August 2011 Visiting Teaching Message: A Society of Holy Women
Okay. Confession time. I don’t like Relief Society. There. I’ve said it.
I wish I did like it. I love what I imagine it could be: automatic friendship, belonging, respect… yet, I feel utterly isolated at nearly every Relief Society lesson or activity I attend. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the society; When I was a YSA, I chose to attend church for edification, rather than the oft-implied purpose of just to find a date/future mate, so attended a family ward rather than a singles ward. I tired of the Relief Society president sweetly yet coolly asking me to attend the local singles ward, so stopped attending Relief Society then. Since then, I have moved well over a dozen times as an adult, so I am often the new gal. Even though I am now married, I don’t have children, therefore no like-aged children as ice-breakers. My personal life is so ridiculously complicated that in my experience, many Mormons are so shocked that they no longer speak to me when I tell them about it. As a result, I am fiercely private, guarded and untrusting. Relief Society and Spunky is about as apples and oranges as you can get. So I am not going to tell you to go gung-ho-Relief Society-mad because that would be lying, and lying does not invoke the spirit.
But, sisterhood. Now that is a different story.
Sisterhood is an association of women, from Mother Eve to the present, who are connected through their commitment to the Lord. They have been strengthened and guided by the light of Christ. Sisterhood is the accumulation of personal power that comes with the presence of Christ in our lives. Beyond testimony, it enables women to reach out to each other to give and to be strong. It is the personal power that comes from the sure knowledge of who we are and why we are here. That identity is central to our lives. Sisterhood is a principle of unity and direction. It connects all women together in unconditional love and trust. It nourishes, it builds up, and it facilitates growth. – Grethe Balli Peterson, Blueprints for Living, Vol. 2, BYU Press, 1980, p. 55.
The phrases and terms here work for me: “personal power”, “unity and direction”, “beyond testimony”, etc. True sisterhood must be formula wherewith a society of holy women progresses and completes Christlike work. I can do this. I can do sisterhood.
So why is this lacking in my Relief Society Experience? Well, with all due respect to Silvia Alvarez, the author of this month’s message, I can’t help but feel the typical and judgmental “should” and “should not” admonitions in the message. Even in the “From the Scriptures” section where qualities of obedience, clean hands, virtue and even physical beauty are admonished. So, to be honest, I suggest skipping the scripture section. I do not suggest that the scriptures do not have value or are wrong, but within the context of visiting teaching, I think it unhelpful and difficult to remind even the strongest of sisters that they “should” exhibit the qualities of perfection in order to be considered faithful members of the Relief Society. To do so can result in the feeling of a call to righteousness, which does not invoke sisterhood and could very well alienate you from the sisters who you are called to serve.
I prefer the idea of seeking common personal, spiritual and social interests as a method of developing sisterhood with the sisters you teach. In the wise words of Julia Mavimbela:
I give thanks to God that He has made me a woman. I give thanks to my creator that He has made me black; he has fashioned me as I am, with hands, head and heart to serve my people. It can, it should be a glorious thing to be a woman. It is important for women to be aware of their common lot. It is important for women to stand together and rise together to meet our common enemies- illiteracy, poverty, crime, disease and unjust laws that have made women feel so helpless as to be hopeless. – Julia Mavimbela, Women of Wisdom and Knowledge: Talks Selected from the BYU Women’s Conference, Deseret Book, 1990, p. 63.
In the spirit of embracing our “common lot”, the message:
Eliza R. Snow, second Relief Society general president, taught: “Paul the Apostle anciently spoke of holy women. It is the duty of each one of us to be a holy woman. We shall have elevated aims, if we are holy women. We shall feel that we are called to perform important duties. No one is exempt from them. There is no sister so isolated, and her sphere so narrow but what she can do a great deal towards establishing the Kingdom of God upon the earth.”1
Sisters, we are not isolated nor is our sphere narrow. By accepting the gift of activity in Relief Society, we become part of what the Prophet Joseph described as a society “separate from all the evils of the world—choice, virtuous, and holy.”
What are the elevated aims that you share with the sisters you visit teach?
Do you share a strong bond in regard to educating children? Well, share some educational fun, watermelon style! (who knew it was a vegetable?) Do you share a desire to help impoverished women? Discuss or invest in Talents of Sisters. Are you closet foodies? Compare pesto recipes. You know you love pesto. Seek something in which you can develop true friendship, which can develop further into the bond shared between holy women. This is sisterhood.
This society helps us strengthen our faith and grow spiritually by giving us leadership, service, and teaching opportunities. In our service a new dimension is added to our lives. We progress spiritually, and our sense of belonging, identity, and self-worth increases. We realize that the whole intent of the gospel plan is to provide an opportunity for us to reach our fullest potential.
Relief Society helps prepare us to receive the blessings of the temple, to honor the covenants we make, and to be engaged in the cause of Zion. Relief Society helps us increase our faith and personal righteousness, strengthen families, and seek out and help those in need.
The work of Relief Society is holy, and doing holy work creates holiness in us.
Humph. If you feel inspired to emphasize any of those points, then do so. I primarily like the end admonition: doing holy work creates holiness in us. What is holy work to you? What work in association with Relief Society helps you to feel the spirit?
In preparing for this, I informally asked what other women thought of Relief Society… about half of the respondents said they loved or liked it, the other half were more lukewarm, one very cleverly stating that she liked the Relief Society in theory. The problem is that I don’t think Relief Society can be all things to all women. We are too diverse and our needs are so far and wide that it would be impossible to find the perfect answer to all of our needs, service abilities and righteous desires via Relief Society.
But. I think there is potential for aspects of Relief Society to be a benefit to most women. This doesn’t mean we have to love it, that we must swear allegiance to it, or that we are lesser if we feel very uncomfortable sitting in the lessons. I think this is an opportunity to seek out the spirit in different aspects of Relief Society and embrace that. Then don’t worry about the rest.
This means that rather that seeing Relief Society as a noun, (a place, a status/class, a lesson, the “third hour”) we need to see Relief Society as a VERB. It is an action. When we do Relief Society, rather than attend a Relief Society meeting, we embrace sisterhood and become servants of Christ.
One woman I asked said that she loved the lessons because she learned so much from the experiences of the older sisters. Another said that Relief Society encouraged her to become friends with those outside of her circle. One friend said she loved it because the Sunday lessons offered an hour free of child-wrangling. Another said she liked it because she felt more comfortable in commenting and participating in Relief Society lessons than she does in Gospel Doctrine lessons. And yet another friend, who was in the process of having her records removed from the church, said that she missed the fellowship of women from within the Relief Society. For her, Relief Society met a need for sisterhood that was otherwise absent from the church and the only thing of which she had positive thoughts.
Personally, I love the history of the Relief Society. The Relief Society created a demand for women’s literature. In 1872, this growing demand culminated in Louisa Lula Greene accepting a position of editor for the newly created newspaper for LDS women, The Women’s Exponent. For this, and Exponent’s continuing legacy of sisterhood and feminism, I can forgive the Relief Society for its shortcomings. This does not mean that I am converted in all things Relief Society. I am not. But I am converted to the parts of it that I love and like. I love The Exponent and Exponent II, although neither was ever formally associated with the Relief Society. And here’s a secret: I like being a visiting teacher. I struggle to make friends at church, and in visiting teaching, I feel a confidence in phoning women, visiting them armed with the message as an “ice breaker”, and building a one-on-one friendship outside of the sphere of cliques. This doesn’t mean that I have to go to Sunday Relief Society lessons, because I don’t. And I am okay with that. (Ironically, as a non-attender of Sunday lessons, but an avid visiting teacher who visit taught the Relief Society President, she told me that she felt more support from me than any one else in Relief Society. No joke.)
With this, and in the spirit of opening ourselves to true sisterhood in a manner which suits us:
Each of us will experience over our life-time physical pain, emotional anguish, heartache, grief, even betrayal in one form or another. If we attempt to deny the problem or to cover it with a facade of forced sweetness and light, we imperil both ourselves and each other- ourselves because we deny the healing that can result from the love, strength and insights of true friends, and each other because people then assume we are our facades and feel even more isolated with their problems. – Mary E. Stovall, As Women of Faith, Deseret Book, 1989, p viii.
This message reminded me of the “Individual Worth” “value” given in Young Women. Which means that we all have value, even if Relief Society may not be the fitting glove that others and we assume it should be. But if we seek out the parts of it wherein we can excel and find peace, and embrace who we are as individuals, we can become a sisterhood of holy women that is balanced by the varied strengths and even imperfections of others. Discuss with your sisters where they might find, participate and increase their own joy within the Relief Society organization, and don’t fret or fuss if they do not like Relief Society lessons, Visiting Teaching, craft activities or making meals for others. Focus on the passions and strength of the individual and how she can be comfortably involved in sisterhood and service in a way that is most meaningful to her. Don’t fret about the rest.
What part of Relief Society appeals to you? What part of Relief Society appeals to the sisters you visit teach? How can you encourage participation in this “safe” area, keeping in mind true sisterhood in the spirit of healing? Anyone have any good pesto recipes? (sorry, couldn’t resist!)