Despite the church’s growing diversity, there is one question that Donald Kelly hears over and over: How can he, a black man, belong to a church that didn’t allow full membership for blacks until 1978?
“I don’t look at [the church’s past position on race] as much as I do the way this church helps me become a better person today,” says Kelly, 28, of West Palm Beach.
Born in Jamaica, he converted to Mormonism in the 8th grade, the only one in his family to do so. He was one of the few black students at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he was student body president.
“It’s so white there, I couldn’t find someone to cut my hair,” he says.
For Kelly, the Mormon tenants of hard work and education align with his goals of getting an MBA, “at Harvard or Wharton,” then starting a business, getting into private equity funding and eventually, politics.
If his desired career path sounds similar to that of a particular Republican presidential candidate, well, perhaps, yet Kelly won’t say who he’s supporting in the election.
“What I love about the church is they never talk politics,” he says. “Although as a church member, I feel closer to the Republican side of things.”
Outwardly, Mormon life doesn’t look much different from anyone else’s, but members’ weeks brim with church activities.
The Mormon week starts with three hours of church on Sunday. Monday Home Evenings are set aside for Gospel study, games and family activities. Youth groups meet once a week, and single adults have their own weekly meetings. Every morning before school, high school students gather at their local churches at 5 or 6 a.m. to learn about God.
Activities like the Mormon teen dance in Boca Raton are designed to reinforce Mormon values while giving kids who can’t wear bikinis to the beach or date until they’re 16 a place to feel normal.
“Mormon kids often feel a little different from their peers,” says Shauna Hostetler, a lifelong LDS member from Wellington. “We try to help them feel proud of being different.”
Barbara Marshall is a staff writer for The Palm Beach Post, a Miami Herald news partner.