FORT LAUDERDALE — Bishop Fred Bethel sees his congregation as an example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of brotherhood. Bethel, 40, of the Fort Lauderdale Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1100 S.W. 15th Ave., ministers to a diverse congregation that represents almost every face known to man.
“The greatest joy I have is that every Sunday when I look upon my congregation I have no idea what the predominant culture is; it’s such a mixture of cultures,” said Bethel, who grew up in Carol City. “And everyone who enters the building recognizes there is such love in the heart of the members beyond the outer appearance. You are my brother and my sister and I don’t care what your skin looks like.”
One reality outside the walls of his temple is that the race for the Republican presidential nomination begs the question: Would Dr. King vote for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who shares Bethel’s faith — or shy away from voting for a Mormon?
Says Bethel: “If Dr. King was alive today, I believe he would make his decision based upon the content of (Romney’s) character and the policy which he was willing to deal with in the country. I believe if Dr. King supported the message that Mitt Romney was presenting, he would look past all the other traditional factors that many might have come into place, because that is who Dr. King was.”
The question of tolerance versus brotherhood is a prickly one for Bethel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or LDS, is perceived as being unfriendly to people of color — a stereotype challenged by the fact that Bishop Bethel is an African American.
“I am a black man in the LDS church,” he said. “I’ve created quite a stir.”
Bethel was raised as a Baptist in a Miami-Dade city known for social problems and high crime. He attributes his success in life to his mother who reared him and his sister to value education above temptation.
Both Bethel children earned scholarships and were college educated. He attended historically black Jackson State University in Mississippi where he became a brother of Dr. King in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He applies King’s position on brotherhood to his everyday conduct, he said, adding that becoming a Mormon has had its challenges in applying that ideal.
“There is a lot of tradition in the church that doesn’t parallel with the teachings of the church” as far as tolerance goes, he said.
Bethel likes to refer to Dr. King’s 1963 Lincoln Memorial “I have a dream” speech, in which King said: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
We need to pay attention, Bethel said, “to what Dr. King was saying here and what his dream was, and continue to sit at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood, but I don’t think we are doing that. We are settling with sitting at the table of tolerance because in our hearts we have not achieved that state of loving one another as brothers and sisters.”
“We are tolerating you living in my neighborhood, and I will tolerate being on a bus with you but as far as my heart is concerned…I think we’ve gotten to a point where the people can appear to get along but if you put pressure in a situation then the essence of the heart begins to reveal itself.”
Bethel equates prejudice with layers of an onion. “You have the first layer when you say, ‘Well, I am not prejudiced.’ You are friends with your coworkers and are not calling them the N-word at work. But then you have to ask yourself would you feel comfortable with your child dating someone of another culture? If the answer is no, you haven’t reached the depth of getting to that brotherly love core.”
Seeing humanity as one and actually living the philosophy are different things, said Adam Bradford, 38, a member of the LDS church who, under Bethel, has learned to apply his faith to real-world scenarios. Bradford grew up in the LDS church in Utah and recently moved to South Florida from Iowa.
“To be honest, the demographic of those places is such that there really isn’t a large African-American population,” Bradford said. “So, coming to South Florida and encountering a new demographic with such a huge amount of diversity here compared to what I was used to, right off the bat certain issues that I never really had to confront except intellectually, surfaced.”
“With racism, it’s one thing to think about it when you are surrounded by people who look like you, and then another way to think about it when you walk into a community of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “As I have worked with Mr. Bethel in the church here in South Florida, the thing that has been so remarkable to me that you get to that point that you recognize that people really are people and when you love them it really doesn’t make any difference. Mr. Bethel taught me that.”
As Bethel prepares to observe Dr. King’s birthday, he said the lessons of brotherhood are forefront through King’s teachings, which are firmly rooted in the words of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus makes the way very simple. It’s all a matter of choice. A person can acknowledge the fact that we are all children of God,” Bethel said, then asks: “Why can’t we stop focusing on how we’re different, and focus on how we are alike?”
**Pictured above Fred Bethel (right), a South Florida native raised in Miami-Dade County’s Carol City, is a Mormon bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Fort Lauderdale Ward, with Adam Bradford, (left).