GENE IN TWO SETTINGS
By Frances Lee Menlove
Gene’s Hyde Park Fireside: A Twitchy Ward Meets a Difficult Subject
I attended the “London Theatre Study Abroad” program in the spring of 1998 led by Gene England and Tim Slover. The classes, the plays, and even the homework assignments were grand. But it is an extracurricular event in London that spring that is embedded the most in my memory.
On 7 June 1998, at 6:30 p.m., a fireside was held in the Hyde Park Ward. The subject was Blacks and the Church. Gene was asked to lead it. The subject was chosen because of distress among many of the blacks in that ward. Some of the black converts had listened to the missionary lessons, been converted to Mormonism, and baptized only to find out months, and for some of them, years later about the history of the Church’s ban on blacks holding the priesthood. This information, when they received it, was often accompanied with a recounting of the dismaying and painful theological rationales for the ban. One black member reported being tormented after a seldom-seen relative said to him after finding out that he had become a Mormon, “You did what? How could you join that racist Church?”
Because of this twitchiness in the ward, Gene was asked to give a fireside. Although this happened more than a decade ago, I remember exactly my thoughts as I came in alone and sat near the back. I said to myself, “Thank heavens I am not up there. Thank heavens it is not me facing this uneasy audience. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I wouldn’t know how to cope.”
Gene coped. He more than coped. Gene talked candidly about racism—in the society, in the church, and in himself. He spoke of his own joy when the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood and temple blessings was lifted. Gene spoke movingly of the need to both own and absorb our whole church history if we are to learn from it. We can’t disown whatever is embarrassing or whatever we don’t approve of in that history. The memory of the past is required for learning, for moral instruction. Gene that evening took ownership of not just the glories of the Church but its shadow side. He didn’t speak from a distance but from the center of the story. He spoke with grace and dignity. He listened carefully as several black members their told stories of being blindsided by this history they didn’t know before joining. My memory is that when he was asked about some of the theological underpinnings of the ban on the priesthood—less valiant in the war in heaven, descendents of Ham, and so forth—he gave them short shrift. These theological rationales are themselves part of the racism. He spoke of his love of the Church, the pain of racism, the need to exorcise this racism from ourselves, our church, and our society. He asked all of us to acknowledge the problem and then work diligently on transformation. This is, he said, a sacred task. He told the black members that they were a gift and a blessing to the church. He thanked them for the moral seriousness that led them to seek out this dialogue, this fireside.
I believe we all left the Hyde Park Ward that evening with more courage and strength than we came with. Gene was, that evening for me, the epitome of a human spirit fully engaged. I am grateful to him and his memory that continues to inspire me to ever strive to be more honest with myself.
The Early Dialogue Years: “We don’t take a trip; the trip takes us.”
As Dialogue was taking shape, I remember meetings and meetings and meetings. Some in homes, some in campus offices.
I remember Gene as the tone-setter of these early meetings, meetings which were warm, friendly, energetic, a tad hectic, and safe—intellectually safe. At the time, I took it for granted that this was the way new projects got off the ground and grew wings. Only forty years later, after a career in which I was involved in many other new projects, did I realize how incredibly exceptional this gestation period was. Exceptional in large part because of Gene.
Gene nurtured a team on which quirkiness was okay. A team on which there was room for everyone, and where there was a profound belief in the efficacy of dialogue. Actual talking and actual listening was a tenet of faith. “Examine. Test. Prove,” Gene asserts in his inaugural Dialogue editorial. Be ready to learn new things by giving space to voices different from your own, voices that challenge the current consensus. Another tenet of Dialogue faith was the belief that the Church would lose something precious if it gave up its most reflective members. The underlying philosophy was that we are obligated to take seriously our freedom; we don’t have to surrender integrity to be a good member of the Church; holding and expressing differences of opinion is a cherished part of the Mormon tradition.
This was the philosophical atmosphere when I went to see Gene one day, feeling a tad sheepish.
My job as “Article Editor” (latter changed to “Manuscript Editor”) was to send out the submissions submitted to us for publication to two or three members of the Board of Editors. I used a mimeographed letter with blanks. “Dear_____, The enclosed manuscript___________ has been submitted to Dialogue to be considered for publication. We would appreciate your reviewing this article and returning both the article and the evaluation by _____________.” The letter went on to explain that the submitted article was being sent to two or three member of the Board of Editors for review. The articles were “sent out anonymously except in special cases in which knowing the author’s name or position was necessary to understand or evaluate the article.” The letter then went on to ask for evaluation of: “What is said. How well it is said. Is it appropriate for publication in Dialogue? Overall evaluation.” When the reviews came back, I put them together with the submission and gave them to Gene and Wes Johnson. I didn’t know many of the people on the Board of Editors, so I also consulted (heavily) with Gene and Wes about who would be the most appropriate reviewers for a given submission.
Back to my sheepishness. I decided to try my hand at writing for Dialogue. It seemed a bit weird, if not an egregious boundary breach, for me to be the “articles editor” and then presume to write an article and send it out for review. I talked to Gene. “Not a problem,” he laughed. “Just make sure your name in not on the article and send it out like any other submission.” He told me who would be the best reviewers for my essay (“The Challenge of Honesty”) and all was well.
This is a tiny incident. I think I remember it because I was over-my-head in the publishing business and Gene easily and gracefully gave me the courage to continue writing the article while also teaching me what this whole dialogue business was all about, both Dialogue the journal and dialogue the conversation.
One of my most treasured possessions is a letter I received from Leonard Arrington in September of 1998. “Dear Frances” he wrote, “In the spring of 1966 I received my first copy of Dialogue and was literally thrilled with the magazine, with the reasons for it, and with those involved in founding it.” Gene was the genius behind the “thrill of the magazine” that we all felt.
Years latter I heard Gene say, “We don’t take a trip; a trip takes us.” That certainly describes the ongoing adventure with Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought.