vice-president. After the election, a New York Times reporter asked him what it was like to be a black person at a white university. “I don’t know,” Brother Stevenson replied, “because I’m not a black person at a white university. I’m a Mormon at a Mormon university.”
It was at BYU that he met his wife, Susan Bevan. They were married on 21 April 1978, after careful consideration of the difficulties they might face and after receiving counsel about the challenges of interracial marriage.
By early June of 1978, Brother Stevenson had graduated from BYU, received a commission as an army officer, and moved with his wife to his post in Anniston, Alabama. On the morning of June 9, a Church leader called to tell him of the revelation making the priesthood available to all worthy male members. Brother Stevenson in turn called his wife home from work to share the news. They cried together and prayed in gratitude. They were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple on 21 April 1979.
There were members in Alabama, Robert says, who opposed a black man’s being ordained to the priesthood. Eventually, some of those members took themselves out of the Church. But Brother Stevenson stayed, intent on doing what he had started out to do—following the Savior’s teachings and enjoying the blessings of the plan of salvation.
He says, “I intend to be a Latter-day Saint—not a black Latter-day Saint, not a white Latter-day Saint, but just a Latter-day Saint.”
He served on the high council in the Birmingham Alabama Stake and has served in a variety of other positions in the Church. He is currently president of the Young Men in the Carrollton Branch, Marietta Georgia Stake. Sister Stevenson is a teacher and pianist in the Relief Society. They have three children: Robert III, Celeste Camille, and Candace Sue.
Each person brings his or her “own special brick” into the kingdom of God to help build it, Brother Stevenson explains. Every individual is important, and our Heavenly Father gives us experiences to prepare us for the roles we can play in advancing his work on earth.
“God is no respecter of persons,” Brother Stevenson says. “There is always personal growth to be found in each opportunity we take to serve Him through serving others” in the Church. One of the most important blessings of the gospel is the opportunity to “tap into” the guidance and purifying spirit of the Holy Ghost in day-to-day life, because this guidance can help anyone who listens and obeys “to be an instrument in the hands of God.”
“Nothing Will Stop the Church”
David Eka grew up learning the carpentry business under his father’s tutelage in Etinan, Nigeria. He was active in both his father’s church and the church of his mother’s family. His industry and ability were great assets to his family.
He was in his final year of technical school in Enugu, Nigeria, when the country’s civil war broke out in the late 1960s. He was drawn into it. With the assurance that the Lord was protecting him, he prayed every night in the bush, promising to serve God if he arrived home safely. He was forewarned once, he says, by “a still small voice in me” to leave a bunker that was bombed seconds later. The Lord protected him, and he safely returned home.
Several years after the war, David married Ekaete Dennis Akpan. In order to advance in his job with Mobil Oil, David needed further education, so in 1976, shortly after the birth of their first child, he moved his family to England. He studied instrumentation and control engineering while his wife studied business and management.
But he had to return to Nigeria in 1979 to finish his fourth year of study in the National Youth Service, leaving his wife, now with two children, in England to continue her studies.
They had previously heard about the Church through David’s uncle in California, a member who had sent them a copy of the Book of Mormon. David had been intrigued by the story of Joseph Smith, wondering if it were possible that there could be a prophet today. Then, after he returned to Nigeria, he was asked to assist Church representatives in the translation and proofreading of selections from the Book of Mormon. “That gave me a chance to know what was in the Book of Mormon. At the end of it, I knew it was all true.”
He wrote to tell his wife of his baptism, but it was not until she rejoined him in Nigeria that she saw for herself the changes wrought by the gospel in his life. She began her own secret study of his books. After gaining a testimony, she told him that she, too, wanted to be baptized. 1
David Eka’s experiences in the Church have included seeing the early beginnings of the Church in Africa. He served as the first black stake president in Africa and now serves as a regional representative for the Aba Nigeria Region. Among his tutors were several mission presidents, including Robert E. Sackley, now of the Seventy.
Brother Eka was deeply impressed by the words of Elder Derek Cuthbert of the Seventy during a 1980 visit: “Nothing will stop this work.” This has been, Brother Eka says, “my guiding motto: Nothing will stop the Church.”
But there will be obstacles to overcome, and there is much personal stretching ahead for African members, he says.
There is a need to develop leadership. To this end, he initiated a training program that encourages proper record-keeping, family history work, and temple preparation. “We carry temple recommends even though we don’t have a temple.” He dreams of the day when there will be a temple in Nigeria. He and his wife are among a handful of endowed members in their country; most cannot afford to travel to the temple in London, and even if they could afford the fare to Johannesburg, they could not go to South Africa for political reasons.
Members are handicapped by poverty. Local programs have been devised to help in agriculture and in making better use of financial resources. Fortunately, when individuals need assistance, it is natural for family members to help. Africans are strong believers in the extended family, Brother Eka says.
In time, he expects these problems, as well as others, to be overcome. And what future does he see for the Church?
He sees great potential for growth in membership there. “Proselyting in Africa is very easy. Everyone is excited about something new.” Those who have studied outside their country are particularly open to new ideas, he says.
Many Christians in his country are accustomed to studying and quoting the Bible regularly, Brother Eka says, even though it may not provide all the answers they are seeking. They are usually interested in the gospel when they find “that the Book of Mormon provides nearly all the missing links.”
Nigerian members know that they belong to a worldwide church. “A time will come that Africans will go to the United States, will go to Europe, will go everywhere to tell them about Joseph Smith.” 2
“I Love the Missionaries”
Kelvin Diaz joined the Scouts at age seven, when he became a Cub Scout in his small village on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. Mixing service to Scouting with a demanding career through the years, he eventually became a commissioner, supervising Scouting for twenty-five hundred Boy Scouts in Port-of-Spain, the capital city of Trinidad and Tobago.
So when he saw the health fair in a Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, shopping mall, he thought immediately that it might hold something of value for his Scouts. He was impressed as he walked through the exhibits. Usually, material on sexually transmitted diseases offered after-the-fact approaches, so he was especially impressed with a poster that advised: “Chastity before marriage. Fidelity after.”
As he walked away from the exhibits, he recalls, “I could hear a voice—or so it seemed to me—that said, ‘Go back. Find out something about the people who ran this fair.’”
The fair was run by a North American couple, Arline and Frank Talley. Kelvin left his name with one of their assistants. No one mentioned the Talleys’ religious affiliation to him, but within twenty-four hours, a Latter-day Saint missionary telephoned to follow up on the contact.
Kelvin immediately liked the elders who visited him, especially after he learned that both were Eagle Scouts. They taught him at Scout headquarters, where he was heavily involved in a project.
The decision to be baptized was not an easy one. He had been raised as a member of Trinidad’s dominant faith; one of his volunteer roles was serving as regional secretary of that church’s widespread youth organization.
But the scripture in James 1:5 paved the way for his decision, because he felt that he had received answers from God by asking for them.
The Book of Mormon helped build his testimony, too. He carried the book everywhere with him and read it. It taught him many things about who he was, where he came from, why he was here, and what his relationship with others should be.
The day of his baptism “was one of the most glorious mornings of my life,” he says. Afterward, “I attended as many baptisms as I could, to recapture that moment of peace and happiness when I received the Holy Ghost.”
“I love the missionaries,” Brother Diaz says. He believes the Lord put him in the right place at the right time to help the missionaries. As a new convert, he learned that missionaries could only enter the country of Trinidad and Tobago for a short time on visitors’ visas. So he helped arrange, through government contacts, for visas allowing them to stay for periods of one year and, in special cases, longer. The change came just in time to accommodate ten missionaries who were to leave Barbados. Brother Diaz’s efforts to aid missionary work are continuing. “We now have thirty-eight missionaries,” he says.
For several years, he was head of his country’s Central Training Unit, which trains all managers in government. Then, for fourteen years before retiring, he was manager of organization planning and development for British West Indian Airways. His friendships with business and government leaders have enabled him to blunt some of the attacks on the Church in his nation’s media. With the guidance of the Spirit, he says, he has always been able to end discussions on a friendly basis and change key leaders’ perceptions about the Church.
The storms of criticism, he comments, have been wearying and discouraging to some of the approximately four hundred Latter-day Saints in Trinidad and Tobago. “In those moments, we found that prayer was the answer. And the Holy Ghost would assist us, console us, guide us, help us find the answers. We have gone through these things, and we are none the worse for it. In fact, we are moving steadily ahead with the work of the Lord.”
In addition to his career and his Scout work, he has served in Red Cross hurricane disaster relief. The country of Trinidad and Tobago is a member of the British Commonwealth, and Brother Diaz was awarded the MBE—Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—for his work in public service. But he says he has never been busier than since he retired. He is first counselor to the president of the new Trinidad and Tobago Mission (he previously served in that calling in the West Indies Mission). He is also Church Education System coordinator in the West Indies.
It would be enough to make him tired, he says, but he finds new strength and “revival” in the gospel and in the help of the Holy Ghost. Sometimes, he says, “I say I’m tired, but there’s always a new source of energy, and I know it’s the Lord.”
“An Environment Where I Can Trust”
Catherine Stokes’s acquaintance with the Church began on a June day in 1978 when she was flying into Honolulu for a nurses’ convention. The pilot suggested that visitors take the opportunity to see the Hawaii Temple, which was open to the public for the first time in many years because it had just been renovated.
The temple was closed when she went there, but she filled out a referral card at the visitors’ center. Back home in Chicago a few weeks later, she was “stunned at the follow-through” when missionaries showed up with that same card in hand.
“It took months and several sets of elders,” she recalls, before she was ready for baptism. It was February 1979 when she began to realize that she believed that the things she was hearing from the missionaries were true—and to ask herself a question: What, then, was her responsibility as one who knew the truth? She was baptized in April of that year. Soon her teenage daughter, Ardelia, was drawn into the Church through her mother’s activity.
She says the gospel has improved her relationships with people both inside and outside the Church. But in the Church, she has found a place where “I can trust—and people can trust me.” That trust means being able to talk comfortably with Church members about things she would not discuss with others—racial and cultural differences, for example.
“I talk with people easily, and I enjoy it. I think I get that from watching children. Children are the greatest examples in my life.” She is grateful for the trust of friends who have at times allowed her to care for or influence their children. “Could I have found this relationship outside the Church? I doubt that.”
She recalls the lesson taught to her one day by the child of a French-born friend. Sister Stokes had taken the little girl to a movie. The girl said that if they continued to spend so much time together, people might think Sister Stokes was her mother. Seeing the obvious difference in skin color, people around them in the movie line laughed. Sister Stokes replied, “I don’t think so, dear.”
“Why?” the child asked.
“Because I don’t speak French.” The little girl accepted this answer. Children, Sister Stokes explains, don’t see some of the exterior differences between people as important, unless adults teach them that those differences are a factor in the way people are to be treated.
“I grew up in very harsh, stark poverty, and there were many, many deficits and hurts. I think my associations with children in the Church are a way for those deficits to be overcome and those hurts to be healed.”
Catherine wishes she could have found the gospel much sooner, as a young girl when it could have affected her life earlier. She laughs when she says maybe that’s why she had the opportunity to serve as ward Young Women president. Earlier, she had served for four years as Relief Society president. Currently, she serves as music chairman in her ward, serves on the Church’s regional public affairs council, and is a member of the advisory board for the Illinois Chicago Agency of LDS Social Services.
But her callings don’t feel like a burden because for her, service is inseparably intertwined with love. “I believe that that very basic principle Jesus taught—that we love one another as he has loved us (see John 13:34)—will be the salvation of our world.”