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.