Betty Stevenson grew up in an African-American community near San Francisco. After spiraling through abusive relationships, drug dealing and jail, she joined the Church. Betty served for many years as the Relief Society president of the newly formed Oakland Ninth Branch, composed of some of Oakland’s poorest neighborhoods, and she is the founder of an organization that hosts free football camps. In addition, Betty is raising her three great-grandchildren.
Tell me about your life before you joined the Church.
I grew up in West Pittsburg, or Bay Point as it’s called now, in northern California. Poor people lived on one side of the freeway and white rich people lived on the other side, but they built a school where they brought all of us together. I think it was one of the first ones in this area to integrate. I would play with this little white girl at her house. Her parents really didn’t like having me around, but she was feisty. She would say, “You coming home with me.” If I ate off something at her house, they would throw it away. But for me to even be there was an amazing feat.
I grew up as the youngest of three children. My mother had married a very abusive, drunk man who became my stepfather and so we were put second. I feel like we raised my mother instead of it being the other way around.
I learned a lot of stuff in the neighborhood, and it wasn’t all good. I turned into a product of the system I lived in. There was no adult supervision. Taking the Lord’s name in vain was a way of conversation. Drugs were a way of life. I got into an abusive relationship for a while. In that darkness, there’s this haze that you’re not even aware of until you start receiving light. The thing that kept me human was my love for little kids and old people and people who were disabled. I was very protective of my own children.
I ended up in jail. I was on probation for two years and parole for almost seven. I moved myself and my two kids from Bay Point to the flatlands of Oakland to get away from drugs. I have to laugh now because that was the city where the drugs were coming from, but when I moved, I didn’t know anyone there, so I just didn’t hook up. The Lord had set me up. I was getting in position for the missionaries to come.
How did you meet the missionaries?
Missionaries were tracting in Oakland in February of 1981 when they knocked on my door. It was just seventeen days since I’d gotten off parole. The first thing that jumped into my mind was that they were parole officers. So I kind of peeked out the door and I thought, “No they must be Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I don’t want to hear from them neither.” So I went back down the hallway into the bathroom and was just standing there when I heard a thought that said to my mind, “You’ve been praying for a long time. Why don’t you go open the door and see what they want?” So I let them in.
Did you decide pretty quickly to be baptized?
No! I’m amazed more than anyone that I would be involved in this community. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Church. I knew nothing nice about Mormons. The reputation of the Church among black people keeps a lot of people from listening. When I actually listened to the missionaries, at first I didn’t believe any of it. It thought, “Oooo! These people ought to be ashamed of themselves going around telling people that.”
I was sitting at home and the copy of the Book of Mormon the missionaries had brought me was on the coffee table. I picked it up and started to read. It was just amazing. It was as if the words were almost shimmering in my mind. When I read, “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,” the tears started to flow, and I realized that I wasn’t being a goodly parent. I didn’t feel like I had goodly parents.
I had always known in my heart that God was almighty. I knew that even in my darkest hours. All my life I believed in God, but I just didn’t believe that He loved a black girl like me. Now, I was just amazed by the Book of Mormon. I had to try to figure out, do I believe it? Is it true? Did it happen?
I think I must have worn out a couple of sets of missionaries. When they told me to investigate, that’s exactly what I did. My brother and sister were totally against my joining, and I was too, almost right up until I went down into the water.
My eleven-year-old daughter got baptized before I did. I’d taught my kids, if you really want to do something, then you go do it. And that’s what she did: she got baptized. I asked her, “Why you want to join this church?”
She said, “Because I listened to the missionaries and what they said made sense.”
Eleven years old and she told me that. Eleven years old going on 42! A week later I got baptized.
What challenges came to you with joining the Church?
Coming into the Church was like walking into a bright light that hurts your eyes. In the community I was coming out of, everyone wanted to know, “What is it? You’ve got this glow. Why are you so happy?” But I really wasn’t happy yet. It’s a horrible feeling to be trying to make that change. I had to wait for years to feel the joy because all I was doing was losing, that’s how I felt. That was a scarier journey than being out there in the world.
I tell people I had to give up my man, my money, and my dope when I joined the Church. Not in that order! The money was the hardest thing in the world to give up. When you’re out there dealing, there’s a lot of money. Money, money, money! The devil don’t have no recession. I could do anything I wanted, I could buy anything, I could go anywhere, and take my children places.
But the Lord let me know by the power of the Holy Spirit that while it was all His, dealing drugs wasn’t the way to make it acceptable to Him. So I made a promise I would never deal again. I went from having lots of money to having nothing. I had to get welfare and food stamps. I was collecting cans just to have enough to buy a loaf of bread. This was beneath my dignity. I did wrong in the first place to keep from going this low. It was overwhelming to go from having to having not, but I did it.
When I joined the Church, I was still smoking, and I was addicted to heroin. I used some other drugs, too—methamphetamines, different kinds of pills. I gave up the cigarettes. I gave up the drugs. No one knew I was kicking dope. I didn’t look like it. I didn’t act like it. The strength that had to come from God to let go of everything I had loved and had held to–well, I just feel really blessed I could give it all up.
It was a lonely time. I had given up all the people I used to associate with. Once I joined the Church, my old friends thought I had lost my mind. I would bring out that Book of Mormon and everybody would get up and leave. I can remember standing in the doorway watching them walk away and thinking, “Man, this book is better than having a gun.”
At first, I really didn’t have any friends in the Church either because I was very vocal. I loved fast and testimony meeting. They would walk up and down the aisle with the microphone, and as soon as they got to me, I grabbed it. I let people know I was aware of a spirit from the members—not the Holy Spirit—that didn’t want me there. It was right there on their faces. I said, “If I was the devil, where would I be? Right up here with the Saints. This is where sinners come. This is where I’m supposed to be.” I was not going to take any criticism.
I was threatening folks and talking crazy. Women would go behind my back and criticize me to the bishop. The bishop would call me into his office and say, “Now, Betty, you cannot go around and threaten the sisters.”
One sister, bless her heart and may she rest in peace, would call me up after church, and she would say, “You know, Betty, you said so and so, but I know what you meant.” And I was so grateful that someone cared enough to tell me instead of going behind my back and reporting me.
And my vocabulary. Girl, I lost three-quarters of my vocabulary when I joined the Church! I would be talking to the bishop and every other word I’d be taking the Lord’s name in vain, because this is the language of where I came from. And every time I would do that he would cringe like I had stabbed him in the heart. I came home and prayed, “Lord please help me because I don’t want to kill nobody.” I had to get a dictionary!
Was it difficult to be one of the few black members of the Church in your area at the time?
When I started attending church, I became very militant. I wanted to know, “Where are the black people?” I knew they had to have some. So I went looking in Church history for black Saints, and I found them. Elijah Abel was the first black man that Joseph Smith ordained to the priesthood. His posterity held offices in the Church. Hark Lay and Green Flake drove the first wagon into the Salt Lake Valley, and they were actually the first two on the ground. Then they turned that wagon around and went back and picked up more Saints. Jane Manning James. The stories of these black Saints are beginning to surface.
What were your first callings?
Soon after I joined, instead of Sunday School, they had us go to a leadership meeting. I learned a few things and I was beginning to see that I had leadership abilities. Eventually I got called to teach the Social Relations class in Relief Society. I think I was guided to teach that class so I could learn how to get along with people.
When I joined the Church, I was in Oakland Fourth Ward. Then they moved things around and we were in another ward with another bishop. I thought, “Oh no. Now I got to break another one in.” We were in a ward with the very rich people who lived up on the hill. I was amazed to see how some of these people lived. Their wealth! The homes they lived in! Their neighborhoods! Their lawns! I was like, “Lord, where are these blessings? Did I miss the boat?”
The Church changed you, but did you also see your service and membership in the Church change your wards and branches?
Oh, yes. They began to realize that a lot of them were in this little bubble and in order to serve like you’re supposed to, especially in Relief Society, you have to leave the bubble.
One day it was raining, and these two ladies from up on the hill came down to visit teach me. I told them, “You know what this must be, for two rich white women to come down in the rain to visit me? It’s a miracle.”
They just laughed. “Yes.”
At first people would only go places if I went with them. I understand it. It’s just fear. These days I will go someplace and think, “Lord, I got to hurry and get out of here.”
And in my mind, I hear, “You used to be all over those streets, in the dark, delivering drugs, and you didn’t even think about it then.”
So I say, “OK, if you’re gonna bring that up, I guess I’ll go do what I need to do,” and I go take food to the sisters or encourage them or whatever.
I’d been a member a year or two when the Oakland Ninth Branch was formed and I was called as Relief Society president. In that calling, I learned a lot of stuff about getting along with people and why the Relief Society was organized and what it meant to women to learn to finally support and love one another. That was an amazing time, to build that little branch.
It was an inner-city branch in Oakland, right?
It was a neighborhood group, really. There were converts coming out of the flatlands of Oakland, and I knew the language that they spoke. As Relief Society president, I couldn’t get anyone to go down into that area to visit teach or to take a meal, nothing. So I was doing it all, me and my kids.
When the first branch president got released, everybody got released but me. So I was Relief Society president for the second branch president. When he was released, I was still Relief Society president for the third branch president. When he was released, I got called again to be Relief Society president. I told them, “I need to be released, or I’m going to lose my mind.” So they released me from that and called me to be the president of the Young Women’s. “Wait!” I said, “These people don’t release nobody. They recycle you.” And that’s the truth! So I served in that capacity for a while.
Now that little branch is a ward, the Oakland Ninth Ward.
Eventually I got called to represent the Ninth Branch in the international community in Oakland, so I had the opportunity to be exposed to Vietnamese, Chinese, Hmong. I also work with the Genesis Group.
What’s the Genesis Group?
The First Presidency saw that black members felt alienated, so they started the Genesis Group, which is black saints gathering together to serve. Our mission is the same as the Church’s mission. We started as a little group and now Genesis organizations are all over. Here in Oakland, we do a Martin Luther King Day program every year at the Interstake Center by the temple. For several years now, we’ve also put on a play about early African-American Saints.
The love in the community that has arisen from that group is amazing. The work that we do, can’t anybody else do it but us.
I did some speaking in those early years when I was a new member. I spoke at BYU Women’s Conference and was in a book, Something Extraordinary. PBS did a special on the Mormons and interviewed me. It’s amazing to me to listen to myself back then, saying things that I really didn’t know yet! I’d read that if I opened my mouth, the Lord would speak for me. And that’s what I did.
Becoming Mormon really transformed your life.
Becoming a Latter-day Saint. I don’t like “Mormon.” The black community had to get rid of the word “nigger.” Now it’s the n-word. Black people took the n-word and made it their own. They used it in good ways, bad ways, ugly ways. They started calling each other that. About a year or two ago I heard some kids talking, saying, “Nigger you this and Nigger you that.” I went over to say something, expecting them to be black, and it was some Tongans and some white kids calling each other “Nigger.” I shook my head and thought, “We took that word and made it legitimate.”
The Latter-day Saints have done the same thing with the Mormon word. People gave that nickname to us so people wouldn’t believe we were Christians. We took it and ran with it. And now we got to correct it. We got to get rid of the M-word. I heard one of the General Authorities tell us, last year or the year before, “Quit doing it!”
It has to be corrected. I tell people, “You can call yourself anything you want to, you can teach your kids to call themselves whatever, but I’m teaching mine about Jesus Christ. If you want to be my friend, don’t call me no Mormon. I don’t answer to that. I testify of the Book of Mormon, but I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” If they don’t have time to listen to the whole name, then, I shake the dust off my feet!
Thank you for that correction and the forceful witness!
Tell me about where you are and what you’re doing now.
I’m in Bay Point. I never would have dreamed I’d be back here. I didn’t think I’d ever leave the Ninth Branch, for one thing. But two years ago I found myself right back out here in Bay Point looking at the places I used to go and used to live.
Somebody told me the Lord knew I needed two angels to go through this life with me, and my son and daughter have been that, right by my side. When my granddaughter got killed in a car wreck in 2007, she left three great-grandbabies. My son and I took responsibility for them. We’ve been raising them ever since.
I formed an organization, Hope PC: Help Open Possibility, Encourage Positive Change. Through that organization, my son and I have put on free football camps for coming up on thirteen years. Three of my son’s players who were on his team when they were little guys are playing professional football now. One of their mothers said that my son was the first person to put a football in her son’s hands.
I’m busy as a bee, visit teaching and taking people to pay their bills and stuff. Relief Society presidents call me; they got me on their speed dial. I don’t get paid for what I do. I have to pay to get gas to go help somebody. Building up the kingdom of God on this earth is the reason why I’m still here.
At A Glance
Betty J. Stevenson
Location: Bay Point, California
Marital status: Single
Children: 2 children, Rodney Parker 52, Shante Randles 44
Occupation: formerly a foster mother, in charge of battered women’s office in Richmond, California, and speaker about domestic violence; now raising three great-grandsons
Baptism: July 5, 1981
Schools Attended: Intermediate and high school in Bay Point, GED, Dean’s list 2 semesters Merritt College, certificates in early childhood development and community social services
Languages Spoken at Home: English and Trash
Favorite Hymn: “I Believe in Christ”
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.