Angels on Horseback
My mind is rich with memories of my childhood in Idaho many years ago—and the visiting teachers. Sometimes these precious sisters would come on horseback or in a wagon, and sometimes they would walk for a mile or two over the countryside to make their visits. But regardless of their mode of transportation, they always came with smiling faces and hearts full of love.
When I was twelve years old, my younger sister passed away. The visiting teachers came. I can still hear their kind words and feel their gentle touch. It seemed that while they were with us, all was well.
The days after my sister’s death were long and lonely. My mother was not well, and Father’s work took him away from home a great deal. Next to Father’s homecomings, the hours we enjoyed most were those when the visiting teachers came. Even though many, many years have passed, I still remember those sisters as some of the strongest, sweetest influences in my life.
A few years later, our family moved to Smithfield, Utah. We were scarcely more than settled in our new location when one of my brothers died. There we were—not acquainted with anyone in the area, struggling with the death of a loved one. Friends and family who were tried and trusted were far away, and we felt alone.
I shall never forget the day I stood gazing out the window with tear-stained eyes and a heavy heart, and there came into my view two women, walking toward our home. “Mother,” I exclaimed, “the visiting teachers are coming!” I heard her grateful, reverent reply—“What a church. What a church.”
Now as the visiting teachers enter my home, I thank God for these angels of mercy. Many sorrowing hearts have been soothed and comforted, and the spirit of peace and prayer has filtered through the thickest walls of sorrow and despair, because the visiting teachers came.
I didn’t want to be Ann Douglas’s visiting teacher. A former ward and stake Relief Society president, Sister Douglas greatly intimidated me. Her house was immaculate; mine suffered from the effects of four active children. She was an excellent homemaker; I struggled to make bread rise. What, I asked myself, could I possibly teach her?
What I forgot to ask was what Sister Douglas could teach me.
I was soon calling Sister Douglas by her first name, Ann, as we got to know each other. We discovered we shared a love of reading. Her offbeat sense of humor matched my own. And we were both struggling to become computer-literate.
Ann taught me about setting a goal and reaching it. Though she had never used a computer or taken a writing class, she decided to write her life story. With the determination that characterized everything she did, she mastered the intricacies of word processing and enrolled in a class in writing personal histories. When the teacher floundered, Ann filled in.
Ann taught me about grief. Several years earlier, her husband had died unexpectedly. Ann mourned him unashamedly and honestly, teaching me that grief has no timetable and follows no schedule. I cried with her and laughed with her as she recalled memories from her forty years of marriage.
Ann taught me about courage. The first diagnosis of cancer came in 1985. Following a mastectomy and chemotherapy, Ann thought she’d licked it. Three years later, the cancer resurfaced, this time spreading to her bones. A colostomy, an ulcerated mouth, and hair loss followed. Pain became her constant companion. But Ann managed it all with her own blend of dignity and humor, often joking, “I’ve majored in cancer.”
Ann taught me about living. During her second bout with cancer, she recarpeted her house. Caught up in my own heartache over this latest diagnosis of her illness, I didn’t understand until later the courage and faith necessary for her to take this step. It wasn’t a question of if she would live. It was a matter of how she would live.
Ann continued to work on her autobiography, always believing that she would finish it. And she did. Her book, Ann, arrived from the publisher two weeks before her death.
Ann taught me about being a survivor. “I’m a survivor even though I’m not going to survive,” said this woman who I had once dreaded getting to know. “Surviving does not mean being cured. Surviving means living.”
I Chose a Different Lesson
I accepted my call as a visiting teacher in a small Idaho town with some trepidation after receiving the names of the three sisters on my route. I was a newlywed, inexperienced at life; the three sisters I was to visit were all talented, capable, and happily busy with their large families.
What could I possibly have to offer in the way of inspiration to these women? I wondered. For quite a while I felt inadequate. Then came the obvious answers to this question: love, support, and service. However, I was searching for something more. I loved them, yes, but my “grand schemes of service” were limited to a loaf of bread, an occasional plate of cookies, and my expected monthly visit.
One morning as the time approached to go visiting teaching, I began thinking about one of my sisters in particular—Jennifer. * My lesson, prepared the night before, seemed inadequate. I felt impressed to choose another topic, “Overcoming Adversity,” for Jennifer. I began to look up scriptures and resources on this subject. I even made a special handout for her that I had found in the Family Home Evening Resource Book.
I questioned my choice of subject matter as I gathered up my materials, scriptures, and handout. Jennifer had seemed to be doing just fine the last time I talked to her. Temporarily without a visiting teaching partner, I took a moment to pray for the Spirit to be with me.
When I arrived, I carefully climbed the icy steps, then I took a deep breath before knocking on the door. Jennifer greeted me with her usual smile and invited me in. We began chatting, and from all outward appearances, she seemed happy. Why did I feel a prompting that Jennifer needed this particular lesson? I wondered to myself. She seems just fine. How could I talk about the steps to overcoming discouragement? At that moment I felt that my lesson might sound like a lecture or, worse yet, might seem as if I had presumed that she wasn’t handling her life very well.
Still unsure of myself, I told her that I had felt strongly that she needed to hear a particular lesson, but that after talking with her, I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to her situation. I explained how I had prayed to be in tune with the needs of each of the sisters I visited, and I told her how forcefully the idea had come to me to choose a different lesson for her than the one I had originally prepared. I explained that I had hurriedly found scriptures, extra resources, and pertinent information in the hour before leaving for my appointment with her.
Jennifer asked me what subject I had been impressed to discuss with her. When I told her the topic, “Overcoming Adversity,” the smile slipped from her lips and tears welled up in her eyes. She told me how hard she had been struggling the last couple of weeks, while her husband had been working out of town, and she mentioned other circumstances leading to her discouragement.
I then proceeded to share with her the message I had felt so impressed to prepare. Before I left, we knelt in prayer, and Jennifer thanked Heavenly Father for knowing her needs. I will never forget that humbling moment when she confirmed that she needed to hear the things I had been prompted to prepare. That day I received a glimpse of the joy and purpose of visiting teaching, and of my own importance when I am “on the Lord’s errand.”
About eleven years ago, I moved to the San Jose, California, area. I had been divorced the year before my move and had “let go” of that wonderful iron rod that now helps me direct my life in the paths I should follow. For the first five years after my move, I didn’t outwardly acknowledge my membership in the Church.
Several years later, I moved to a new neighborhood. I began receiving monthly Relief Society messages in the mail, each one signed by Olive Fritz. These messages came each month like clockwork, often with a special handwritten message. Sister Fritz also sent cards for my birthday and other holidays. This went on for quite some time, and I marveled at the dedication of this Olive Fritz, whom I had never met.
Finally Sister Fritz and another woman came to my home during the Easter season. I was reluctant to let them in because I was still dealing with a lot of pain from my past experiences. However, when I saw that Sister Fritz was in her eighties and in poor health, I was touched by her diligent, saintlike visiting teaching. I invited them in.
I learned much from Sister Fritz, a convert. She had lived a life of service both in and out of the Church. When she was called to be in charge of visiting teaching, she was given two lists—one list of active sisters, the other of sisters who were not attending Church meetings. Sister Fritz was told that nothing was being done for the sisters on the second list but she was welcome to come up with any suggestions or ideas, and she did just that. Feeling that these sisters needed her love, possibly even more than the sisters who were already active, Sister Fritz proceeded to write individual monthly messages to each sister on the list. She also sent birthday cards and other holiday greetings and visited them on special holidays with treats she had baked.
The messages were neither lessons nor preachy notes. They were simply messages of friendship and love.
About twenty-five sisters received these monthly greetings from Sister Fritz. When she was asked how much time this took, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know. I just love doing it.”
I have been active in the Church for about a year now. I thank my Heavenly Father for a visiting teacher like Olive Fritz—a woman who reached out with love, friendship, and acceptance.
The Smiths’ Circle
Visiting Sister Smith * was a very difficult assignment for me. I was expecting my third child and not feeling well. Sister Smith was a less-active sister who worked rotating shifts at the local hospital. It seemed impossible to catch her at home in order to set up an appointment. Yet when I dropped by without an appointment, I often woke her up; she slept during the day when she had worked the night before. In addition, her husband was not a member of the Church and would not even stay in the room when anyone from the Church came to visit. It was a very discouraging situation for me.
But I kept trying, and it became easier. In fact, during the course of about three years, I was blessed to watch the Smiths’ lives change.
As Sister Smith and I learned about each other, we became friends. I began to look forward to these visits and to sharing experiences, feelings, and thoughts with my new friend. With support and encouragement, Sister Smith began to attend her meetings.
During this time her husband, who for twenty-one years had completely avoided any connection with the Church, was baptized. I watched as the Smiths learned about the gospel, lived its principles, and found a peace and happiness they’d never experienced before.
The Smiths decided to go to the temple, and they often asked me questions as they prepared over the months for this great experience. I went with them as they entered the temple and were sealed as husband and wife for eternity. I was honored and thrilled when they asked me to stand in as proxy for their daughter who had died as a child. What an experience for me to see the lives of this couple change as they embraced the gospel and lived its principles!
I have since moved, but my sister still lives in the Smiths’ ward. Since she is a less-active member, my sister’s only contact with the Church is her monthly visit with the married couple who come to her home as combined home teacher and visiting teacher—the Smiths.
It is now the Smiths’ turn to enter the circle of Church service. I don’t know my sister’s ultimate decision about the Church, but I do know that every month she will feel love, support, and encouragement. The Smiths faithfully visit her, for they know her situation—it was theirs not so many years ago.
The Wrong Road, Right Message
You’ll really like Jan * ,” Sister Deibler said as she skillfully drove the winding back roads leading to our visiting teaching appointment. New to this rural ward, I’d been assigned as partner to Sister Deibler, a faithful convert of several years who was familiar with the area and members.
“She’s got a great sense of humor—and two of the cutest little children!” She paused, as though hesitant to say more. “Jan has been a member since childhood, but because of some tragedy in the family, she fell away and married outside the Church. Her husband doesn’t want anything to do with the Church, but Jan says we’re welcome to come on two conditions: we come only when her husband is away, and we don’t mention the Church or the gospel while we’re there.”
Oh, great! I thought, wondering how welcome two visiting teachers could be in a home where the gospel was a taboo topic.
Sister Deibler was right—I really did like Jan. We had a lot in common. We were both expecting our third child, and we talked easily about our children and our pregnancies. It was also easy to discuss the monthly message. I’m not sure if Jan really didn’t mind after all, or if she just didn’t recognize our discussions as “spiritual.” I do know that my testimony grew stronger than ever that the gospel embraces all truth and touches every facet of our lives. My testimony of the inspired nature of each month’s visiting teaching message was also strengthened.
One hot summer month, Sister Deibler and I had a special prayer before visiting Jan. The subject for the month was going to be a hard one to disguise in casual conversation: the Atonement.
As we chatted with Jan, Sister Deibler and I exchanged glances. Jan was joking a lot, but she was not happy. I sensed that her marriage was in trouble and that she was worried about the effect of her expected baby on her marriage and family. As usual, she made light of it, but behind the thin veil of her dry humor, Jan was obviously hurting.
We were comparing notes on our respective pregnancies—talking about how challenging it was to keep up with toddlers when we ourselves could barely toddle—when Jan said flippantly, “Boy, I wish there was a way out of this! If it were possible to back up and turn around, I’d do it.”
She paused, and when she continued I knew she was referring to more than just her uncertain feelings about her marriage and pregnancy. Almost defiantly, she demanded, “What can you do when you’ve taken the wrong road and there’s no way to turn around?”
The Spirit whispered, “Now!” and filled my words with power.
“Jan, there is a way. Every one of us at some time makes a wrong turn. Heavenly Father knew we would, and because he loves us, he provided a way to turn around. It cost him a lot to give us that opportunity—the life of his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
We looked at each other through misty eyes, and there followed the most meaningful discussion I’ve ever had about the Atonement.
I knew then that the messages we take into the homes of our sisters each month are inspired. Through the experience of visiting Jan, I learned what a sacred opportunity and obligation we have to deliver these messages of love, hope, and counsel to each other.