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Today's pioneers of African heritage

Exhibit highlights lives of contemporary black members

WASHINGTON, D.C. — People of African and Afro-American descent bustled through the doors of the Washington DC Temple Visitors Center on the morning of Jan. 21, arms laden with personal memorabilia and family treasures. They arrived to prepare exhibits for the fifth annual commemoration of Black Heritage Month in February.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Bishop Charles Washington of the Capitol Ward, Suitland Maryland Stake, and convert of 25 years. "We have our individual backgrounds, but we join together to worship, love and understand each other."

"Contemporary Black LDS Pioneers," the theme for 2006 Black Heritage Month, will honor one of the Church's fastest-growing convert groups. "We celebrate and recognize today's pioneers of African and Afro-American heritage," explained David Oryang, former bishop of the White Oak Ward, Silver Spring Maryland Stake.

"It is important for people to see that we do have black leadership and that the Church does not discriminate," said Bishop Oryang, a convert of 18 years who currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric in the Quantico Ward, Woodbridge Virginia Stake.

The month's activities include firesides featuring the first black called as stake president in the northeastern United States, Ahmad Corbitt of the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake, who also serves as director of International and Public Affairs for the Church in New York City; Bishop Alvin Jackson of the Kensington Ward, Washington D.C. Stake; and NFL football star Burgess Owens. The Fellowship Ensemble of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and Sam Warren, a recent convert and founding member of the famed Drifters recording group, are among those who will provide music.

Brother Warren is one of the newest Church members in the Washington area, baptized less than a year ago. Having performed in more than 4,000 concerts, he especially appreciates the constancy and equality of Church membership.

"There's no showboating — people are genuine and real," he said while placing a picture of the Drifters inside a display case. "I've been all over the world, but I've never been touched by anything like this religion and what it stands for. It's like coming home to family, and I'm never going to leave."

Chairwoman Betty Cannon said events are planned to recognize the accomplishments of 21st century black pioneers in the mid-Atlantic region. Among them are five bishops as well as President Corbitt.

"Our displays and programs showcase the service and leadership of blacks in the restored Church," she explained. A "Wall of Honor" features photos and biographies of some 40 such members. Faithful and dedicated, the majority are first-generation Latter-day Saints who were baptized in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica and the United States.

"I loved the spirit of the people and the doctrines of the Church, mostly because I was already applying some of them in my life and was surprised that others have the same principles, too," reads a portion of the biography of Charles Mbassa, a member of six years.

Others, such as Janice Parks, described an immediate acceptance of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. "I believed it instantly and was much moved," said Sister Parks, a convert of one year. Elder Jess Christensen, visitors center director, suggested that Black Heritage Month offers unique opportunities for Church members to invite friends of all races and cultures.

That's just what Joseph Forson, a convert of 15 years and bishop of the Anacostia Ward, Suitland Maryland Stake, intends to do. "We are planning a ward trip here and we're asking each member to bring one investigator."

"People don't think there are blacks in the Church," commented Brother Warren.

Bishop Washington agreed. "I recently brought an investigator to Church," he said. "When I asked what he thought, he said it was a nice service but there were too many white people. I told him not to look for color, but to come with an open heart and to listen for the Spirit."

The Spirit prompted Linwood Green to join the Church in 1979. He is a former bishop of White Oak and Rock Hill Wards and is currently a member of the high council of the Fredericksburg Virginia Stake.

Bishop Green urged members to extend themselves to new converts and to engage them in activities that will strengthen their faith. "Express love and reach out to them; invite them and make them feel welcome," he advised.

Preparations for Black Heritage Month brought Bishops Washington, Green, Forson and Oryang together for the first time. Standing side-by-side, they personified the continuing growth of the Church and the worldwide draw of the gospel net.

"We hope others will see that the Church is for all people," said Bishop Oryang. "We have different physical bodies and complexions, but we're all brothers and sisters."