The crisp coldness of the Utah Valley winter air dominated my senses but clashed in competition with the rumbling warmth of an idling Cadillac engine. Soon I found myself side by side with my best friend, rolling, in silence, through a meandering suburban maze. By the time the humming motor took over the soundscape, my mind began to ruminate on the events that had led up to this unassuming moment. If I had allowed my mind to wander further back in time, I would have marveled at the stranger than fiction story-line that had brought two New Yorkers – one black, one white– to cross paths in Orem, Utah of all places. But, as it was, my subconscious and my conscious, seated side by side in my right and left brain hemispheres respectively, enjoyed a quiet, mutual appreciation, perfectly paralleled by the way Mike and I respectfully remained in our own private thoughts during these demure moments of reverie.
I thought back to only hours earlier, when we had made a midnight run for burritos at a popular 24 hours spot located in that no man’s land in between Orem and Provo. During my not so distant college days I had jokingly dubbed that area, “Orvo”. Although we were unaware, time and space had here converged in an “Ovum” pregnant with possibilities. Another brother from yet another mother, Brio Springford, would later explain to me the mystical significance of such intermediate states as midnight, dusk and dawn. Neither here nor there, this nor that, halfway between solid and gas, they act as a mystical mist or lubricant opening portals between the physical world and the realm of spirit. But, like I said, my conscious mind was not even traveling back that far into the strange and slow spiritual sojourn that had taken my brother and I along the paths of Muslim and Mormon to this current crossroads in Christ. Brio was, at this point, still just a Facebook acquaintance going by his first given name, Joseph. And all I remembered was the good grub and good conversation.
We had talked of many things; Mexican food and culture, U.S. culture, Mexican women, U.S. women. But mostly, Mike shared his enthusiasm for Cadillacs. This was my first time riding in one and I could see why he liked them so much. Comfortable and kingly, the ride evoked a classic coolness to transcend all trends. As he described the character of the car I could see, hear and feel the truthfulness of his report. This was an honorable vehicle. Even its functional flaws figured nobly into its proud performance –Honor on wheels.
This magnificent maroon colored machine now made its way to the freeway on-ramp and my thoughts moved forward to only minutes before we left the house. I had checked online and saw that the Facebook friend I mentioned earlier had invited me to join a group that called itself the Mormon Reconciliation Movement. Joseph explained in a message that the group’s goals were somewhat loosely defined but that they wanted to at least start a dialogue among people who desired a peaceful and happy society. Open to and in fact reaching out to those of all faiths and cultures, the group would however maintain as one of its focal points, a reconciliation, specifically between Mormons and Native Americans.
I was well versed in the lamentable history between LDS and ‘Lamanites’. Now as the little man in my mind accessed the file on dealings between Mormon settlers and Native tribes, I saw a vast library of information appear on my mental screen. There was Joseph’s referencing of the native population as modern descendents of the Lamanite civilization described in the Book of Mormon narrative. The commission to the overwhelmingly white converts of an early Mormon Church to join with the natives, rejected, and a precarious distance respected in Brigham’s Utah. My great-great-great-great grandfather and one of my guardian angels, Daniel Webster Jones’ statement that he had found, “more nobility of character among the Indians than what is common among many whites, even Mormons included,” echoed through my thoughts. Appalling accounts of treachery towards the Hopi that built the corrupt careers of Ernest L. Wilkinson and others were harrowed up from this dark data base. But perhaps most disturbing to me were the misguided notions of LDS Church President, Spencer W. Kimball. Most disturbing, because, this sweet old man with smiling eyes, had a love for the Navajo people, which seemed to be sincere, real. I guess Pres. Kimball was a product of the thinking of his time. But I found no comfort in this conclusion. That an old man with a good heart would allow the racism of his era to mislead his heart was extremely saddening to my own heart. The contrast between true love and false principles made me feel like puking. And speaking about “striking contrast,” as a product of ‘his era’, he pushed the painful irony deeper when, in a 1960 issue of a magazine called The Improvement Era, he said:
“I saw a striking contrast in the progress of the Indian people today …. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised. In this picture of the twenty Lamanite missionaries, fifteen of the twenty were as light as Anglos, five were darker but equally delightsome. The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter we represent, the little member girl—sixteen—sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents—on the same reservation, in the same hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather…. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.”
During this very visit to friends in Utah, my wife, Quiana and I, had witnessed firsthand, the soul-corroding effects of Kimball’s zeal for the Indian Placement Program. Long-time friends of Navajo descent, the Seschille Sisters, welcomed us to their home until they discovered that Quiana, by choice, no longer wore the LDS Temple undergarments. They seemed unable to feel the spirit of the ancestors sweeping the land, unaware of the blocks that had been placed between them and their kindred dead; while Quiana and I were unable to deny that same powerful spirit of Elijah. Just over a month prior, during the harvest time of year once celebrated by my Keltic ancestors as Samhain, now commercialized as Halloween and observed in Mexican tradition as Day of the Dead, we had been made keenly aware of the presence of those long passed. It wasn’t so much the resurrection of repressed ancestral memories, but a relaxed and naturally remembered ritual. There was a very ‘tuberous’ theme reminding us of our ‘roots’ that day. Modern-day Americans, of course, use pumpkins. But the Keltic Clans had used turnips, and they felt right at home with the anciently rooted Nahuatl custom, which made use of a closely related species –the refreshing jicama. Revived spiritual sensitivity along with an already sanctioned mix of Catholic and Mesoamerican holy days being observed locally by the general public, coincided to usher in an early thanksgiving, which had always been Quiana’s and my favorite holiday. It was really nice, because, whereas living so far from ‘living’ relatives made get-togethers extremely difficult, this simple openness that had snuggled up to our hearts gradually till this period of permeability in the veil between worlds, reminded us that distance itself was relative. And hence, distant relatives and even the spirits of relations of close friends and curious neighbors, graced our home with their visitation during this season.
But, I digress. This was not the warm climate of central Mexico. It was early December in Utah, and my train of thought was stopped cold in its tracks. I was contemplating the cruel confusion of this world that made a genuinely respectable man capable of hosting such degrading attitudes and perpetrating truly deplorable actions toward such a noble albeit abused race. As soon as the sick and twisted picture started to sink in, a feeling suddenly came over my heart and a thought rushed into my mind. I felt and thought that Spencer was truly sorry and repentant for his past transgressions. But who could know but the man himself and God, right?
Then, just as suddenly, my train of thought was completely derailed when Mike’s gruff voice broke the silence. “There’s this Caddy I peeped on KSL classifieds. I was thinkin’ of goin’ to check it out after we run these errands.” Oh, so not derailed but looped back to the original line of thought, “Cadillacs”. I listened while the enthusiast described the details of the vehicle for sale. It was located in American Fork –we were headed there anyway. It was a ’79 DeVille D’Elegance –we were riding in a 1980 DeVille. It was originally owned by Spencer Kimball. “Whoah, hold up. Did you say Spencer Kimball?” I asked. I had to consciously swallow the ‘W’ that my Babylonian upbringing was wont to automatically insert; as if the presentation of, first name–middle initial–surname, would grant the man some heir of worldly importance. Mike confirmed that I had indeed heard him correctly. He said, “Yeah, I guess you know who he was. I wasn’t really familiar with that name but I gathered that he was a leader in the LDS Church.” As I marveled over the route of thought that had just completed a perfect closed circuit through my mind and Mike’s mouth, I told my friend that Spencer Kimball was the President who had finally changed the policy preventing black men from being ordained to the Priesthood in the Church. Mike’s eyebrows were slightly raised and his tone was somber as he said, “Wow. See, that makes me even more interested in this car.”
I too was seized with the desire to see this car and took it as a very material validation of the sweet spiritual assurance I had just received. Why should Spencer Kimball confess and speak to my heart regarding his personal conversion? Why should he want to offer this token and sign of his repentance? Why not? Our hearts were one on this issue. We all help one another as brothers and sisters through mutually uplifting heart to heart dialogue. One who is looked up to as a leader in any capacity knows that they can only retain respect in the eyes of their younger supporters through humility. Public confession was a very emotionally freeing way to keep families working well together in the early days of any Christian movement. The bold swallowing of pride by one of my elders, so long removed from the sphere of the ‘living’, but nonetheless indelibly impressed upon my mind from the earliest days of my childhood, caused my mind also, to be humbled. I understood that God’s forgiveness is infinite and that by continuing to judge someone based on the actions of their past, I could lose the opportunity of reaping beautiful blessings from the reconciliation that comes about through repentance. My mind could hardly believe what was happening but secretly I was excited by the prospect of participating in what appeared to be an inter-dimensional gift exchange transacted across time and space.
We went to see Kimball’s caddy. There she was, shinning in a partially iced-over driveway just off of 100 East; an impressive, Book of Mormon Blue, Mafioso looking ’79 Cadillac DeVille D’Elegance. The current owner came outside and shook our hands. We admired his scrap-metal artwork as he rummaged through drawers in his garage and finally produced the keys to the vehicle. We examined its spacious trunk, its plush, light blue interior. Between the seats, Mike found a clear plastic clip with worn adhesive material on the back, encasing a little slip of paper. “Yo, check this out.” He passed it to me. At the top of the paper it read: LDS Vehicle Service Center. Below it listed the details of a service check done in May of ’87. This being a ’79 model would have been issued to Spencer in September of the previous year, making it the same car which transported him the day of the historic announcement in general conference on Sep. 30th of 1978. The man told us that he had hoped to sell it to someone who appreciated the car’s history. He said that shortly after placing the Cadillac on the market he was contacted by an old woman who wanted to purchase it as a collection piece for the very fact that it had belonged to President Kimball, who the lady described as her “favorite prophet”. But for some reason he felt impressed to not sell it to her and wait instead. I felt a warm sensation come over my heart. The feeling was fire and ice as Mike and the seller carried out the details of the transaction. I just stood there with sunbeams, like little golden children of God signing in my face and chills running up and down my spine, like the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” from the song.
As we pulled out of that amiable young man’s driveway, Mike in Kimball’s Cadillac and I tailing him in the other Caddy, a quote popped up in my mind. From a crease in the grey matter right next to the memory accessed earlier that day, came a file containing a vaguely remembered, preferably forgotten piece of Church history which had no doubt been preserved for some wise purpose in the Lord. My happy heart was overwhelming my meticulous mind at this time and so I would have to look it up later to retrieve the corrupted file in all of its vainglorious corruption. Something about “Negroes and Cadillacs”, but this was no Snoop Dogg track. It turned out to be from a shameful speech given by apostle Mark E. Peterson, at BYU, August 27, 1954.
“Now we are generous with the Negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves.”
Later Peterson explains how he expects to find Negroes as his servants in the next life. I wonder what he did find there and if his hateful speech has since turned to a sad soliloquy delivered from some dark catacomb like Hamlet. To be so miserably mean is to be lonely and anguish to a human being’s soul. But, unlike the fictional character of Hamlet, “Not to Be” is not an option. As soul’s discover their own immortality they are ever faced with the same question “To be loving or to be damned?” Poor guy, I’m sure he’d love company. And perhaps Spencer in some other dimension was visiting his contemporary in his spirit prison cell. But in this space and time, Spencer W. Kimball was arranging the symbolic signing over of this prized possession through the veil.
I took it as a sure sign that I was to ordain Mike to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Oddly enough, the thought had occurred to me the last time I had visited and seen Mike in person, exactly one year earlier. But that December was full of other adventures and due to last minute family plans, we had been unable to spend more than a few hours with Mike. At that time Mike had seemed a little depressed and sort of distant. Apart from that, I did not really know how to bring it up. What was I supposed to say? “Hey bro. Why don’t you let me put my hands on ya head and pass you some priesthood?” No, like many other ideas and premonitions that came to me that year, it would have to wait. Wait for what? –For me to get over my fear to act on the promptings of the Holy Spirit for one thing. It would have to wait for me to stop drinking the Kool-Aid of LDS Cult-sure once and for all by desisting from my church attendance. It would have to wait for me to get out, by means of fear and trembling, from under the veil of unbelief I was born into. It would have to wait for me to “Gird up my loins,” which is biblical language for “Grow some balls”. It would have to wait for many things. And to be fair to myself, Mike had to do some personal soul searching in that time too. It would have to wait for everything to be just right. And as a matter of fact we would end up waiting about a month, till it felt like the perfect time to perform the ordination; although I told him later that same day and we were both agreeable to the idea. But, as I explained to my friend, this would not be a conferring of power so much as a symbolic act to unlock a power already inside each of us. It would not have to wait much longer as God hastened his strange work in these latter days.
The stars were literally aligning. Michael’s militant muse of Mars and my guiding star, Jupiter were prepping each other for resiliency in an upcoming adventure where we would need to be very daring. The adventure would take us over land and sea and be challenging but exhilarating. Exhilaration and sheer electricity was felt as I finally placed my hands upon the crown of his head and unlocked the priesthood power. In many ways, Spencer’s spirit helped set us up for what we needed to do in life. The ensuing experiences since December of 2011 have changed Mike’s and my lives forever. We are new people –Stronger, happier. We are grateful to God for the miracle of forgiveness which enables us to stop trying to outrun our pasts and be made free in Christ. And we are grateful to Kimball for the Cadillac.