PROVO — At a campus devotional this week, a Black professor at Brigham Young University said racism is a sin that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints need to learn how to overcome.
Ryan Gabriel, an assistant professor at BYU's department of sociology, does research focusing on urban sociology, racial residential segregation and legacies of racial violence. He is the first Black individual to deliver a BYU devotional in 14 years, according to BYU's student newspaper The Daily Universe, which is something Gabriel felt was a large responsibility.
"I spent a lot of time preparing, trying to craft a message that I thought could reach as many people as possible," Gabriel told KSL.com.
His talk, titled "Healing Racism Through Jesus Christ," focused on how individuals can overcome prejudices and understand racism by focusing on Jesus Christ's teachings and living the gospel.
"Expanding our understanding of the suffering of others can awaken charity within us," Gabriel said in his devotional. "Our hearts can connect in solidarity over our shared experience, striving for life and to have it more abundantly."
In 2007, Peter M. Johnson, now a general authority in the church, spoke on campus in an address called "Faith, Family, and Friendship." And while it likely won't be another 14 years before the university has another Black speaker, Gabriel said he feels BYU has done a great job of advocating for diversity.
"I had a duty to try and do my best as a person of color; and given that there haven't been many individuals of color who have given devotionals, I felt a responsibility to work hard on my preparation," he said.
Being able to share counsel focused on Christ while also educating listeners about his own experience was an honor and privilege, he added.
"Certainly, who the message comes through affects the message," Gabriel said.
Since Tuesday's devotional, Gabriel said he's received hundreds of emails — even by the time he stepped away from the pulpit, his inbox had already been flooded with 50 messages. He estimated he's spent about 10 hours responding to emails both from people at BYU and even across the country.
While a few emails have been negative, Gabriel said the overwhelming response has been positive and people said they found the talk "healing and empowering."
Gabriel, a Utah State University alumnus and Cottonwood Heights native, has lived in Utah off and on his entire life. He converted to the church at 23 and has worked at BYU since 2016.
"Being a member is, I would say, the greatest choice that I've made because it's led to so many fantastic gifts in my life," he told KSL.com.
Looking back, growing up outside the church in Utah was a great experience for Gabriel, who said his friends that were members of the church and their families had a positive impact in his life.
"There was just an incredible sense of warmth and love and community and inclusion that I experienced as a kid," he said.
In his devotional, Gabriel taught listeners about crimes rooted in racism carried out in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, such as the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama that killed four young girls.
"By contemplating challenging, historical moments through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will increase our appreciation of the beautiful healing power of the prince of peace," Gabriel counseled.
He also acknowledged the Latter-day Saint history of violent persecution, such as the Haun's Mill massacre of 1838.
"Expanding our understanding of the suffering of others can awaken charity within us," Gabriel said. "Our hearts can connect in solidarity over our shared experience, striving for life and to have it more abundantly."
In recent general conferences, top leaders of the church have addressed racism and charged members with abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. The leaders said that a disciple of Christ does not participate in racism. In an October 2020 talk, church President Russell M. Nelson said Latter-day Saints should unite to "root out racism."
In the same general conference, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, spoke to members about the "nation's shameful history of Black slavery," and said that Black lives matter, while calling it an eternal truth.
The church has often denounced racism, including in 2017 when a statement was released condemning the white supremacists who held a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Slavery was and is a sin against the family.
–Ryan Gabriel, BYU professor
"White supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful, and we condemn them. Church members who promote or pursue a 'white culture' or white supremacy agenda are not in harmony with the teachings of the church," the statement read.
In his talk, Gabriel encouraged listeners to take the call given by President Nelson and rid their lives of racism. Racism has historically been justified by religious individuals who have misinterpreted scriptures, Gabriel said in his talk, and it has been driven by pride and motivated by greed.
The idea of racism being acceptable to God is a false idea perpetuated from Satan who is attempting to "distort the plan of salvation that we are all equal spirit children of heavenly parents," Gabriel said.
"Slavery was and is a sin against the family," he said. "Without question, it is a sin to believe the color of one's skin or the cultural heritage makes one inherently better than another."