Water is a precious and rare fluid in western Nigeria. Many Nigerian women and children living in small villages in the African country spend as much as seven hours a day hauling water from the river to their homes. In the town of Aqua Ibom in the Eket District in Nigeria, LDS women chose to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Relief Society with a project that would make life easier for their whole village. They cleared a new path to a nearby stream, their main source of water.
This simple deed of service joined the Aqua Ibom women in the worldwide sisterhood, begun when the Prophet Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society in March 1842.
—In Huntington Beach, California, a young man severely injured in an automobile accident needed intensive physical therapy to regain his speech and the use of his arms and legs. Because his family was unable to afford the needed care, the young man waited, bedridden, for almost two years.
“We had been looking for service for our ward, and as soon as I heard about Paul, I knew he was the answer to our prayers,” said Judy Lockhart, president of the Huntington Beach Fourth Ward Relief Society. “After I visited with Paul and his family, I was humbled to know that we were also the answer to their prayers.”
For more than a year, teams from the ward came in several times a week to work with Paul. Many were husband/wife or parent/child duos. When her scheduled partner was unable to make it, Sherry Kent took her very reluctant fourteen-year-old son, Adam, along instead.
“At first Adam was quiet and hesitant, but Paul’s smile and friendliness helped him to open up,” says Sherry. “The hour passed quickly, and as we got into the car to leave, Adam asked, ‘Are we going again next week?’ He continued to go with me and each time expressed gratitude for the blessings of working with Paul and for his own blessings.”
—“With the hostilities in Croatia forcing many people into homelessness, we chose to become involved in helping to secure and distribute humanitarian aid,” explained Tea Bucan, Relief Society president in the Zagreb (Croatia) Branch. Through the area presidency, the sisters requested and received truckloads of food, clothing, and medical supplies donated by the Church and by Church members in Austria. More truckloads later arrived from the Saints in Germany. Every able woman in the branch, many of the men, and other members of the community as well, helped in unpacking, sorting, and distributing the supplies.
“We felt the joy of giving, and we saw the faces of sad people light up when they found the warm clothing, bedding, shoes, and other things that they needed,” said Sister Bucan. “We will continue to serve as long as we are able, with the help of Church members who so generously donate.”
Wretchedness replaced with comfort and peace. Suffering softened by kindness and compassion. These are images deeply etched in the hearts of many Latter-day Saints, particularly so during 1992, a year in which Church members all over the world united in serving their neighbors and communities. The deeds performed are as diverse as the people themselves, but many of the results are similar: hearts have been lifted, spirits strengthened, and lives touched as people have reached out in love and compassion—the truest embodiment of the gospel.
This year-long focus on acts of charity was the result of “A Celebration through Service,” the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Relief Society. Rather than celebrate the occasion with gala balls and parties, it was decided to focus on the principles of charity and service on which the Relief Society was founded, in keeping with the society’s motto, “Charity Never Faileth.”
“Glorious things have happened!” says Relief Society General President Elaine L. Jack. “There has been a tremendous outreach by Latter-day Saints into communities and neighborhoods—more than we had ever imagined! The momentum that has been created will continue to fulfill women and give them understanding and insight into their own capabilities for many years to come.”
“We are going to do something extraordinary,” was the prophetic pronouncement of President Emma Smith at the first meeting of the Relief Society on 17 March 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois. This conviction was reemphasized in a letter sent to the sisters in the Church from the Relief Society General Presidency nearly 150 years later. “Because our sisters are extraordinary, so are the accomplishments of Relief Society through its history. Our celebration should lift and bless all members of the Church and give us cause to thank our Heavenly Father.”
Each branch or ward was directed to creatively and prayerfully select projects that would improve their communities and bless the lives of their neighbors. In addition, it was hoped the projects would build the personal testimonies of the women involved and bless them and their families by allowing them to develop and exercise charity and enjoy an enhanced feeling of unity and sisterhood. Counsel was also given to involve priesthood leaders and to invite anyone willing to serve.
President Jack, speaking in the Relief Society Satellite Broadcast on 14 March 1992, told of a ward leader’s meeting with a community worker who had been asked to inform the sisters about local service opportunities. When she explained the program, the astounded worker asked, “You mean 18,000 groups of Relief Society women are going to do something in their local communities? Then you’ll change the world.” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 99.)
And indeed, as reports on sesquicentennial service projects have poured into the Relief Society offices in Salt Lake City, it is evident that much has changed. Boxes and boxes of assorted-sized envelopes and packages, many containing pictures, some with videos, have flooded the offices with stories of work, love, inspiration, revelation, and conversion.
“Tears came to my eyes and a pounding in my chest as I learned of the plans for the sesquicentennial year,” writes one sister. “The Spirit bore witness to me that this is what the Lord wants us to do. It just feels right. Bless you for your divine inspiration.”
A few participants expressed an initial reluctance. “I wondered how our sisters would react. Every time we had tried to shift the focus of our homemaking meetings away from crafts, we got sparse attendance,” admitted one letter-writer. “However, your promise that if we did this, our sisters would enjoy a unity of sisterhood and purpose greater than ever spurred me to give it a wholehearted try.”
The writer of the letter, like most who expressed misgivings, experienced a change of heart. Her letter continues: “I’ve been astounded at the degree of service and significant contributions made. We’ve learned how to serve each other well and will continue to do so. In addition, now our communities can know that our organization stands for caring and integrity and depth of purpose.”
Many projects have focused on literacy, one area of special Relief Society emphasis. Sisters from the Lakeview Ward in Centerville, Utah, went weekly to the Davis County Jail to tutor inmates who were studying to pass their G.E.D. (General Education Development) exams, the equivalent of a high school diploma. “We wanted to do something worthwhile that would raise the inmates’ self-esteem,” says Relief Society president Mary Ellen Smoot. After several months and many volunteered hours, half of all the inmates who took the test—the highest percentage ever—passed it.
Latter-day Saints in Tahiti have been involved in a variety of projects, such as collecting, sorting, and cleaning clothing to be given to those devastated by the effects of cyclones; beautifying neighborhoods and planting flowers around public buildings, school yards, and cemeteries; tending a severely handicapped child in his home every Sunday to enable the mother to attend Church meetings for the first time in years; and gathering supplies for a new shelter for battered women. “We have been amazed at the variety of service opportunities and the great need for volunteers in our own communities,” says Pauline Lee, a Relief Society president in the Papeete Tahiti Stake.
In Cape Town, South Africa, many “street children” living in the black townships are on their own during the day. They often get into trouble or find themselves the victims of roaming street gangs. Relief Society members from the Guguletu Branch have organized activities for these children, keeping them busy, happy, and well supervised.
Many projects caused people to reach across racial barriers. In the Santa Ana Ninth (Cambodian) Branch, in the Irvine California Stake, sisters worked in a local rescue mission serving meals and distributing clothing to about one hundred Mexican women who had stood in line for many hours to receive it. “In Santa Ana there is often a tremendous rivalry and prejudice between these nationalities,” said one leader. “Also, many of the sisters in our branch have very little themselves and would have loved to take the clothes home to their own families. It was truly an act of unselfishness and love.”
Sisters in Bukit Timah, Singapore, helped a group of elderly Samsui women who emigrated from China about sixty years ago. The frail women were single, jobless, and living on a meager welfare, the equivalent of about sixty dollars a month. Although in Singapore sewing is usually done by professionally trained tailors, these members made clothing for their Samsui sisters. The recipients were very moved to each receive the homemade items and a large bag of groceries.
Some Relief Society groups chose to help other groups or organizations. The Layton (Utah) Fifteenth Ward, for example, became aware of a midwife clinic that provided care to mothers from an immigrant work camp in Wendover, Nevada. Many of these mothers came from such poor circumstances that they had no clothing or blankets to take their newborns home in. One particular mother and her child who left the clinic on a cold December morning were lifted into the back of an old pickup. With no blanket for the baby, she took off her own worn coat to wrap the little one in during the two-hour ride back to the camp.
Adopting the work camp, sisters in the ward made almost one hundred new baby quilts and conducted several drives to gather clothes and other needed items for the families. The Primary expressed an interest in the project, and at one of their activities the children brought and wrapped toys that went to the camp for a Christmas party.
Other Relief Society projects focused on a single family or individual. One ward in the McMinnville Oregon Stake rallied around Ruth Roozing, an elderly member of their ward who had been deeply involved in family history work for many years.
Sister Roozing’s health had deteriorated, and she was unable to complete her family history projects. Eventually, she suffered a debilitating stroke. After months of recuperation in a care facility, Ruth returned to her home, which had been thoroughly cleaned inside and out by more than fifty ward members. The care continued as countless meals were brought in; young women visited and played piano selections; visiting and home teachers called on her with lessons and concern; and one sister came in every day for more than a year to help Ruth bathe and dress.
Brother Lynn Mayberry, a ward member, took it upon himself to gather the masses of family history records Ruth had assembled in boxes, suitcases, and on shelves. Systematically over many months, he organized the materials and entered more than 4,000 names into the computer, readying approximately 1,350 names for temple work. Then in a cooperative effort with the Roozing family and the ward and stake, the youth performed the baptisms for Ruth’s ancestors in the Portland Oregon Temple. As part of their participation in special ward and stake temple nights, other stake members completed the initiatory work, endowments, and sealings.
The Mayberrys brought Ruth the completed temple file submission forms on her birthday. She was overwhelmed by the results of all her years of work, combined with the efforts of her friends. “This is the best birthday present ever!” she said.
Then there was the family in Arizona with newborn quadruplets who received help from the three wards in the Phoenix North Stake. About one hundred people—men, women, and teens—came in pairs three times a day to help feed and care for the babies and assist the family in other ways.
“We have been blessed … with unselfish love and care from a group of very special, giving people,” writes the mother of the four babies. “Their overwhelming generosity has allowed my husband and me the opportunity to not just care for our children, but to have time to truly enjoy them.”
Those in this family, not members of the Church, are not alone in their expression of thanks. Many letters have been received from people whose hearts have been touched by the love and compassion freely given by sisters participating in special service projects. “We have had several experiences with different wards that have felt an outpouring of love and meaningful service,” wrote a social worker from the Young Parents School in Kaysville, Utah. “We have had lonely girls completely established in households. We have had supplies of baby clothes and layettes provided to our most needy new moms. … Without question, the message of the Relief Society heritage has been fulfilled in the projects we have witnessed.”
“Thank you for emphasizing this wonderful dimension of Relief Society,” said Joyce Stalnaker, volunteer director at the Salt Lake Detention Center. “I have seen women … who have never before had time to serve in the community shed tears as they tell about their experiences. One said, ‘I have been so busy with my own family and my job that I have forgotten how to serve. … [Now] I feel the love of service returning, and I thank you!’”
Indeed this work, in part, is helping to bring to fruition a modern-day prophecy from President Spencer W. Kimball, who said, “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days … will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that the women of the Church are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.” (Ensign, Nov. 1979, pp. 103–4.)
Though the sesquicentennial year has passed, many are looking forward with resolve to continue what has been started. “It is not over for us,” says one ward Relief Society president. “I feel that our service project has refocused our attention back where it should be—on helping one another. I have noticed an increase of love and service in our ward since we have been involved in these projects. And we are going to continue to do a service project every other month in homemaking meeting.”
The accounts and stories included here are only a small sampling of a rich tapestry of love. The full picture of service can be found throughout the world in the lives, hearts, and testimonies of countless daughters and sons of a divine Father in Heaven.
“I feel angels have seen and borne witness to the miracles that have occurred,” said President Elaine L. Jack. “Heavenly records have been kept as the faithful disciples of Christ, through the inspiration of the Lord, have followed his tender admonition.”