Non-LDS students speak out about their experiences at BYU-I

Of the 16,193 students who attended BYU-Idaho during Fall Semester 2014, 42 were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Students of non-Latter-day Saint denominations made up 0.25 percent of the university’s student population.

Living in an area and attending school with so many members of another religion has allowed them an insider’s view of the beliefs, culture and lives of Latter-day Saint students at BYU-I. These members of other denominations have also experienced what it is like when Latter-day Saints find out they are members of other faiths.

“I’ve had some people just think it was cool that I decided to go here, and they were just really supportive and would answer my questions,” said Miriam Steiner (name has been changed at her request), a BYU-I student who was raised Lutheran and is considering being baptized into the Church. She said she chose to come to BYU-I because she liked the environment and appreciated the Honor Code.

Steiner also ran into situations she did not like when people found out she was not a Latter-day Saint.

“Some would always be making an effort to go out of their way to share their testimony and to ask me why I wasn’t baptized yet or what was the problem that was causing me to take so long,” she said.  “I had a girl tell me that it must be hard to find out that my baptism was invalid and that it didn’t count for anything.”

Steiner said this comment hurt her.

“I felt that my baptism was valid, and no matter what anyone said, it was special to me,” she said.

Nate Williams, a BYU-I religion professor, teaches an Introduction to Mormonism course to students who usually are not Latter-day Saints or who are converts to the Church. He said that the majority of the students he teaches like the openness, kindness and outgoing nature of people at BYU-I. However, they can also face difficulties here.

“They really wrestle, I think, with feeling judged,” he said.

Steiner said she stopped telling people on campus that she was not a member of the Church because of the reactions she would get.

“I don’t think people mean to do it, but I’ve had numerous people keep pressuring me to join the Church and get baptized,” she said.

Michael Johnston (name has been changed at his request), a nondenominational Christian, said he decided to come to BYU-I because of the low cost of tuition, the quality student-teacher relationships he had heard about and the standard the Honor Code sets for students.

“Most people that know me for a while and then find out I’m not a member are surprised,” he said. “My actions are just like those around me because I too am trying to follow Christ’s example.”

Despite having some negative experiences, Steiner said that learning about the Church while at BYU-I has helped her understand the Bible in a new way.

Kelsey Griffin, a Roman Catholic student and a senior studying political science, said she has yet to have a negative experience with people learning that she is not a Latter-day Saint.

“People pretty much always react the same way, with one question: ‘Why are you here?’” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I have answered that question. I usually tell my classmates at some point during the semester and always enjoy the stunned looks on their faces as the room falls silent.”

Johnston said how well he knows a person determines how comfortable he is telling him or her that he is not a member of the Church.

“It is always strange telling a new roommate because, unlike other people, we are stuck together for an extended period of time,” he said. “If I know the person well, then it is almost comical to tell them because they are so surprised. If it is someone I don’t know well, I am not as comfortable because I am worried as soon as I leave they are going to call the missionaries and tell them where I live.”

Griffin said she came to BYU-I in part because of someone whom she was dating at the time. She said she also thought the university was cost-effective, and she liked that the department in which she’s majoring was small and allowed her a more personal connection with professors.

“I think I had this image that everyone would be somewhat similar,” she said. “Being here, I have been able to meet people from all over the world.”

Griffin said that although she feels the university lacks extreme diversity, attending BYU-I has helped her learn there are regional cultural differences within the Latter-day Saint Church.

“Every semester, someone sends the missionaries to my door, which is an incredibly nice gesture, but no one has ever asked me first,” she said. “I still have no idea who has sent them each semester. I wish that people would ask more about me and ask if I want to see the missionaries before the surprise knock on the door at night.”

Johnston said he has met with missionaries before. He said he had been with them for so long that deciding to no longer meet with them was difficult.

Enrollment statistics do not show how long students have been members of the Latter-day Saint Church, but Clara Taylor (name has been changed), a BYU-I alumna, said she had been a member for five months when she started school at BYU-I. She said that while the education was excellent, she struggled in the new social environment.

“General statements like ‘we all know’ or ‘we all grew up learning’ are hard to hear when you aren’t just like everyone else,” she said. “There were some little quirks — like having cookies dropped off on your doorstep — that aren’t as difficult, per se, but still weird to get used to.”

Johnston said he runs into unfamiliar Latter-day Saint language, but he has friends help him understand what is being said.

Taylor said she did not like some of the things people at BYU-I would say about other churches. She felt like people were talking down to other religions.

“‘They don’t know as much as we do,’ ‘They don’t get eternal families like we do,’ ‘Other churches are ignorant,’ aren’t helpful to say to people who have family that aren’t members,” she said.

Johnston said sharing spiritual thoughts in class can be difficult. He said he knows the Bible pretty well but has to be careful what he says during spiritual thoughts because members of the Latter-day Saint Church interpret some things differently than he does.

Johnston said that one semester, he had a roommate come out as gay. This made the student who shared a room with him so uncomfortable that he slept on the couch for the rest of the semester, which did not make his gay roommate feel very good.

“I think something that many Latter-day Saints could improve on is treating people that are different the same as they would want to be treated,” Johnston said.

Taylor said she often felt babied or looked down on for not knowing enough as a new convert. She felt that some people felt the need to be missionaries instead of friends.

Williams said that there can be conflict when Latter-day Saint students try to apply how they feel the gospel should be lived to other students.

Williams said he once had a student who was chastised by a roommate for drinking Mt. Dew.

“They came in like, ‘Did I just do something horribly wrong?’” Williams said.

Williams said it can be difficult for his students to understand what things they encounter are based in doctrine and what is based in Latter-day Saint culture.

Griffin said she feels that Latter-day Saints could improve their reverence during church.

“Although LDS members dress in more formal attire, the Catholic communion seems to have a bit more reverence than the LDS sacrament, at least at school here,” she said. “Being on a cell phone right after receiving the sacrament has always seemed disrespectful to me and something I know LDS members are told not to do, but it seems to be incredibly common anyway.”

However, Steiner said she has been impressed by the respect Latter-day Saint BYU-I students have toward church and the scriptures.

Steiner said Latter-day Saints could work to learn more about other religions.

“It is one thing to know a few facts about a different religion or to have heard about it, but some have just assumed that they understand various different religious doctrines when, in reality, they have only skimmed the surface,” she said. “To be honest, it is offensive sometimes.”

Williams said that it is impressive that the students in his class are trying to learn about Latter-day Saints. “Here’s somebody who’s really trying to have empathy or understanding or just trying to get it, even if they don’t believe it. That’s pretty good. That’s pretty mature.”

He said this could be a lesson for Latter-day Saints to be sincere learners about other faiths, even if they do not share the same beliefs as those they are learning about.

“You can still show sincerity and interest to other people’s beliefs,” he said.

Taylor said members of the Church should get to know people before labeling them.

“Treat everyone like they’ve been a member their whole lives without making statements like ‘We all think,’ or ‘We all know,’ or ‘When you got baptized when you were 8,’ because even members of the Church that aren’t converts may not have had these experiences,” she said.

Johnston said he has learned that a lot of people do not know very much about the Latter-day Saint Church.

“A lot of things that people know is not 100 percent accurate,” he said. “I have learned that it is a very large and complex organization and that even after all of the schooling that I have had about it, there are still more new things to learn about it.”

Steiner said members of the Latter-day Saint Church should be friends with those who are not of their faith.

“That’s the best thing anyone could do,” she said. “In my opinion, if you really want someone to open up to the gospel, being a true friend is literally the best way to do it.”

Griffin said she wants other people who are not Latter-day Saint to know that people respect and love them despite the difference in religion.

“I would want others to know that there will be a lot of pressure to convert and that they should only do it if they feel that it is the truth,” Johnston said about other students who are not Latter-day Saints. “I have seen people join the Church only to fall away just a few years later because they feel that they were pressured into it.”

Steiner said she has had some friends tell her that whether she chooses to get baptized or not, they will support her. She said she appreciated that, and it meant a lot to her.

Johnston said that, overall, being at BYU-I has been a good experience.

“It has taught me tolerance and patience,” he said. “When we all strive to be like Christ, good things come from the experiences that we make together.”

Copyright 2015 BYU-I Scroll