For Karen Sowu, the Mormon church has acted as a surrogate family since 1994. Sowu says her faith offers the sense of family and tradition that she has not found elsewhere. (Photo by Jason Reblando)

It’s late on a February afternoon when Karen Sowu shows up at the Starbucks at 55th Street and Woodlawn Avenue. “I’ve never been here before,” she says as soon as she walks in from the cold. She’s not just talking about this particular store, but the entire chain of coffee shops. Still, Sowu wastes no time ordering herself a hot chocolate, one of the drinks here permitted by her religion’s restrictions on caffeine. Though she’s already had three hours of services at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hyde Park, Sowu chats enthusiastically about her faith, pausing only to sip her drink.

Sowu joined the church in Marietta, Ga., in 1994, after her only son, Daniel, had just left for boarding school in Pennsylvania. Daniel’s departure left a hole in Sowu’s life; she’d end up crying herself to sleep in his room or staying up late watching TV. Often a commercial for the church would come on. It showed a man talking about wandering aimlessly through this world and countered that sense of hopelessness with the message that God has a plan for our lives. Feeling aimless herself, Sowu called the number.

The church acted as a surrogate family for Sowu, occupying her time and helping her to deal with being apart from her son and from her family in Chicago, she says. When she confided in her bishop about the depression she felt after her son’s departure, he gave her more church duties as a way of keeping her busy. Eventually, she was so exhausted that, “I hardly had time to cry for him. It really got me over a hard time,” she recalls.

Despite all this, her own family is critical of her choice to become a Mormon. “I get comments like, ‘You belong to that white church,'” says Sowu, who is African American. And not only is it a church where her race is in the extreme minority, but one that used to ban black members from its priesthood until 1978.

Yet, for many black Mormons like Sowu, spiritual belief overshadows the problem of being a racial minority in a church with a discriminatory past. Though Sowu never experienced overt racism at her first “ward,” or church, in Georgia, she says she felt a personal unfriendliness from white members that she describes as “the quiet kind of racism.” Still, her faith was more important. “It didn’t really matter to me that they were crazy, because I was really after the doctrine and how true it was,” she says.

At the heart of that doctrine is an emphasis on family that church officials say draws seekers of all races. “The church appeals to African American people for the same reasons that it appeals to people in general,” says Gary Blakely, president of the Chicago Illinois Stake, which oversees 11 local congregations. “It’s a church that focuses very much on families, so it appeals to people who believe that family relationships can endure beyond mortality.”

Armand L. Mauss, professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, adds that the focus on promoting healthy families may be particularly attractive to African Americans. “That’s not to say that other churches, including traditional black churches, don’t also teach about wholesome family life,” says Mauss, former president of the Mormon History Association and author of a study exploring Mormon attitudes toward racial minorities. “But the Mormon emphasis seems stronger than most.”

Still, the appeal of the church’s beliefs doesn’t always make it easy for black members to accept its past. Darron Smith, co-editor of a book of essays entitled “Black and Mormon,” believes that the church’s refusal to acknowledge past mistakes is a major obstacle to its outreach efforts in cities like Chicago. “The church has not had the success among working-class blacks that it has had, however modestly, among middle-class blacks who consider themselves to be ‘socially white,'” he says, pointing out that the estimated number of black Mormons is a fraction of the 5.7 million members in this country.

Despite his criticism, Smith continues to be a practicing Mormon. “Churches aren’t free from racism, and me leaving is not going to change that,” he explains.

Don Harwell, president of The Genesis Group, the church-affiliated support group for black Mormons, says that his fellow African American members can’t remain focused on the issue. “I don’t like it. I don’t think it was right. But I can’t live in the past,” he says.

It’s getting dark as the missionaries head toward the bus stop at 67th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue to catch a ride home. They’ve had a long afternoon of visiting new members of the Hyde Park ward, with lessons from the Book of Mormon to discuss, gossip to catch up on, theological questions to answer and prayers to offer. And, while their suits still look fresh and their white shirts still gleam, Mike Johnson’s and Brad Cummings’ earlier enthusiastic chatter and serious testimonies about their faith, undeterred by looks from people on the bus, have finally quieted down.

Mormon missionaries are referred to by the title “elder,” which might be misleading, since they are usually in their late teens or early 20s. Johnson and Cummings, both at 21, are no different: earnest-looking and sincere in their sensible suits, their plastic nametags being the only thing about them that really says “elder.” But the missionaries, both of whom are white, say they’ve grown a lot since they started covering the South Shore neighborhood last year. On a good day, this means learning about a world very different from their respective hometowns of Las Vegas, Nev., and Roy, Utah. On a bad day, it means getting doors slammed in their faces or having a bike stolen from inside the church.

As far as discussions of race go, the missionaries say that most of the time people are simply surprised that there are black Mormons. When the priest ban comes up, Cummings says all he can say is, “I don’t have the answers.” “It’s probably a bit of an issue for some people,” he adds, “and I can understand why that is.”

The church has never given a formal, doctrine-based explanation for the existence of the priesthood ban. In 1978, the church leadership announced that a divine “revelation” had proclaimed the eligibility of all male members to join the priesthood. Kim Farah, a Church spokesperson, says that the new eligibility was part of God’s plan—not the church’s. The church, therefore, is not in a position to comment on it, she says. “When [the revelation] was received, there was a time of great rejoicing in the church,” she added.

The revelation helped pave the way for the church’s exponential growth in areas like Africa and the Caribbean, Mauss said. Though the church keeps no records on membership based on race, scholars estimate that up to 10,000 Mormons in this country are African American. This small number may suggest that African Americans remain comparatively hesitant to join, but people like Sowu are encouraging the church’s efforts to reach out to black communities.

Enter the missionaries. Although they cannot explain the ban, they openly greet questions about it with the same strength of faith that helped Sowu at her original ward. “What I do know is that God’s ways are not my ways, and I don’t always understand everything that God does, but he does everything for a reason,” Cummings says. After a pause, he admits, “It’s kind of a vague explanation.”

Nonetheless, it works for Jeanette Street, who has been a member of the Hyde Park ward since 1997. Like Sowu, she joined the church after experiencing a major family loss, when her husband died in 1995. She views the church as her family and, as if to prove it, she rattles off the latest news of her closest friends and shows off pictures of their children like a proud grandmother. Also like Sowu, Street’s own family, except for a grandson, is not affiliated with the church. She thinks they refuse to attend with her because they’re “jealous” of her positive experiences there. Besides, she says, “I have a family from church.”

She freely admits that she stands out as a black person in her ward, but she says she enjoys her unique status. In 2002, she was one of the hostesses at the opening of the temple in downstate Nauvoo, representing what she calls “Mormon black.” “Whatever we have, I’m Mormon black!” she laughs.

Street says she’s never experienced any racism in the church, and that the priesthood ban doesn’t bother her simply because, “Now it’s different.” What’s important to her is the sense of family and tradition that she never found when she was an African Methodist Episcopal or a Catholic. “If they love you, they’re like family,” she says.

Sowu can support Street’s views on other religions, having tried out “everything” before she became a Mormon. She concedes that there’s a paradox between her joining a church with such a controversial history and her background as a civil rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., and was involved with the Black Panthers in Chicago. But her experiences have also allowed her to take a historical perspective on the church’s past. “If you look at the world and what was happening, especially in the United States, we weren’t allowed to do anything until the ’70s,” she says. “The church is still in the world, even though we would like to be above it.”

In the end, none of that really matters to her. She likes to tell a story about a time when she was driving in Pennsylvania and got a flat tire. Though she had had AAA for years, she called the Mormons, instead. “They came out, fixed my tire and brought me something to eat. It’s nice like that,” she smiles. “You’ve got a backup. Anywhere you go.”