April 2012 Visiting Teaching Message: Love, Watch Over, and Strengthen
I first read this message last month in order to formulate some ideas on a post that would be workable. I kinda came up with nothing. It just was so basic, i.e. “how to visit teach”, yet a little confusing (one of the scriptural references is in regard to baptism? Um…maybe reminding us that we are all female and members so we have to visit teach? I dunno.) In short, this month’s message felt like a soul-less lesson manual to me.
In further thought, it reminded me of the first formal Relief-Society in-class lessons I can recall that I had in regard to visiting teaching. As a young university student, I found myself swallowed in a large student ward in Utah far from home. The ritual and routine of the Utah locals was foreign and uncomfortable for me, so I quickly fell into random church attendance, and began to heavily question doctrine. One Sunday, though I do not recall attending sacrament or Sunday school, I slipped into a Relief Society lesson. I sat in the back, not sure why I had bothered to come to church at all. I was joined by a member of the bishopric in the very back row.
Still new to Relief Society, I found it odd that a member of the bishopric would want to sit in on a lesson. Still, he was nicer than any of the women in the room had been; he asked me my name. I told him. He asked me if I was in that ward. I said I wasn’t, and that I wasn’t sure about all of the church stuff. He said, “I had a period of questioning the church in my life, too.” I was impressed at his answer, and even more impressed that he didn’t try to persuade me that I was wrong to question. It was a gentle form of empathy that I had not before experienced, and I was glad to have this member of the bishopric sitting beside me in the back of the Relief Society room. His lack of judgement helped me to feel the spirit, and I felt more interested and less anxious about being at that lesson.
The lesson began. Oh, dear. Not good. The woman teaching described visiting teaching as though it was slave labour. “I know we all hate to do it….” she lamented before detailing a long list of housekeeping chores with heavy emphasis on doing dishes that she seemed to think were a requisite form of Visiting Teaching service. She asked for people to say what they liked about visiting teaching, and everyone offered complaints. I was blown away by this! Visiting Teachers are really a free slave/maid service? This was news to me! What’s more is that I was sure that the spirit wasn’t in that lesson. But it made me think.
I recently had some visiting teachers who diligently tried to catch me, though I often sincerely forgot when they arranged to come to see me. I was entertained in their visits because they were so opposite. The RM was bright, studious and academically driven; the other woman endlessly discussed how she only came to school to find a husband and planned her wedding as she spoke about…. everything. I came to the conclusion that the RM wanted only to serve the Lord as I could not comprehend that her time with feminist/questioning me, or her time with her younger and eager-to-marry companion was personally rewarding in any way. So the impression of my visiting teachers stayed with me, and in the lesson where I was lectured about the drudgery of visiting teaching because it involved doing dishes, I instantly knew that the teacher was wrong.
Still… what is visiting teaching? Must it involve believers? Must it involve dishes?
From the message: Like the Savior, visiting teachers minister one by one (see 3 Nephi 11:15). We know we are successful in our ministering as visiting teachers when our sisters can say: (1) my visiting teacher helps me grow spiritually; (2) I know my visiting teacher cares deeply about me and my family; and (3) if I have problems, I know my visiting teacher will take action without waiting to be asked.
Personally, I like the emphasis on “my visiting teacher cares deeply about me and my family”. Because we all have agency, I am not convinced that a visiting teacher can always help others grow spiritually (I have had a few visiting teachers who depleted any remnants of the spirit from me). I am also not convinced that a visiting teacher should always take action without waiting to be asked for fear of doing the wrong thing. So- how do we express care to one another? And how can we balance that with the concept of assigned visiting teaching? I like Chieko Okazaki’s quote of Jill Mulvay Derr here:
“Sisterhood [is] the bonding among women on both personal and public levels, from simple friendships to massive organizations. In this sense Mormon women have a complex and vital heritage of sisterhood.
“Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, women have been a crucial part of one another’s lives—spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, socially.” (Jill Mulvay Derr, “Strength in Our Union: The Making of Mormon Sisterhood,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 154-55.) Let us rejoice in the unified sisterhood we share…. Look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church. -Chieko Okasaki, Ensign, November 1991
The formal message includes nine suggestions on how to be a visiting teacher taken from Daughters in my Kingdom. The list reads like a sterile instruction handbook, and well, you can read that on your own. Suffice to say, when I read it, I was discouraged because it came across as an assignment of emotion—“seek inspiration”, “comfort her”, “stay in frequent contact”, “greet her”, “inspire her” were some of the phases among the suggested list. At best, it is difficult to express sincerity when we are told to spiritually, emotionally and temporally serve someone whom we might not otherwise choose to befriend. But I like Angela Haight’s take on this concept:
“Visiting Teaching has become a special joy, allowing me to make friends with people I would not have sought out. I’ve discovered spirituality and strength in inactive women, as well as in those who are more visible at Church meetings. I’ve marvelled at the complexities of each and every life and the tenacity that people show in overcoming problems and challenges. I’ve shared good books, good recipes, confidences, and tears as well as happy moments with women I’ve been assigned to visit. I have a sincere conviction that if nothing else, save excellent visiting teaching was done by Relief Society, its purposes would be fulfilled.” – Angela Haight, Exponent II, Vol 17. No. 3, 1993, p. 7.
Haight’s quote made me think again about those two visiting teachers who first came to visit me. The studious and dedicated RM and the young romantic who were assigned to visit my complicated, questioning soul. I wish I could recall their names. But, just by visiting—they did inspire me. I didn’t see it at the time, but they did. Their oddly juxtaposed companionship was a testament to me that regardless of our goals, backgrounds, political motivation, tastes, colour, career path or otherwise—we can make an effort to become friends. I remember them and that they tried to be my friends, even though I did not reciprocate because I didn’t think I needed them. I cannot recall a lesson or anything we discussed. But the funny thing was, in my state of disposition in Utah, what I desperately did need was friends. Even friends who I had nothing in common with. I just needed friends. I was not a good friend to them. I often forgot when they had scheduled to visit me. So, years later—I learned from them. I learned from them because they tried to be my friends. I hope to one day thank them for that.
“I don’t see a sister as a white sister or a back sister. I see her a my sister, and I don’t think it makes any difference what color you are or what background you have, how much money you make, it doesn’t make any difference. You are my sister, and that is all that matters. –Hattie Soil, Ensign, May 1992.
Forget the sterile list—how do you think you could be a visiting teacher? How do you think you could try to better receive visiting teaching? Have you ever done dishes as a part of visiting teaching (I have not…. yet)?