“Church Efforts to Improve Literacy,” Ensign, Oct. 1993, 79–80
The Church’s Gospel Literacy Effort, announced in December 1992, has the potential to touch members worldwide. Because it was initiated through the Relief Society, the Ensign talked with Relief Society general president Elaine L. Jack to learn more about it.
Question: How widespread is the need for the literacy effort?
Answer: It is global—and yet it is very close to home. For example, a United Nations report tells us that there are nearly one billion illiterate people on earth. Almost two-thirds of them are women. Yet literate women are better prepared to provide healthy living conditions in the home and to help their children learn gospel principles.
In the United States, government studies have suggested that potentially as many as 20 percent of adults may not be able to fill out common forms like job applications or understand instructions on a medicine bottle. When literacy is limited to this extent, people are not able to enjoy the spiritual feast of the scriptures. People in need of help may be found in any area. I recently heard of a woman in Utah who learned after twenty-three years of marriage that her husband really could not read.
Q: Does the Gospel Literacy Effort go beyond teaching people to read and write?
A: Yes. As important as those goals are, there is another objective—to help build in members a lifelong habit of studying and enjoying the scriptures! Even though we can’t guarantee that people will read the scriptures if they know how to read, we can guarantee that they won’t read them if they are not able.
Our primary focus will be on women, because worldwide they have a great need. But we will serve all who want help. We will try to support them, respect them, and build their confidence. After all, they may be beginning readers, but they are not beginning thinkers.
Q: How is the Church’s literacy effort to be directed?
A: Through the priesthood. At the local level, it is under the direction of the bishop or branch president, operating through the ward or branch council, where every member’s needs are represented. The Relief Society will have the responsibility to carry out plans that are made. It will be the duty of the counselor who is responsible for education to see that this is done, but the work can be shared. She may not teach those in need, for example; she may coordinate teaching experiences and help train teachers instead. It may be appropriate to use community resources. Another tool is the Basic Scripture Literacy Course developed by the Church Educational System. Stake presidents can request the materials for this course in English or Spanish.
There are four guiding principles in this effort: reliance on the Spirit of the Lord, reliance on Church welfare principles, reliance on individual responsibility, and reliance on family responsibility and involvement. Within those guidelines, there is quite a lot of flexibility. When sisters in the field get involved in this project, there will be a warm response—a bubble-up effect that will bring people to seek the help they need.
Q: What kind of responses have you received already?
A: We have heard of numerous success stories. Sisters in Africa got into the spirit of what they were doing so well that they were not only helping each other, they were also getting help from their children at home. In the Dominican Republic, a bishop who helped one man learn to read found that man succeeding him later as bishop! A Relief Society president in Spain wrote of feelings shared by sisters in her area. “Since we have become members of the Church, our minds have been awakened, and we want to learn,” she said. “We know that to be women of education will bring many benefits for us and our families, and we will be able to work more efficiently in Church callings.”
As a Relief Society presidency, we like to hear these success stories. We hope people will send them to us.
Q: How can priesthood leaders help in this effort?
A: First, it’s important that after their review, they put the material about the Gospel Literacy Effort into the hands of their Relief Society leaders as soon as possible. Then they will want to follow up regularly, discussing and coordinating plans with Relief Society leaders and correlating efforts through the ward council. We know one thing already—we think most leaders will be surprised at the needs they will find within their own wards!
Q: Is there a timetable for this effort?
A: There is no target completion date. We want to emphasize that this is a long-term effort. We may see results quickly in some cases, and in others it might take years—but we will see them. We need patience. As President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, has said, the consequences of our effort “will go on and on and be felt in the lives of generations yet to come.” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, p. 6.)