In the village of Nahuala, Guatemala, seven Relief Society sisters gather for their first Spanish literacy class. Each sister is either holding an infant wrapped in a brightly striped shawl or has a toddler clinging to her knee. Their teacher, a full-time missionary, writes a word on the small green chalkboard with a short piece of white chalk. The sisters repeat the word. Soon they begin to do the exercise on the first page of their student manual. Some of them practice writing words on the chalkboard. Another sister reads the word Jesus for the first time.
“I’m really grateful for your attendance and your efforts to learn to read and write so you can read the scriptures,” says Relief Society president Maria Tzep Carac de Xocol. “We need you, and the Lord will help you.”
In the past, scenes like this have been limited primarily to wards or branches in places like Mexico or Guatemala, and literacy efforts have been under the direction of Brigham Young University or the Church Educational System. But soon, scenes similar to this will begin to take place in nearly every ward and branch throughout the Church. In fact, many wards and branches are currently involved in literacy efforts as a result of the Gospel Literacy Effort introduced in December 1992 by the First Presidency as an outgrowth of the Relief Society sesquicentennial celebration.
“We expect this literacy effort to be one of the most significant contributions of the sesquicentennial celebration,” says Elaine L. Jack, general president of the Relief Society. “It has two purposes: first, to provide basic gospel literacy skills for those who cannot read or write; and second, to encourage lifelong personal spiritual study and self-improvement. It is an optional and flexible effort.”
Opportunities to help others gain the literacy skills of reading, writing, and speaking are everywhere, and if we desire, most of us can help give the gift of words to someone else.
The Gospel Literacy Effort is for everyone. Juan* is in his mid-forties, lives in a large midwestern U.S. city, and reads at a first-grade level. “I want to be able to read to my eight-year-old son,” says Juan, who is tutored twice a week by a Relief Society sister in his stake. With tears in his eyes, he continues, “I just need to learn to read.”
Others—men and women, young and old, from a variety of cultures—come forward to be tutored by Relief Society sisters so that they can understand the scriptures better, go on a mission, get a better job, or serve more effectively in their Church calling. Some have been embarrassed in the past to admit to others that they cannot read, but they feel safe in the nurturing environment of the gospel setting.
“We know that a beginning reader is not a beginning thinker,” says President Jack. “We won’t be condescending. We can support them, respect them, and build their confidence. And our Relief Society sisters are creative. They are going to think of ways to help others succeed.”
In every country of the world, there are more illiterate women than men, says President Jack. Usually, this is the result of economic concerns. When schooling is expensive and a family can’t afford to send all of the children, they often send the boys to school rather than the girls. Therefore, many women have never had the opportunity to learn to read and write. Yet there is a strong correlation between well-educated women and well-nourished children. The woman is the key. “If the education of a woman makes such a difference,” says President Jack, “that’s enough reason to encourage literacy.”
When women learn how to be articulate in writing, speaking, and reading, they can have a powerful influence in the family and in the community. Imagine the far-reaching effects of a consistent literacy effort taught to Relief Society sisters who desire to increase their reading skills. For example, Latter-day Saint mothers living in inner city areas can be tutored through the Relief Society, go home, and then help their children improve their reading and writing skills. As a result, more children will be successful in school, fewer will drop out, and more will find jobs.
“We are sadly mistaken if we think the ability to read and write is taught only at school,” says President Jack. “Just as other important attributes like honesty and dependability are learned within the family, the seeds of literacy are also sown in the home.”
Literacy cannot be accomplished in a week or a month. It involves changes in attitudes. “We must be patient, persistent, and loving,” says President Jack. “There is a high dropout rate among individuals working toward literacy. We may not see results for years, but the ultimate impact is going to be profound. Even if you have only one person to work with, that’s wonderful—just start with the one and be joyful. Our successes will come a little bit at a time.”
The Lord has reminded us in D&C 18:10 that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” Students and teachers working closely together in this Gospel Literacy Effort are prime examples of personal sacrifice for the “worth of a soul.” The ability to read and write can help bring others to Christ as they are able to study and understand the scriptures. Also, as a trusting relationship develops between student and teacher, many gospel principles and truths can be discussed. These become the spiritual rewards in this Gospel Literacy Effort. The sacrifice, time, and patience that this effort requires is worth it because of the far-reaching changes for good that literacy brings into a life and into a family.
Relief Society sisters around the world are participating in the Gospel Literacy Effort in a variety of ways, including volunteering at high schools to help at-risk students improve their reading skills, tutoring prison inmates so they can earn their high school diplomas, or donating books to local libraries. Ultimately, literacy—the gift of words—has the potential to be one of the most powerful and important gift we can give to individuals, families, communities, and the world.
On 15 December 1992, the First Presidency issued a letter and guidelines announcing that a focus on literacy was being initiated through the Relief Society general presidency as part of the 1992 Relief Society sesquicentennial celebration. The guidelines are available to members through their bishop or branch president; following is a summary.
From the beginning God has spoken to his children and instructed them to record his messages. God taught Adam and Eve to write and keep records “according to the pattern given by the finger of God.” In turn they taught their children to read and write from the records they were keeping (see Moses 6:4–6, 45–46).
In today’s world, some of God’s children cannot read his words and therefore cannot fully understand the teachings of the gospel. The illiteracy that hinders these children of God might be due to economic limitations, social restrictions, lack of opportunity and encouragement, cultural barriers, or personal disabilities.
The Gospel Literacy Effort relies upon these guiding principles: first, the Spirit of the Lord; second, the Church welfare principles; third, individual responsibility; and fourth, family responsibility and involvement.
Resources for this literacy effort come from several sources, including members’ talents, the Church Educational System, and the community. When priesthood and Relief Society leaders choose to provide the Church Basic Scripture Literacy Course, the Church Educational System becomes involved by making the Basic Scripture Literacy Course materials available along with training in how to use them.
Priesthood leaders should oversee the Gospel Literacy Effort in coordination with the Relief Society leaders. The stake Relief Society education counselor coordinates the stake Gospel Literacy Effort.
Application of the Gospel Literacy Effort may vary depending on local circumstances. For example, Church leaders may help members complete community literacy programs or utilize other literacy resources; encourage literacy skills in the home and in church classrooms through reading and discussing scriptures, recording testimonies, and studying the words of the prophets; decide how to offer the Basic Scripture Literacy Course; serve as volunteers who help children read in school; identify opportunities for members to serve or participate in volunteer programs; invite all members to bring their scriptures to Church and encourage every teacher to use the scriptures in presentations, giving the references so class members can read along; focus some homemaking activities on literacy needs and skills, such as teaching sisters how to help children learn to read; encourage members to write their testimonies and add them to their family records; and encourage families to read together in the home.
The bishop or branch president should call ward or branch teachers. The ward Relief Society president, after consulting with her education counselor, recommends names of potential teachers. Literacy teachers may be ward members or missionaries with special assignments. With the permission of the mission president, full-time missionaries may serve as teachers during their weekly four hours of community service time. In some situations, the Relief Society education counselor may also serve as the literacy teacher.
Classes may be held in homes, community facilities, or other locations. With priesthood approval, classes may be held in meetinghouses. Students may be taught in small groups or one-on-one. Students learn better when classes are held regularly. Classes should be held a minimum of two times weekly. In addition, class members are expected to spend practice time at home.
Expect to see changes as the Gospel Literacy Effort progresses. It may take a long time and many attempts for this effort to reach its full potential. Specific evaluation measures and periodic evaluation dates are an important part of the Gospel Literacy Effort. Since individuals learn “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 128:21), measure your progress in small ways.