“Relief Society: My Life’s Underrated Treasure,” Ensign, Mar. 1990, 13
As a new member of the Church and a college student bound for graduate studies, I did not like Relief Society and I avoided the meetings. My stake president encouraged me to attend, but I consistently refused his counsel. After all, what could I gain from joining an organization of women? I was more comfortable discussing sociological theory and philosophy than talking about child-rearing and bread-baking.
But today, two decades later, I realize that my early assumptions were wrong. “Life is filled with underrated treasures and overrated pleasures,” say the lyrics of a popular song. In my life, Relief Society has become one of those underrated treasures. My associations with sisters there have taught me two vital lessons: that I am a valued daughter of God and that the Savior loves me.
Admittedly, my feelings regarding Relief Society have been intricately tied to my feelings about women. I had learned to associate spiritual and intellectual maturity with men. My ministers—and later my bishops and stake presidents—were men, as were the missionaries who taught me the gospel. Although my mother is a successful businesswoman, by the time I began a career of college teaching, most of my role models were men: professors, deans, and bosses.
I knew more men than women who shared my interests. I was even uncomfortable with the idea of being a homemaker. Following my mother’s lead, I wanted to enjoy earning money and then hire a housekeeper!
At the same time, I had a strong testimony of the gospel. One thing that attracted me to the Church was the teaching that every person is a child of God and that all people are my brothers and sisters. I had felt this to be the case throughout my life. As a teenager, I was troubled when I saw my girlfriends making judgments about how desirable a guy was based on how tall he was, what car he drove, and how athletic he was. I never understood this attitude; their judgments were not only illogical, they were unfair. I was also concerned when I discovered that girls were the targets of similar judgments from guys. Later, I was distressed by the prejudices based on ethnic origin, race, religion, age, and gender that I found around me. Such prejudices ignore our identities as children of God.
I abhorred intellectually any suggestion that some people were better than others solely on the basis of which groups they were born into or chose to join. Yet emotionally I accepted some of these notions as far as women were concerned. Because I looked to men as intellectual and spiritual role models, I found myself trusting the opinions of men over the opinions of women simply on the basis of the gender of the person expressing those views. I did not realize at the time that this was eroding my ability to value myself as a woman and as a daughter of God.
During the time when I avoided Relief Society, I had a negative, prejudiced view of it. I felt that it was only for women who were perfect wives of perfect returned-missionary husbands, perfect mothers of perfect children, who effortlessly prepared perfect meals and lived flowing, spiritually effortless lives. In all seriousness, I admit that I was somewhat intimidated by this image; in many ways, I wanted to become just such a person.
I later learned from my Relief Society sisters that we do not have to be the same in order to be of worth. As I attended Relief Society, I found sisters who were like me: not perfect. I took heart in that realization. Everyone had challenges, regardless of her length of time in the Church, marital status, number of children, or homemaking skills. As I learned of each person’s struggles, I was able to appreciate her courage and spiritual strength. As I came to know them better, my sisters became my new—and needed—role models.
An instance I remember vividly is when Barbara Winder, the new Relief Society general president, taught the value of individuality. The lesson came at a leadership meeting for stake Relief Society presidencies which she conducted. I was thrilled when President Winder urged us to value diversity among sisters and to accept women who did not fit any prescribed pattern. She advanced the idea that we use Christlike living as our standard. I left President Winder’s presence feeling profoundly loved and valued—and I had a great desire to share that feeling with the women in our stake.
As I sought to understand the Christlike standard for living that Relief Society upholds, I rediscovered the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit …
“Blessed are they that mourn …
“Blessed are the meek …
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness …
“Blessed are the merciful …
“Blessed are the pure in heart …
“Blessed are the peacemakers …
“Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” (Matt. 5:3–10.)
I noticed that the Savior did not say, “Blessed are the white people,” “Blessed are the married,” or “Blessed are those who bake bread.” Rather, he set standards that everyone, regardless of circumstances, could strive for. By eliminating artificial barriers between people, he emphasized that we are spiritual siblings who share an eternal destiny.
These standards are so important that Alma emphasized them when he discussed the covenant of baptism. (See Mosiah 18:8–10.) The Savior repeated them when he visited the Nephites. (See 3 Ne. 12:3–12.) The elimination of artificial barriers is reinforced in our day by the mission of the Church—which is also the mission of Relief Society. The charge to spread the gospel is based on the assumption that we share a common eternal identity and that we have brothers and sisters who are ready to accept the gospel. Redeeming the dead asserts our kinship with all people. As we strive to do ordinance work for others in the temple, centuries do not matter, nor do race, religion, language, or cultural background.
Another mission of the Church—to perfect the Saints—is beautifully magnified by the Relief Society, which was founded on service and charity. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in his journal on 24 March 1842:
“I attended by request, the Female Relief Society, whose object is the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes.” (History of the Church, 4:567.)
What better way is there to improve ourselves and develop our sisterhood than to administer to one another’s spiritual and temporal needs? Differences melt in the face of loving service.
While I served as stake Relief Society president, I was privileged to know several dozen ward and branch Relief Society presidents. They taught me the power of the Savior’s love and compassion in helping others to grow. I recall meeting with a ward Relief Society president who told me about a sister who had not attended Church in a long time. This sister was living with a man who was not the father of her small children and who was unkind to her. With no financial resources and no employment skills, her situation was desperate. This president, seeking a way to serve the sister, wept for her, not uttering a word of judgment or reproach. She understood that at that time this sister needed an understanding friend more than she needed a lesson. As I associated with the presidents, the privilege of observing such compassion became commonplace.
Similarly, I witnessed Relief Society presidents seeking ways to serve Primary and Young Women presidents. Expressing concern for the welfare and challenges of the other two presidents, Relief Society presidents and their counselors often substituted in the other organizations on Sundays. I also saw Relief Society presidents volunteer to release a valued counselor so that she could be called to another organization that was in great need of leadership.
These presidents often served those who were not members of our church. One joined a community organization comprised of clergy who assist the poor; another, who had retired along with her husband, had two-year-old twins of a Catholic family live with her for six months. The mother, recently divorced, needed someone to care for her twins while she found employment and an apartment.
This attention to the needs of others characterized the Savior’s dealings with people during his earthly ministry; as I observed these sisters, I came to know and feel the character of the Savior. And in so doing, I came to see more clearly my value as a daughter of God.
During my Southern Baptist childhood, I was taught that the Savior loves us. The song that I remember most from Sunday School is:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong;
They are weak but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me,
For the Bible tells me so.
I recall singing that song in church and wondering: What is it really like? What does it feel like to be loved by Him? Those questions have remained with me as an adult member. Slowly I have been taught the answers. Ward and branch Relief Society presidents, in their love for their sisters, demonstrated to me that being loved by the Savior is accompanied by feelings of acceptance and concern, of respect and understanding, of being valued as an individual. Full realization of one’s identity as a child of God is deeply felt, and thus difficult to attain. The sisters understood that when we love others as the Savior did, we help them realize their divine worth.
As I counseled with these sisters, I marveled that part of my calling was to train them, when, in reality, they were teaching me. As I became familiar with the needs they met and the service they rendered, I encountered a Christlike strength that I had never witnessed; I observed wisdom and judgment that were unequaled anywhere in my experience. I witnessed the compassion of the Savior. I acquired a new set of heroes in my life and learned that I had the capacity to become Christlike as well.
It certainly is a rare and remarkable organization that nurtures the best in us and helps us become more Christlike, that values our diversity and differences. Through Relief Society, women of all circumstances can be enfolded in the Savior’s care. Perhaps the greatest challenge that faces us as members of the Church is to ensure that everyone feels loved. Relief Society is certainly well-positioned to meet that challenge.