February is Black History month throughout the United States. In Southern Arizona, African-American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been leading out for years, and each has a rich story to tell. While their individual histories, religious backgrounds and geographic roots are varied, all became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and continue to make valuable contributions to the Church they love. As the nation pauses this month to recognize significant figures in Black history, African-American Mormons who are long-time members of the Church not only have a strong appreciation for Black history, they are in many respects modern-day pioneers themselves.
Junios Ross was born in Florence, South Carolina, but grew up in Newark, New Jersey. While he did not grow up a member of the Church, his family was very religious as he regularly attended church in Brooklyn, New York, where his father was a Deacon. He had several aunts and uncles who were influential Gospel singers who performed on local radio stations in Florence, South Carolina. Because he had strong abilities in math and an interest in electronics he attended DeVry Technical Institute in Union, New Jersey, after graduating from Malcolm X Shabazz High School. His technical degree from DeVry launched him on a career with IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York which later transferred him to San Jose, California.
While in San Jose he realized he needed to start attending church once again and began to attend a non-denominational church. One evening, as he was walking to his car to go to the grocery store, two Mormon missionaries introduced themselves and invited him to hear the discussions. Junious was in a hurry, but invited the Elders to teach him at a later time. When he received the discussions from the missionaries and heard the Joseph Smith story for the first time, he strongly felt the influence of the Holy Ghost and was baptized two months later on May 5th, 1979.
Since his baptism, Junious has served faithfully in the church in many capacities including three Stake Missions, Young Men’s Secretary, Elders’ Quorum Instructor, High Priest Group Leader and Counselor in a Bishopric. He currently serves as a member of the High Council in the Tucson Arizona East Stake.
His service and membership have blessed lives including his own. When he received the sad news that his mother passed away in 2002, he was blessed with the knowledge of the Plan of Salvation and that families can be together forever. During his many years as a member of the Church, he has “had many ups and downs” but he has always remained faithful because he knows the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. He explains, he tries “to do what the Savior would do.” One of his passions is that he loves conducting family history research and sharing his findings with his relatives who are not members of the Church. Junious and his wife Carmen were sealed in the Newport Beach Temple in November 2005.
Stephani Gelsinon also grew up in a very religious home. She was born in Chicago to a hard-working, industrious family, and is the granddaughter of two Pentecostal ministers and the great-granddaughter of William M. Roberts, a famous preacher after whom the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, a national landmark, is named.
Stephani attended church-run schools and on Sundays she was busy attending one church in the morning, and another in the afternoon. At one point she wanted become a nun, but this plan changed when in 1964 she attended her first Beatles concert. This was one of several events she remembers vividly during the 1960’s when she felt “there was so much change in the air you could almost feel it.” She remembers watching on TV a sea of people march on Washington, D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prior to his “I Have a Dream” speech and knowing she would have many opportunities as a Black woman that her mother and grandmother never dreamed of having. As she graduated from High School in 1968, more historic and tragic events made headlines including Dr. King’s assassination, the Democratic National Convention riots, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and many Vietnam War protests.
The years following high school were years of self-discovery, travel and more education for Stephani. She started a philosophy degree at DePaul University but after some travel finished a degree in nursing from Harry S Truman Junior College. A trip to North Africa proved to be significant in her life for two reasons. While on a quiet walk there, she received a strong impression that she needed to return to having a stronger relationship with God and become active in a church. Also while in North Africa she made a friend from Tucson that told her about everything Tucson had to offer such as warm weather, a slower pace of living than Chicago and a university where she could eventually continue her studies. Growing up, Stephani had felt that she would contribute to society in a quiet desert community because she had developed a strong interest in the Southwest and appreciation for Native American Art.
In 1980 Stephani set off for Tucson shortly after finishing nursing school. In Tucson she met Tom Gelsinon. They married and before too long had their first son James and a year later their daughter Angela. Tom and Stephani knew they wanted to raise their children with a church influence so they started visiting and investigating different churches. Stephani’s favorite co-workers at University Medical Center were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They began sharing information about the Church with the Gelsinons. Friends invited Tom, Stephani and their children to a regional conference at the McKale Center. As the Gelsinons looked around the large conference they were surprised at how many good friends and co-workers they knew there. The friends and co-workers were just as surprised to see them there! The Gelsinons started receiving the missionary discussions and were soon baptized.
Stephani feels that God guided her first to Tucson and then to membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She credits the Church’s influence in helping her and Tom raise such wonderful children. Son James served a mission in Milan, Italy prior to graduating from the US Naval Academy. He is a Lieutenant in the US Navy and lives in Norfolk, VA with his wife (also named Stephanie) and their three children. Daughter Angela is recently married and lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Dustin Murphy.
“I still have my share of trials,” Stephani admits, “but the hope I have in Christ gives me joy and helps me endure my challenges as I try to become a better person every day.” She has served as a Relief Society President, Ward Librarian, Young Women presidency member and for seven years was a Young Women’s Camp Nurse. She currently serves as a Youth Sunday School teacher in the Central Ward of the Tucson Stake.
MaRico Tippett, a member of the Rincon Stake, also regularly attended another church as he grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. After High School he began his studies as a Cadet at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While there he took part in the dedication of a statue commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen, a distinguished corps of African-American World War II pilots who were the first African-American pilots to be trained by the United States Armed Forces in Tuskegee, Alabama. The statue dedication proved significant because years later when MaRico was stationed in Columbus, Mississippi he was asked by his commanding officer to serve as the main organizer and master of ceremonies at a celebratory ball honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, approximately ten of which were in attendance. He says he considers himself fortunate to have played a role in honoring such significant figures in Black history as the Tuskegee Airmen.
After completing undergraduate pilot training Lieutenant Tippett’s first duty station was Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson flying the EC-130. In Tucson, MaRico came to the realization that he couldn’t move forward in his life until he developed a spiritual game plan. He began to make a serious study of several religions. At this same time he saw an advertisement on the TV about The Book of Mormon. He called the number, requested a copy of the book, soon began taking the discussions and prayed for a testimony of what the missionaries were teaching him. MaRico was very impressed by the organizational structure of the Church. He also observed that, “When different people at different times in different places all say the same thing, it must be true.” To him this is one of the evidences that The Book of Mormon is true. He was baptized on May 20, 2000 just seventeen days after first meeting with the missionaries.
As Brother Tippett began attending Church services another great blessing entered his life. He met a young woman named Callie who had grown up in the Church. They became engaged and were married in the San Diego Temple shortly after MaRico’s one year anniversary of being a member of the Church. Today, they are members of the Vail Ward, Rincon Stake, and have have three children.
MaRico has a good relationship with his peers and is well-known among his co-workers as being a Latter-Day Saint. He feels his co-workers respect him because of the way he lives his religion. His career as an Air Force officer and pilot has taken him to many faraway places where he has been able to attend many congregations on Sundays. He says he would love for his African-American friends and family members to know that “As a Black man I have always been warmly received and well treated everywhere I’ve gone in the church. I see nothing but goodness in the Church.” He has served as an Elders’ Quorum teacher, Ward Financial Clerk and Sunday School teacher, among other callings.
Junious Ross, Stephani Gelsinon and MaRico Tippett are three stalwart members of the Church who love their families, God, and their country and deeply appreciate the many pioneers that have gone before them in Black history.