“And now behold, I ask of you … have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” — Alma 5:14

AMERICAN FORK — One day in June 2007, Phillip Miner woke up in a backpacker’s hostel near Lusaka, Zambia, and couldn’t get out of bed. He was dizzy and felt that he might vomit.

For the past few days Miner, with trimmed beard and chocolate-brown, shoulder-length hair, had dressed as Jesus and interacted with African orphans as part of a photo and video shoot. Despite being "a shy people-avoider," he was suddenly the center of attention, and the experience had left him emotionally drained.

“I was overcome, stretched beyond my ability to cope,” Miner said as he sat comfortably on a sofa in an art studio. “But it was fairly clear to me at the time that it was not just physical symptoms; it was much more.”

Those were the circumstances right before Miner had the spiritual awakening of his life.

Acting as the Savior brought Miner closer to the Savior. Two months after modeling as the Savior in Africa, Miner had a new faith, wife and family.

“The truth is the Spirit touched my heart and gave me a wake-up call,” Miner said. “He knows me and loves me.”

Recognized in a bookstore

Miner grew up in an LDS family in Provo. Sometime between ages 12 and 14, “as soon as he was able to stand up to his mom,” he stopped going to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Miner got married and became a father at age 19. A second child followed. About three years later, the couple divorced. He made a living as a general contractor.

One day in 2005, Miner was browsing in a Border’s bookstore when he met Holly Gustafson, an assistant to artist Liz Lemon Swindle. Gustafson confused Miner with Christopher Crofts, Swindle’s model for paintings of Jesus, and introduced herself. That conversation led to Miner meeting Swindle and becoming an understudy for Crofts. At the time, Miner was not the least bit religious and knew very little about the life of Jesus.

“I have no idea how I came to be in Border’s that day. Just trolling, I guess,” Miner said. “Initially, I thought it was a little strange. I knew this Jesus guy really didn’t mean anything to me, but I got that he was a big deal in a lot of people’s lives. So my thinking was if this artist lady can use my face for that good cause, why not support it?”

Crofts retired, and for the next few years, Miner did very little modeling for Swindle.

Then Mothers Without Borders, an international organization that helps orphans and abandoned children throughout the world, approached Swindle with a proposition. The goal was to shoot photos and video of Jesus interacting with African children so Swindle could create a painting and sell it with proceeds going to Mothers Without Borders.

Swindle was reluctant to accept because she hates to travel. She secretly hoped Miner couldn’t go and rejoiced when she found out Miner had just cut his hair "missionary short" for the first time in 15 years.

But the people at Mothers Without Borders were persistent. When Miner's hair grew back in 2007, the trip was on. To prepare himself, Miner decided he should learn something about the Savior. A trusted friend suggested he start reading the Bible in Genesis, but he didn’t get very far and learned very little. “I wanted to get an idea of what his life was like, but I didn’t do a very good job,” Miner said. “I relied on Liz to give me background.”

The Savior in Africa

The shoot took place at a Zambian orphanage for children whose parents had died of AIDS. Some of the children also had AIDS. Zambia is a Christian nation, so the children were all familiar with the figure of Christ.

Miner worried how the children would react if they learned he wasn’t the real Jesus. He hoped they wouldn’t be as annoyed as he was when he learned the truth about Santa Claus. But even when he said his name was Phillip, the children gushed with tears of happiness and came forward to hug him. They also sang songs about Heavenly Father in broken English.

“I told one 12-year-old girl that I was there to remind her that Jesus knows and loves her. She started sobbing, weeping and wailing, a letting go of emotion from the depths of her soul. Her tears were not just dripping; they were pouring. I remember thinking, 'How can so much water come from an eyeball like that?'” Miner said. “It was clear to everyone that those were tears of joy and recognition as Carol Zulu remembered that her Savior knows and loves her.”

Meanwhile, Swindle said she was walking on eggshells. As Miner played with the children in front of the cameras for a few days, Swindle struggled to find inspiration and battled the desire to go home. Yet the artist was also concerned about Miner, who was starting to feel ill with flu-like symptoms. During one difficult moment, she offered a prayer. When she looked up, she saw Miner holding a 3-year-old boy named Kennedy. At that moment, he kissed the back of the orphan’s head.

“That was so darling to me,” Swindle said. “He (Kennedy) looked right at me with no life in his eyes. An epiphany just washed right over me. Here is what you should paint. This is Africa. This little Kennedy represents the hopelessness, the sadness, the death and the poverty that no amount of dollars can fix. The only one who can fix this problem is the Savior. The symbolism of the Savior kissing this little African boy was so profound and so simple. I had the shot and the whole thing shifted for me.”

Swindle eventually painted “The Worth of a Soul” for Mothers Without Borders. The artist later wrote: "For the first time in my life I felt what Isaiah meant when he said, 'He will swallow up death in victory, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces.' To Kennedy and all who struggle to understand why, I promise that God has not forgotten you."

The blessing

The next morning Miner couldn’t get out of bed. In addition to the flu, he felt dehydrated and emotionally spent. He needed rest.

Miner was grateful when a young man, a volunteer with their project, came to check on him. The young man, a recently returned LDS missionary, thanked him for the work he was doing and offered to get him anything — a sandwich, a drink or perhaps a priesthood blessing. He also gave Miner a journal and encouraged him to write down his experiences.

When the young man returned that evening, Miner said he would take him up on the blessing. The young man left to find a second priesthood holder and returned wearing a white shirt and tie. The next few minutes turned Miner’s life upside down, he said.

“Until then, I was on a paid vacation having some interesting experiences,” said Miner, who considered himself spiritual but not religious. “Then a stranger laid his hands on my head; it became clear that these weren’t his words.”

For several long minutes, the young man, in his early 20s, spoke with a wisdom and intimacy that cut to the depths of Miner’s soul.

“It became a little scary and I started to worry, 'Who was this guy?'” Miner said. “I knew he was an LDS Melchizedek priesthood holder, a Mormon; what does this mean?” The more the young man said, the harder the words of the blessing became to dismiss, Miner said.

Miner listened carefully to each word so he could find a flaw and discount the whole thing. Somewhere in the middle of the prolonged blessing, an insignificant word was spoken that didn’t necessarily change the meaning of anything, but gave Miner a little hook.

“I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, that wasn’t perfect,” he said. “But no sooner had I sighed when he stopped mid-sentence, paused for a few seconds and backed up to start the previous sentence again. He rephrased it and changed that otherwise insignificant word. It was changed to an equally insignificant word, which was, in fact, perfect, cutting me to the depths again. He continued rattling on, as if he knew me as well or better than I knew myself.

“It was crystal clear to me that those were not the words of a stranger, but the words of a Heavenly Father who knew me and loved me,” Miner said. “I had some serious reconsidering to do.”

A new life

During his trip to Zambia, Miner developed a close friendship with Kathy Headlee. Headlee, a single mother of five from Cedar Hills, founded Mothers Without Borders in 2000. The last night in Zambia the pair stayed up talking for hours.

“I had a real respect for Kathy. If I could just go home and find someone like Kathy,” Miner said.

After the blessing, Miner determined to return home and break up with his girlfriend, which he did. Then he sent a long email to Headlee and said he looked forward to her return. Despite Headlee's being 19 years Miner's senior, they were married about two months later and merged their families, his two sons and her five children.

These days the Miners continue doing work in Zambia and living in American Fork. It’s not uncommon to catch little children staring over the bench at Miner in their American Fork LDS ward. Miner still marvels how modeling as the Savior has given him a new lease on life.

“I go back to where I started,” Miner said. “This Jesus guy is really kind of a big deal to a lot of people. I just happen to be one of those people now.”

Free picture of the Savior

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In an effort to spread hope, Swindle is working with churches and other groups to give away free pictures of Jesus Christ. She believes it will inspire people.

"If we can get a picture of Christ in every home, that would be the coolest thing in the whole world," she said. "I don't want people to think I would profit by it ... but you live differently when you know Christ."

The free prints of Christ painted by Swindle are available at the Repartee galleries that her family owns, as well as Seagull Book, Robert's Crafts in American Fork and at the website pictureofchrist.com. Information about the group Mothers Without Borders can be found at motherswithoutborders.org.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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