By Page Johnson

When twenty-year-old Grant Staking recently opened the letter that told him he had been called to the Utah Provo Mission, one of his best friends was right beside him to share the news – his own bishop, Alvin Jackson.   

“It’s because of him that I’m going,” said Staking, who just got the letter February 9.  “Brother Jackson has been my friend since I was 12, and he’s helped me discover things about myself that gave me the confidence to even think about a mission.” 

That’s just the kind of comment that other members of the Kensington Ward, Washington DC Stake, expect to hear about their bishop, a 6’2″ businessman and former collegiate baseball and basketball player who joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just 13 years ago.  A predominantly white ward, they have embraced Bishop Jackson, an African American, for his leadership, spirituality, engaging personality, and caring nature. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of the youth think the 38-year-old looks like the movie star Denzel Washington.

The story of Bishop Jackson’s conversion is part of a series featuring African American speakers at the Washington DC Temple Visitors’ Center during Black History Month.  He and his wife, Juleen, will share their testimonies at the “Why I Believe” fireside February 19 at 7:00 p.m.*

The Jackson Family: Kayla; Alvin, Jr.; Mary Alice; Alvin III; Juleen; Franklin

“You don’t have to be a Mormon to come,” he emphasizes.  “The speakers and displays throughout the month will give everyone in the community the chance to understand African-American history and also to see the diversity of cultures and races within the LDS church.  Each year this event helps dispel misconceptions about what we believe as it demonstrates how the Church loves and accepts everyone.”                             

Born in Buford, South Carolina, and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, Bishop Jackson has a background in the aerospace industry.  He has a BS degree in Business Administration from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, where he played point guard for the Eagles basketball team, and an MBA degree from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. 

He has also won numerous awards, including The Distinguished Graduate Award of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1996 and the Embry-Riddle Graduate of the Last Decade Award in 2000.

Taking the shot in college 

Three years ago, he formed the Jackson Group, consultants on governmental issues who provide strategic counsel on matters involving national security, homeland security, aviation/transportation, foreign affairs policy, and corporate issues.  Bishop Jackson has also been an executive with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Boeing Company, and another government relations consulting firm.   

Looking into the cockpit of an F-18 jet

Married to the former Juleen Beesley from Sandy, Utah, Bishop Jackson and his wife have five children: Kayla, 11, Franklin, 7, Mary Alice 6, and Alvin III, who is 2.  Another son, Preston, died of a heart condition at three weeks old.

On His Conversion

Bishop Jackson’s initial contact with the church came through his wife, a Mormon who was then a University of Utah student completing an internship in Washington.  When he attended her church for the first time in the Washington DC Ward, he immediately noticed the diversity of the congregation.  “They were all different colors, shapes and sizes,” he recalls, “and I immediately felt welcome.”  He agreed to help coach the Young Men basketball program, where he developed an association with LDS teenagers and youth leaders that changed his entire outlook on life.

“It was the youth program that drew me into the Church,” he points out, adding that it was the youth who also converted him.  “I worked with these young people and learned the basics of the Gospel along with them.  The more I became involved, the more I saw how the Church changed lives, especially among teenagers.  It gave people hope.”

1994 Washington Ward Young Men basketball team

What also resonated with Bishop Jackson was the Church’s belief in a loving Heavenly Father.  “I grew up Baptist and was content with my religious upbringing, but through the missionary discussions and church meetings, I learned that there was so much more.  I didn’t know about the priesthood, for example.  And I realize now how special we each are and that we are here for a reason because we have a Father in Heaven who really knows us and loves us.”

One month after his baptism in December 1992, Bishop Jackson and his wife were married in a civil ceremony in their ward, which met in the National Press Club building.  A year later, they endured the devastating loss of their first child, an experience that Bishop Jackson says deepened his conversion because he witnessed the power of the priesthood and felt the assurance that he would see his son again.  Sister Jackson adds that the principle of eternal families gave both of them hope and comfort.  “Now we all want to be worthy to be reunited with Preston,” she says.

In May 1994, the couple was sealed in the Washington DC Temple.  As Bishop Jackson’s knowledge of spiritual principles increased and he developed a sharper sense of his eternal role, he says his view of the world and priorities changed.   His parents, who were initially wary about their son’s interest in the LDS Church, saw this change and noticed that his new life was producing “good fruit.” 

Teaching a class on testimony-building

Part of that fruit is Bishop Jackson’s knowledge of the scriptures and his ability to teach gospel principles to others.  “When he was on the High Council,” says Nolan Archibald, president of the Washington DC Stake, “Brother Jackson gave talks that were so uplifting and doctrinally sound that you would never know he had only been a member of the Church for such a short time.”  

On the Power of Personal Testimony

Even now, as a bishop, Brother Jackson says he continues to learn and build his testimony. “The Book of Mormon has helped strengthen my testimony since I’ve become bishop,” he says, “because it answers so many questions and helps me understand the atonement.  Plus, I’m learning how I can apply that knowledge to everyday life.”   He has focused the members of his ward on three primary goals:  to encourage the youth to go on missions, to encourage people to be missionaries every day, and to encourage regular temple attendance.

Bishop Jackson says his door is always open.

“The challenge today is just being able to live the commandments,” he emphasizes.  “We need to focus on the basics, like reading the scriptures.  We need to reaffirm our belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.   We need to pay our tithing.” 

But he also admits that it’s not easy to stay on the spiritual track when the world presents so many enticements.  “You can’t turn on the TV and be sure you’ll find something wholesome.  There’s so much that’s objectionable.  Values have been watered down and the line is moving so that things are acceptable now that were once unacceptable.”  

The answer, he believes, is for each individual to take responsibility for discerning good from evil by reading the scriptures, living the principles, and attending church.

In the face of such worldly pressure, Bishop Jackson says the youth of Zion “know the difference between right and wrong,” and that they are indeed the royal generation described by President Gordon B. Hinckley because they set such a good example.   At a recent meeting with the youth, Bishop Jackson encouraged them to move forward by building their testimonies.

Aaron Smith, of the Priests’ Quorum, and Megan McBride, Laurel President, meet regularly with Bishop Jackson.

“You have to get your own testimony,” he counseled as he moved around the room and spoke directly to different class members.  His style was personal but straightforward, reflecting the power and surety of his own convictions. 

“It’s up to you to find the truth out for yourselves. Nothing in this life is free, and you have to put the time in and find out whether the Book of Mormon is true,” he said.

On Being a Member of the African-American Community

Bishop Jackson tries to bring his personal witness of gospel truths into the workplace as well.  There, he says it helps him to “make the right decisions and keep things in perspective.”  In his dealings with other members of the African-American community, he finds that such relationships are enhanced, not compromised, by his religious beliefs because he knows who he really is and is confident in his life’s work and purpose.  He finds strength in Mosiah 7:33:

But if ye will turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart, and put your trust in him, and serve him with all diligence of mind, if ye do this, he will, according to his own will and pleasure, deliver you out of bondage.

Marie and Alvin Jackson, Sr. with their son, Alvin, Jr.

Sister Jackson believes that because her husband is African American himself, he is in a position to inspire similar members who can relate to his background and life experience.  But it is his conversion experience that Bishop Jackson says enables him to support and instruct others – black and white alike – in their search for truth. 

“I know what it’s like not to have the gospel, so I believe I can help others see the difference it can make in their lives,” he says.  He also believes in “moving forward rather than looking back,” referring to the days before the 1978 Proclamation on the Priesthood that gave the priesthood to all worthy black males.  “I think of myself as part of the solution,” he stresses.

Bishop Jackson with his grandmother Lula Shelton]

On Being a Husband and Father

As far as Bishop Jackson’s wife and children are concerned, he definitely is part of the solution.  “We love any time we get with him,” says Sister Jackson. “We know we come first and are very secure in his commitment to us.   But he’s also committed to excellence, and he has high expectations of us.”  She recalled that during their courtship Bishop Jackson never talked about himself, but was “a humble guy” who was genuinely interested in her.  What most impressed her, however, was that he was “a man who could talk about God.”   Sister Jackson believes her husband’s religious upbringing gave him a spiritual foundation built on Jesus Christ that made him open to discussion about the gospel.  “He knew God before, but his understanding grew as he learned about our Church.” 

Kayla Jackson’s baptism

In their home, Sister Jackson says that her husband is especially aware of his priesthood responsibilities.  “Every morning he leads us in family scripture study, so the kids see their daddy in action.  When Al received the Melchizedek Priesthood, he really felt the stewardship that came with it.”

On Being a Bishop

The youth in his ward are equally positive that Bishop Jackson is part of the solution.  Ask the primary kids who stop by his office after Sacrament Meeting and agonize over which piece of candy to select from the containers on his desk.  Or just mention his name to a young man or woman and catch the expression in their eyes.   The word among the youth is that Bishop Jackson “is there for you,” that kids can call him any time – even from school.  

Matthew McKinney finds lots of reasons to visit the Bishop.

“He just draws you in,” says sixteen-year-old Hannah Turner.  “At the Bishop’s Youth Council, he really works with us and listens to us.  He’s funny, but he’s also serious enough about the important things.  We have some couples who just came here from Hawaii, and now he has us saying, ‘Aloha!'”         

Her brother Grant agrees, adding that the bishop takes the time to ensure the youth reach goals they themselves set.    

Youth of the Kensington Ward, Washington DC Stake

But as he now prepares for his mission to Provo, Utah, Grant Staking best exemplifies the influence of Alvin Jackson – his friend, fellow athlete, and mentor.  Staking had chosen not to go on a mission when he turned 19 because he was a pitcher for McDaniel College near his hometown in Maryland.  But throughout his first year in college, Staking says that Bishop Jackson kept talking to him, inviting him to his home and reminding him to read the scriptures and pray.  As usual, he told Staking that he needed to find his own testimony.

Grant Staking will be leaving for the Utah Provo Mission.

“He told me that God was waiting to bless me,” Staking recalled.  “He helped me find my spiritual side, and I never knew I had one.  I had gone to church all my life, but a mission just didn’t seem the thing for me.  Other bishops and my parents had talked to me too, but maybe the timing wasn’t right.  Bishop Jackson was able to make me understand that I didn’t need a perfect testimony to go on a mission, just enough faith.”

Initially, Staking worried about the reaction of his coach and teammates, who were about to begin spring training.   “But when I told my coach why I was going, he wasn’t angry,” Staking said.  “He wrote me a letter about the ‘mature decision’ I had made!” 

Staking himself marvels at how he came to this point in his life and is profoundly convinced of the power of prayer – just as Bishop Jackson had promised. “When I called my relatives in California to tell them of my decision to go on a mission, everyone just started crying.  My grandparents, Claude and Myrth Van Vliet, had just left the Oakland Temple where they are temple workers.  They were in their car when I called and they told me they had been praying for me.  Everyone was just so happy, and the Bishop gave me a big hug.”

For Bishop Jackson, this young man and all the other youth he is so committed to serving are what make his efforts so rewarding.  “I feel connected to the youth, and my work with them is my way of thanking the Lord for the blessings he’s given me,” he says.  “I have the chance to help someone else, including my own children, to find their personal success and happiness.”

Christmas with the missionaries in the Brightwood Branch, Washington DC Stake