Why I Am a Mormon

Three Mormons talk about their very personal experiences of converting to Mormonism and what the faith means to them.

Betty Stevenson
Betty Stevenson grew up in the Bay Area of California. After becoming alienated from her family, she sold drugs for many years before converting to Mormonism in 1981. She ultimately became a Relief Society president in the Oakland, Calif., ward.

… Before the missionaries came into my life, I had been in prison, on parole, second generation [on] welfare. I was kicked out of school. In me was a vengeance and anger when my dad and mom got divorced.

Before the missionaries came, I had no respect for the law. I had given up on my family, my country, God, everybody. The only thing that kept me going was my two little children. I loved them so much.

When the missionaries came I was 39 years old. They came in and told me the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life: about this white boy, a dead angel and some gold plates. And I thought, I wonder what they're on?

…[But a while after that] it dawned on me as I sat there and opened that book up, and it said, "I, Nephi, being born of goodly parents" -- and it breaks my heart even to this day, because it seemed like at that moment I realized that I wasn't a goodly parent and that I didn't have goodly parents to teach me in the language of my fathers. I found something inside of me that was responding to this message of hope, of family that could be together forever, of raising my children and learning how to be a good parent -- not drinking, not smoking, not cussing every word, using the Lord's name in vain. And I tell you, to come into the church because I wanted that, to me, it was like a pearl of great price.

... It's taught in the Mormon Church that we come here from the pre-existence, where we lived with God -- now to me this was a fairytale, never heard this one before -- and we come here to be tested and to see how we will act on our own. That's different from hell and damnation that I had been taught -- that you do this and you're going to hell and damned forever. But to learn about repentance and that it is a continuing process and that no matter if you fall down, you can get back up, and the key is to endure it to the end -- that to me, was like wings. This is beautiful. I never heard this before. ...

The first 10 years was the hardest. And over that time, I realized that I was changing and growing, and I was realizing a lot of things, just as the other members in the church were doing. And as I was called into leadership positions, I was being accepted and was encouraged more. And there were individuals who were now able to come up to me and say, "That was wonderful," or, "Keep going," or, "You're doing great," and I began to feel more at home.

... [Later], when I went out and found out all of this negative stuff about Joseph Smith and about the blacks and the priesthood and about Brigham Young and his prejudice and racism, I was devastated. But I realized that as a child of God, I had a right to learn all that I could. And I discovered black Saints who were there to drive Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley. ... And there was a book called Negro Pioneer that was put out by the church.

I learned genealogy. My whole life, I've wanted to have that kind of a family. I wanted to feel it. And so I started to do this genealogy, and not just for my family, but for my nieces and my great-nieces, so that they won't grow up feeling like they're nobody. I didn't think that I was going to find any of my people when I went, but when I found my grandfather, and literally his name, I knew who they were.

I didn't come to the church to try to live up to somebody else's culture. I came because I discovered a message that God had sent through the missionaries to me, through that Book of Mormon. And every day, as I search [for] it, my spirit is renewed.

Alex Caldiero
Alex Caldiero is a poet, writer and visual and performing artist known for his avant garde poetry readings. Following his conversion to Mormonism, Caldiero moved to Utah in 1980.

Mormonism has enlarged me. I've become more than I was. I was born in Sicily, in a little town where the idea of the magical world and the everyday world constantly impinged on each other; where ritual was reflected in life, and life reflected in ritual, and there was this kind of seamless web between the two. And my encounter with Mormonism in the New World was simply one more encounter.

…[And] so these young guys -- very naïve actually -- come in and we sit down, start talking, and [my wife and I] hear the Joseph Smith story and things like that. We continued to take what they begin to call lessons.

And I listened to what they had to say and after four months, my wife was wanting to be baptized. I said, "No, I'm not ready. I don't feel satisfied with many of the answers that I've received about things. I have a religion already -- Catholic. Are you going to go from one thing to another?" I've never been a joiner, anyway, by nature.

[The missionaries] came for another visit. ... We sat down, and we had a little prayer, and they began to go through a little chit-chat. And it was in the middle of that chit-chat that all of a sudden I felt very far away.

The quality of the light in the room altered slightly. And I felt very, very distant from everybody -- from my wife, the missionaries. And I felt like I was kind of removed. And after a while, their talking -- the volume went down to the point where I was enveloped in a silence. And the light kept getting brighter and brighter, to the degree that at a certain point, I kind of looked at them because they weren't showing any reactions. And I was wondering, how could they not be seeing this? And yet they continued as normal. And then at that point, right around here, the fire begins burning right here -- the solar plexus, the mouth of the soul; that's the Sicilian name for this area -- and it started right there, and it starts to open up. And it's coming all over my body, and the light is getting brighter. Hot, heat, burning all over, coming up, and the light keeps getting brighter.

And I cannot describe it any further, other than it was accompanied by a certain feeling of a certainty and point of peace. I was certain, for instance, that God lives. I was certain that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. And I was certain that what I'd been told about the Book of Mormon and all of that coming about, that that occurred, as a fact. Not in any symbolic way, not in any metaphorical way, not in any poetic way, that that occurred as a fact, as illogical and irrational as it might be.

And as soon as I sort of acknowledged that within myself, the light started to recede. And the burning started to come back to that point out of my body until it was centered here again, and then it went in, and it went back to the normal light in the room. And as soon as that happened, and everything was back to quote normal, I sort of slumped a little bit. I was exhausted. I felt like I had been running or had exerted myself physically. And again, I looked at them, and they showed no reaction to anything that happened to me, except that I interrupted their discussion and I said, "I want to be baptized." And they were puzzled by this coming out of nowhere. My wife and I were baptized in the Manhattan Ward shortly thereafter.

Conversion is a real interesting process. It cannot be owned; it cannot be planned upon; it cannot be measured; it cannot be given; it cannot be taken away. That inner transformation from one total form of consciousness to another form of consciousness, that's what we're talking about. Conversion enlarges you. It doesn't take anything away from you. It adds to you. It makes you bigger. It makes you wonder more. That's what the conversion has been for me. I didn't give up the Catholicism; I grew even more.

And it's that growing and transformative inner experience that continues to be alive in me ... whenever I even think about it. It bears witness of itself, by that change in the physical light in the room wherever I am, whenever I even begin to think, to utter or talk about it. ...

The whole story of Joseph Smith is incredible. And if you were to approach it from a rational point of view, it is incredible; meaning, you would say, "No, that could not have happened." But is that the only approach to the wondrous in life? When I saw my children being born, it was incredible. I can never explain exactly what I felt and what I witnessed when I saw my children being born. I can give you a medical explanation, but even that doesn't cover everything. I can give you a rational, medical explanation of how birth happens, but that taking of the first breath, witnessing that is totally and completely wondrous and incredible. And the same thing with these visions, with these stories, with these occurrences. As we say in Sicily, the world is big, but we believe so little. ...

It's okay for angels to appear in the Middle Ages; it's okay for this to happen to crazy people; it's okay for this to happen at another time, to other people, to [the] demented, et cetera. But it's not okay when it happens very matter-of-factly to even you; that it could happen to any of us. See, that begins to be a shock to our present, 21st-century sensibilities, because we've grown to be so cynical. All of a sudden that becomes a shocking impossibility, that this thing can still happen to any one of us. Because with Joseph Smith, the interesting, peculiar thing is that it could happen to anyone; anyone of us can be privy to this connection. Not just St. Margaret, St. Augustine; as traditionally thought of, these are exceptional human beings. But every one of us can be a conduit for that occurrence. And that is still something that we just won't buy.

Anne Osborn
Osborn is a neuroradiologist -- a doctor specializing in medical imaging of the brain -- at the University of Utah Medical Center. She converted to Mormonism while attending medical school at Stanford University in the 1960s. In 2000, she was the inaugural recipient of the Radiological Society of North America's Outstanding Educator Award, and in 2006, she received the RSNA's highest honor, the Gold Medal.

When I was a medical student at Stanford [I had a professor] -- a wonderful, outstanding man who was an internationally known scientist and researcher, and much beloved of the medical students because of his demeanor: the way he interacted with his students and his willingness to spend extra time with us. And one day, a group of medical students -- we were sitting out on the front lawn of the medical center, eating our bag lunches over the noon hour -- and one of the students happened to mention that this particular professor was a Mormon.

Now, that totally caught me by surprise, because the only thing I knew about the Mormon Church was a little bit about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the small amount that my sister and I had gleaned on a very brief trip through Temple Square on our way from Indiana to Stanford. And we came away with a couple of distinct impressions about the Mormons. One was that they worshipped golden seagulls -- right in the middle of Temple Square is a statue of a golden seagull -- and the other one was that there were something about somebody named Joseph Smith.

And about two years passed. And I was doing some volunteer work for the Red Cross, and there was a man who was teaching … first aid. A much older gentleman than the professor, but he had the same kind of demeanor and attitude and feeling about him.

So one day I asked him, "Would you mind telling me something about your church?"

Well, unlike every other Mormon that I've ever known since then, he didn't immediately launch into a discussion of that. He kind of took a step back, and he looked at me, and he said, "Well, why do you want to know?" And I said: "You know, that's a really good question. I'm not really sure. I only know one other Mormon, and there's something very different about the way you and this other person live and conduct your lives. And I want to know if it has anything to do with your church."

So we had several discussions. … Now, I have to put it in context. I'm beginning my third year of medical school, and I have spent the last two years preparing to take care of patients, learn about diseases -- stuffing my brain full of facts, and, in a sense, almost hardening myself to human suffering in order to be able to help people. And right in the middle of this experience, some guy is telling me that there's this 14-year-old kid, dug up these gold plates in the side of a hill in New York, and angels flying and all that. I did not believe a word of what he said. It sounded so bizarre that I couldn't even relate to it.

But the one thing that I couldn't explain away was that no matter how strange it seemed, whatever he and that professor believed made an enormous difference in the way they lived and conducted their lives.

So when I got back to Palo Alto, I decided I was going to have a little experiment. I found out what time the worship services were and walked in. Now, I grew up a member of a mainstream Protestant church, and I walked into this building where it's about two minutes before church is about to start. There is nobody in the chapel. Everybody is out in the foyer, and the noise level is probably close to 90 decibels. I mean, there are kids running around, throwing Cheerios all over the place, people hugging each other.

And I walked into the chapel, which was another surprise. No cross, no priest or minister in the robe. No candles. Just a very plain chapel where people were dressed in ordinary clothes. Up on the podium there were men and women, men in business suits, kids, and they basically did the whole worship service.

Well, as I sat there, I began to feel something that I'd never really felt before. It was a sense of recognition, I suppose, and it made me feel so uncomfortable that as soon as that meeting was over, I got up and left. And I went out into the parking lot, intending to get into my car and drive off and never go back again. And as I did that, a voice inside my mind said, just as clearly and as distinctly as I'm speaking now, it said, simply, "Anne, turn around and go back." And so I did. And I said, "Excuse me, can you tell me where the inquirer's class is?" Well, that wasn't quite the name, but whoever it was that I asked knew what I needed, and so he said, "Well, I'll not only tell you, but I'll take you there."

And it was a class for people who were not members of the Mormon Church to tell them about it. And there were discussions and asking questions and so on. And I thought that there were a few significant theological loose ends left untied at the end, so I was having a discussion with several people and the class instructor, and he said, "This is the first time you've come here. Why did you come?" And I told him about the two people that I knew, and I told him what had happened when I had thought that I would leave and never go back.

So he invited me to come to their home for dinner and to meet his family. And he said: "If you want to know more about the Mormon Church, we'll tell you about the Mormon Church. But if you don't, come and have a good dinner with us anyway."

So that evening, I showed up; we had a nice dinner. After dinner, we discussed a lot about the church, and it was kind of intriguing. But he said to me, as the discussion kind of wound to an end, "You know, we've talked a lot about the Mormon Church, but it's been not in any organized way." ... So he said, "I don't know if you're interested in finding out more about the church or not, but in our church, we have people who ... more or less specialize in teaching people such as yourself." And he says: "It comes in six easy lessons. Would you like to start?" So I agreed. So we made an appointment for later in the week, in an evening after I would have finished my classes and rounds and so on.

And in anticipation of teaching me, the medical student, they invited two what they call stake missionaries. Now these are professional business people -- I think one had an M.B.A. and another one was on the faculty at Stanford -- and we had three or four discussions, which were mostly a theological debate. And I regarded it more as a challenge to argue with them than to really learn. And so I think in almost desperation, as lesson after lesson kind of ended in at least a draw -- or maybe on one or two occasions I actually probably thought I had the better of them -- they said: "You know what? I think the next time you come, we will invite the full-time elders."

And I thought to myself: "Aha! Now I'm going to get the definitive word. We're going to have the people who really know about the theology of the Church." So I really was kind of looking forward to this, and a real intellectual debate.

And so you can imagine my shock and surprise, when at the appointed time, the doorbell rang, the family opened the door, and here are these two teenage boys there. They said, "Oh, come in, Elder So-and-so." ... So these two elders, who were several years younger than I was, came in and sat down. One -- I think I've learned they call them the greenies -- he had just been on his mission probably no more than about a week. And it was his turn to give his first discussion, to me.

So as he began, after the prayer -- they always started with prayer -- he opened up a bag. ... Now, remember that back in the late '60s, we didn't have the kind of audiovisual and interactive and wonderful teaching things that we do now. And to teach the young children -- I'm talking about really young children, like 3, 5, 6 years old -- at the time, there was the thing that they called the flannel board. There was a piece of flannel, and then there were figures, cloth figures and so on, that could be attached to it and stuck and moved around, and the little kids could kind of play with them and move them around.

So this guy pulls out a flannel board, opened it up, put it up and then reached down into the bag again. And he pulled out this little globe-looking thing: the Earth. And he said, "Sister Osborn, this is the Earth." And he stuck it up on the flannel board. Of course, I'm sitting there, totally dumbfounded, not quite knowing what to make of this. I suppose my chin was probably hanging down to my knees. And then he reached in the bag, and he pulled out this kind of sun-looking thing. And he said, "Sister Osborn, this is the celestial kingdom." He stuck it in the upper corner.

And then he reached in the bag a third time, and he pulled out some cotton batting that sort of looked like clouds, I suppose. And he stuck it in between them, and he said, "And Sister Osborn, this is the veil. There was a veil placed between us and the celestial kingdom when we're born, and we don't remember this."

And then he would kind of forget what it was that he was going to say at about every third of fourth sentence. He would look me straight in the eye, and all the innocence and lack of intellectual sophistication, and he would say, "Sister Osborn, I know the Gospel's true."

And the oddest thing happened: Somehow, all of the intellectual arguments that I'd marshaled -- which were also, of course, intellectual defenses -- melted away, and this young elder helped me open my heart and my soul to the influence of the spirit. And I really knew that what he was saying was true. And I felt to the very core of my being that it was something that I hadn't discovered so much as I recognized. And it was something that I had seen, or somehow heard -- somewhere some-when, someplace -- these things. And they struck that resonance in my heart, and I felt that, in a way -- an incredibly significant way -- that I'd come home.

... I've made my professional life with my eyes and brain and memory and pattern-recognition, looking at images of the brain and so on. But the things that I know most surely, that have made the most significant difference in my life, I really have to say I know not by the power of the intellect, but by the power of the heart and the spirit. I think your intellect, and the intellectual approach, can only take you so far. And it's also a very good defense: If you can't prove it intellectually, if you can't prove it like you would a formula or a prospective scientific experiment, then it isn't worth knowing. And that's something that I think a lot of people believe.

But somehow, if down deep inside, you know that something is missing in your life, it isn't an intellectual piece that's missing. It's something of the heart and the soul and the spirit. And I truly believe that intellect and study, which I have done all my life and continue to do, can take you so far. ... And then, at some point, you kind of have to take a big, deep, spiritual breath and make that leap of faith.

... It's like holding a flashlight on a path in the forest. You can see where the light shines. Beyond the edge of the light is unknown. And you have to have the faith that if you make that leap, that you're not going to go splat.

... And you know, that young, green elder and his companion, who was probably six months older than he was, in all of their innocence and lack of intellectual sophistication, helped me put the intellect aside and, in essence, open my heart and soul and take that leap of faith.

... One of Joseph Smith's totally revolutionary concepts -- long before Einstein -- this young, uneducated, untutored, frontier young man came up with the concept that the sum total of matter and energy in the universe is somehow constant, and that energy is just more refined matter that the eye can't see, in some respect. Now, he's trying to explain [that] in 1830s and 1840s terminology, but the concept that certain things -- matter and energy and law and spirit, if you will, and agency, our ability and eternal gift to choose -- are indeed all co-eternal. They've always existed.

We can't conceive of something that has no beginning and no end, but in Mormon theology, it's always been there. And the act of creation was to organize it out of chaos, and when the Old Testament talks about the spirit of the Lord brooding upon the waters, what you get the feeling of is, if you read the original Hebrew, it's like what a mother hen does when she sits on her eggs and incubates them. Isn't that a powerful thought?

That that's what the act of creation is; it's organization and incubation and giving things the opportunity to grow and to become and to achieve and to be a celestial being like the Father is. That's truly a mind-blowing theology.

... I get asked a lot about women in the priesthood, because many of my colleagues know that I'm a Mormon, and some of them ... know that women do not hold priesthood offices. ... As a woman in the Mormon Church, I feel very comfortable. I don't feel denied any opportunity to serve and to do good for people in the church and in the ward and in our neighborhood and so on. ... Teaching and leadership opportunities, not limited whatsoever. The fact that I cannot, now, in 2006, be ordained a priest or become a bishop or stake president or General Authority as my husband was, doesn't bother me, personally, at all.

And why not? Because I put it in an eternal context. I know that in an eternal context, that there are roles defined [in the Old Testament] for priests and priestesses. In the temple, we learn that as well. And I believe that the concept that no man nor no woman will achieve the ultimate in the celestial kingdom without the other means that we are equally yoked.

... But now, let's put this in the larger context of women in the church and women in the priesthood. People will ask, why don't Mormon women hold the priesthood now? And I think there's a very straightforward answer to that, and the answer is, we don't know, because right now the Lord has not revealed that that's to happen. It has in the past, in certain times and circumstances. It will in the future. And in the Mormon view of the eternities, there are kings and queens and priests and priestesses acting in these roles and acting equally and serving equally. ... I don't really know why that isn't present now, ... except that it hasn't been revealed.

In the whole context of the Gospel and the church, which I know with every fiber of my being is true, I can put that issue on the theological back burner. It's not to say it isn't there. It isn't to say that I don't think about it. And it isn't to say that I don't empathize, in many respects, with some women who, for whatever reason, this becomes something extremely important to them. I can understand that, and I can empathize with it. I deal with that by putting it in the broader context. ... I know that, sometime, that will happen. ...