“In the Vineyard,” Ensign, Mar. 2004, 21
Shortly after we were married, my husband and I moved to New Jersey. As a first-year medical student, my husband rarely returned home before 11:30 P.M. I worked as a substitute teacher in the local high schools but spent a lot of time at home by myself. I hadn’t made friends quickly. This move had been lonely and difficult for me.
The bishop of my new ward asked me to head up a program for our ward’s Spanish-speaking members. This meant translating in sacrament meeting, teaching the gospel doctrine class, and overseeing the Relief Society. Outside of the native Spanish speakers, I was the only woman in the ward who spoke Spanish fluently.
To add to my responsibilities, the Relief Society president gave me a visiting teaching list of 12 sisters who lived in a barrio across town. I’ll admit I was not thrilled about my new assignment. I was busy with my other callings, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to reach out to these Latina sisters. But I made some visiting teaching appointments, and before I knew it I was sitting in the Dumez’s living room.
“You’re my visiting teacher?” Sister Dumez asked as she entered the room. “Welcome to my home. I haven’t had a visiting teacher in two years.” She listened intently to the message, we visited, and she thanked me again and again for coming.
Before I left she called her five children together to sing “I Am a Child of God” in Spanish. She hugged me and squeezed my hand. As I thought about the experiences and difficult trials she had shared with me, I felt a little remorseful about considering my calling to be such a sacrifice.
I drove to my next appointment and knocked on the door. Sister Martinez pushed the door open with her cane and peered out. I had only spoken a few words of introduction in Spanish when she threw her arms around me and said, “Come in, come in! Finally someone has come who understands my language.”
“I like this woman already,” I thought. We laughed together like old friends as she recounted tales of her life and talked about her experiences in the Church.
“I can’t understand much of sacrament meeting, but I never miss it,” she said. “Somehow the Lord fills my heart with the spirit of the meeting.”
As I got up to leave, I admired the yarn purses she was crocheting. “Which one do you like best?” she asked.
“The black and yellow pattern,” I answered.
“Take it. It’s for you because you’re my visiting teacher.”
All of the visits during that first outing went better than I had anticipated. Throughout the following months, as the sisters graciously welcomed me into their homes, I began to look forward to my visits. But I was unprepared for the stories of tragedy and adversity I heard as I got to know these beautiful people better. I decided to at least try to make life more comfortable for these sisters and their families, many of whom struggled financially. I began taking casseroles when I visited. I took the families on outings. I drove them to doctor appointments and grocery stores.
I quickly forgot about my own loneliness as I served others. The sisters whom I had at first considered so different from myself soon became my dear friends. They were loyal, steadfast friends who were grateful for even the slightest thing I did for them. And they anticipated my needs: I regularly received calls and gifts from the heart. One sister crocheted a doily for my table. Another composed a poem for my birthday.
Yet, after several months in my callings, I was frustrated at my inability to make life safer or more comfortable for my friends. I was also frustrated that many of them didn’t attend church regularly—some would only come on Sunday if I had visited them during the previous week.
One night I felt especially discouraged. I knelt to pray, pleading with the Lord to show me the direction to take. I felt impressed that the Lord wanted me to help these sisters become more self-reliant and serve each other. I’ll admit that I was skeptical that persons carrying such tremendous burdens would have the strength required to lift one another, but I knew I needed to follow the prompting.
I began by reorganizing the visiting teaching program in the Spanish-speaking Relief Society. One of my faithful friends, Sister Moreira, volunteered to visit six of the sisters by herself. My first response was to protest, “You can’t possibly handle that route without a car. It’s too far to walk!” But then I remembered my impression to let the sisters serve each other. I put all six sisters on Sister Moreira’s new visiting teaching list.
Upon returning from her marathon visiting teaching course, Sister Moreira called me, filled with the Spirit. As she had visited with her sisters, she had been inspired to share examples from her own life to help them. Her feet were sore, but the Lord had lightened her load and her heart.
After a few more visits, Sister Moreira recruited another sister to walk the route with her. Together they carried pots of rice and handmade cards to the sick. They served and loved their sisters, and soon the families they visited started coming to church more often. Some of the sisters even began preparing to go to the temple for the first time.
Once I started looking, I found all sorts of ways to help these sisters help themselves and each other. When a ward member offered to let us harvest her tomato fields, it occurred to me that my friends and I could gather the tomatoes and bottle them for food storage. But when several sisters responded to my idea by saying, “Put tomatoes in bottles?” I quickly realized these sisters were unfamiliar with the bottling process. They were all eager to try new things though, so we piled into my sedan and headed for the fields.
The sisters gleaned the fields rapidly and thoroughly. When we finished, we loaded bushels of tomatoes into the car and returned to my house for a bottling lesson. Amid mounds of tomatoes, we laughed and cried as we swapped stories. Each sister took home a dozen jars. A few of the sisters developed an interest in bottling; they found a good price on peaches and soon added bottles of fruit to their home storage. Families who had often been faced with hunger were learning new ways to provide for themselves.
Just at the time when I could see great spiritual growth developing among the members of my ward, I received notice that my husband and I would be moving to California. I didn’t even want to think about leaving my wonderful friends. I yearned to continue serving with them—we had given each other so much. But at least I could see that the cause of the gospel was moving forth mightily in their lives, and they were looking out for one another. I, who had set out grudgingly to labor in the fields, had returned laden with sheaves.