Using a pencil, fifty-year-old Roger Wingert printed each letter carefully in his new journal. The letters began to form words, the words to form sentences, and the sentences to reflect Roger’s ideas and thoughts. So what makes this journal so special? Up until a year ago it didn’t exist because, for most of Roger’s life, he has been unable to read or write with fluency.
“I never kept it a secret,” he says. “I figured it was better to let people know I had a hard time reading and writing. Sometimes people were nice about it, and sometimes they weren’t.” Roger and his wife, Louise, look at each other as they squeeze hands, no doubt remembering some of the painful experiences they have survived together.
But thanks to the gospel literacy effort, Roger is beginning to do many things that previously seemed impossible for him.
The Wingerts have worked together as a team throughout their married life. Self-employed with their own janitorial business, the Wingerts used their savings last year to invest in a national ice cream franchise. They keep their store sparkling clean with scrubbed tile floors and a gleaming stainless steel countertop. Located near Lower Columbia College in Kelso, Washington, their business is booming.
But Roger’s spiritual progress has been even more important than his temporal success. “For the first time in my life I can actually read the scriptures when I go home teaching,” he says. “And I’m teaching Primary, too.”
Louise, who in the past handled most the of finances and did the reading and writing for the family, says, “I always knew he could do it, but now he knows he can do it. He’s always been a hard worker. Now at fifty he is proof that it’s never too late to start learning. I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
It is no surprise that among the sentences in Roger’s journal is one that says, “I have hope in the future for me.”
Roger is one of six students in the Kelso Ward, Longview Washington Stake, involved in what has become an exciting application of the gospel literacy effort. Often assumed to be of value primarily to those who live in inner cities or in remote areas of the world, the gospel literacy effort has already changed lives dramatically in this logging town on the Columbia River. Teacher Valerie Miller tutors each student weekly, filling them with motivation and spirituality as well as with the all-important skills of reading and writing. Enthusiasm emanating from this core group is spilling over into the ward and affecting nearly everyone. In the Kelso Ward, the focus on literacy is definitely succeeding.
Always important in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, literacy took on increased Churchwide emphasis during the Relief Society Sesquicentennial in 1992. Before this, the Church Education System (CES) had directed some literacy programs, primarily in South America, using its own teaching manuals based on the scriptures. Today Sister Elaine L. Jack, Relief Society general president, and her counselors, Sister Chieko N. Okazaki and Sister Aileen H. Clyde, continue to keep literacy in the forefront of Relief Society goals.
Sister Jack says, “Women in the Church, unified by Relief Society, can daily influence basic literacy and lifelong learning skills in the lives of those around them in the home, neighborhood, workplace, and community. Implementing the gospel literacy effort provides an opportunity worldwide for women to exercise the charity which characterizes Relief Society.”
The aim of the gospel literacy effort is to provide an ongoing opportunity “to help individuals learn to read and write so they can better understand the gospel and participate in all aspects of gospel living” and “to encourage Church members to study the gospel and improve themselves and their families throughout their lives” (see “Gospel Literacy Guidelines for Priesthood and Relief Society Leaders,” 15 Dec. 1992; monograph available from local priesthood leaders or the Relief Society office, 76 N. Main, Salt Lake City, UT 84150).
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said of this effort, “It is a program … designed to bring light into the lives of those who can neither read nor write. … Imagine, if you can, the potential of this inspired program. Who dare dream of its consequences?” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, p. 6).
Bryan Iverson and Dan Johnson are friends who are now enjoying the light of which President Hinckley spoke. Both work at the local golf course near Kelso as part of the grounds maintenance crew. Both have struggled with the challenges of illiteracy on various levels throughout their lives. Bryan was baptized nearly two years ago because of the example of his wife, Jennifer. Dan noticed the change in his friend’s life. Bryan helped teach Dan the gospel and eventually baptized him and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood.
Before long, both became part of the gospel literacy effort in their ward. “If I didn’t have this tutoring program,” says Bryan, who serves as a counselor in the elders quorum presidency, “I’d still be sitting in church and not learning and not taking part. When I started reading the Book of Mormon and the Holy Bible, then I started to really realize what it is all about. It makes a big difference! Now I can sit in church and get out my scriptures and follow along. It feels good!”
Dan, who mows the lawns at the golf course from 2 A.M. until 10 A.M., agrees. “God has done it again,” he says softly, his words paced slowly and evenly and spoken with tears in his eyes. “Each morning the sun is out, and I see my life getting better. When I go outside, the Spirit is with me. My wife, Julia, and I are preparing for the temple. We kneel down and pray every night and every day. It makes the day start out good.”
When Bishop Randle Peck challenged Dan to bless the sacrament as part of his priesthood responsibilities, he accepted. Bryan helped him learn the sacrament prayers.
“For about one month at the golf course we knelt down and prayed about it,” wrote Dan in his journal. “Bryan and I took turns reading it. Then it was time. Bryan and I went to the church on Saturday and practiced. Sunday came. I was getting nervous. I think Bryan was nervous too. Then it was my turn saying the prayer on the water. I felt real good about it. It felt like God was with me all the time making sure I would not make a mistake. I felt warm and happy inside me. When we were all done, Bryan said it took his breath away. I told him me too.”
Not all the Kelso Ward students involved in this effort are adults. Jared Bornstedt, a seventeen-year-old junior in high school, is happy and energetic. He loves wrestling, bicycling, and baseball. His Special Olympics baseball team took first place in 1994 and second place last year.
“I come because of my teacher,” says Jared, who knows Sister Miller loves him and cares about his success. “I like my lessons.”
But Jared is learning more than new vocabulary words and how to blend sounds. A few weeks ago Sister Miller forgot to have an opening prayer when she started her tutoring session with Jared. He began laughing and reminded her that they needed to say a prayer. Sister Miller joined in the laughter at the oversight and then asked Jared to say the prayer. He did so with confidence.
This pattern of teaching literacy skills so that students can participate more fully in the gospel and make the scriptures an integral part of their life is Sister Miller’s goal in each tutoring session.
“God is working in the lives of these students,” she says. “It started out as a personal thing; they wanted to learn to read and write. Now they want to serve. It is truly inspiring to witness this. I feel as if I’m standing on holy ground each time I teach these students.”
At five feet one inch, Valerie Miller shows energy and influence beyond her size. “When you give Valerie a job, she does it thoroughly,” says Jared’s mother, Laura Bornstedt. The truth of this statement is evident not only in the cozy basement classroom in her home—complete with a desk, white board, small television and VCR, books and Church magazines—but also in her own deeply spiritual personal preparation, which always includes prayers for her students.
Sister Miller teaches from the CES manual, the scriptures, and the hymnbook. A good student-teacher relationship is important since this program requires a long-term commitment—often several years. In Kelso, with Sister Miller committed to caring about and working patiently with each student, relationships couldn’t be better.
“I give students a lot of praise, and I try to keep them from feeling intimidated,” says Sister Miller in her usual animated way. “When they make a mistake, we just review the manual. Their eyes light up when they realize how to correct their mistake.”
Homework must be done so that class time can be used to move forward and not for individual homework. When any of her students repeatedly fail to do their homework, Sister Miller tells each one the same thing: “I believe Christ will open the door to learning. If you do your part, the rest will happen. The energy will be there, the time will be there, and time will be utilized better.” Her students believe her, recommit, and do their homework.
Sister Miller also tends to other details. “It is important to be able to spread out all the books on the desk in order to go back and forth between them,” she says. “The less a student has to ask for things, the better. I keep pencils and an electric pencil sharpener handy. Tears have been shed across our desk as we discuss spiritual things, so I also keep a box of tissues.”
How did the gospel literacy effort begin in the Kelso Ward? It all started when Alan Massey was called to serve as ward clerk in June 1994 and he reluctantly told the bishop, “I am a slow reader, and I can’t spell.” Bishop Peck, who felt the Lord wanted Brother Massey to serve anyway, recalls, “I’d been thinking about getting the gospel literacy effort started in our ward for a while, but when I called Brother Massey, I knew it was time to get it going. I worked with others, especially the Relief Society. Sister Miller accepted the special assignment to serve as the teacher, and Brother Massey was thrilled at the opportunity for some tutoring.”
The first class was held in October. Then Bishop Peck made announcements in sacrament meeting, Relief Society, and elders quorum, with the assurance that the names of those involved would be kept confidential. Members gradually came forward.
Stake Relief Society president Charlene Earwood and Kelso Ward Relief Society president Barbara Ingle, who both taught seminary for four years prior to their present callings in Relief Society, know the power that gospel study can have in a life. As a result, workbooks and trained teachers are on hand so the program can move forward as soon as someone expresses interest.
“This is an opportunity to expand our scripture study and understanding of the gospel,” says Sister Earwood. “If we as members can feed ourselves spiritually, we remain strong in the gospel. But it’s difficult to feast on the scriptures if we don’t know how to read them or use them.”
Sister Ingle agrees. “This effort is a valuable tool, but it is underused.” And she is right. Throughout the Church, many wards are not enjoying the benefits of the gospel literacy effort simply because it is not realized that there may be ward members who desire to gain or improve literacy skills.
As for Brother Massey and his ability to serve as ward clerk, “my reading has picked up,” he says with a smile. “Being ward clerk helps motivate me. Now I can take notes for the bishop and write letters for him.”
But there have been other benefits to Brother Massey. For a variety of reasons, he never learned to read aloud. Since being involved in the gospel literacy effort, and with Sister Miller encouraging him to read aloud all the time, he has learned to feel comfortable doing so.
“Now my grandchildren climb onto my lap and say, ‘Read me a story, Grandpa,’ and I can do it,” he says, pausing to regain his composure as he tries to hold back his tears. “And when I go home teaching, I take along Book of Mormon Stories—one of the four children’s scripture readers published by the Church. The children gather around me, and I read to them. We talk about the pictures and the stories.”
Penny, Alan’s wife, has noticed the change in him. “I’m thrilled with what I see,” she says. “The children in his home teaching families love him because of the scripture stories he reads to them. They run up to him at church and hug him. It’s been a wonderful experience for all of us.”
While home teaching, Brother Massey has also been able to share ideas from the First Presidency message in the Ensign. This is thanks again to Sister Miller, who makes a tape of the message for all students. She numbers each paragraph and then reads the First Presidency Message, including the paragraph numbers, into the tape. This makes it easy to follow along.
Brother Massey, a truck driver, says, “I used to listen to the tape in my truck before I read the message at home. It meant more to me after listening to the tape because I already understood it. Now I can read the message without using the tape.”
Rita Nichols, a mother of two young teenagers, overcame dyslexia through help of a friend. “I’ve had dyslexia all my life, but I hid it by avoiding assignments or copying out of books,” she says, her frustration still noticeable in her voice. “In middle school, my teachers took the books away from me and asked me to write without them. Almost every letter and number was backwards. They got me into a program, but I slowed down even worse. I still couldn’t read by the time I went to high school, so I quit.”
Luckily, Rita had a good friend who helped her. “We started off with two letters of the alphabet at a time,” she says. “My friend never once criticized me. She took my hand and traced the letters and numbers with me. She was so patient.”
Since overcoming dyslexia, Rita has earned her General Education Diploma (GED) and hopes to study nursing. “I fought hard to learn to read and write because I didn’t want my children to struggle with the same type of life that I had because I didn’t know how to read,” she says, hugging her daughter tightly.
So what brought Rita to the gospel literacy effort? “I wanted to make the scriptures my friend,” she says. The first thing she did was to put index tabs on her standard works. She and her daughter used tabs of colors that had special meaning to Rita. She chose lavender for her Book of Mormon. “Lavender is such a soft and gentle color,” she says. “To me, the Book of Mormon is a soft and gentle hand from God saying, ‘Here, read this also. It is true.’”
“Confidentiality has been of the utmost importance,” says Bishop Peck. “However, before long these students wanted to let others know of their challenges and successes. It unfolded naturally. But students in the gospel literacy effort do not need to come forward unless they want to.”
But something happened when Bryan spoke in sacrament meeting, and then a month later when Dan spoke.
“By giving that talk in church, it kind of opened me up,” says Bryan, flashing a wide smile. “I was in a shell, just hiding and trying not to let people know I couldn’t read and write. I was fooling myself. Finally I knew I needed to let everybody know. Now instead of always having other people do things for me, I’m starting to feel good that I can actually take charge myself.”
Lorna Peck recalls that sacrament meeting. “When Bryan told his story, many in the audience wept,” she says. “There was such a strong feeling of love and a sweet spirit during his talk. He told us how frightened he was to read aloud, and then he actually read from the scriptures to us. It was very powerful and touching.”
These students in Kelso are not the only ones who find themselves trying to hide their weak reading skills. And even though many functionally illiterate adults are very smart, most have grown up with others calling them “dumb” or other names. They have felt frustration and embarrassment when trying to fill out a job application or read the directions on a bottle of medicine. Most eventually come to the conclusion that it is simply better to keep it a secret.
How do they cope when they are confronted with a situation that requires them to read or write? Some rely on the skill of their spouses or their friends. Others come late, leave early, or avoid any situation where they may be asked to read aloud or write. Most become very good at covering up.
Rita says, “I heard something that helped me a lot: ‘Fear is the destroyer of dreams.’ Of course, there is always good fear that keeps you out of trouble, but the fear that destroys your dreams is the fear I lived in. I was so afraid of the world that I hid in my corner.” Rita stops for a moment, looks down, and wipes her tear-stained cheeks with both hands. “Fear did destroy my dreams,” she continues. “Then with God’s help I conquered fear. Now I find self-respect and courage inside me all the time. All my dreams are coming back. It is glorious!”
“There has to be a bond between us and our scriptures, and it has to be worth holding on to,” says Sister Miller, laying her hand on her open scriptures—pages neatly underlined and obviously well used. It is no wonder that the focus of this gospel literacy effort is on the scriptures and, as a result, is intensely spiritual. Sister Miller helps students pull out gospel principles from the lessons and expand on them. For example, if they read John 13:35—“have love one to another”—students also learn that loving one another is a commandment, why they should practice it, and how to apply it in their lives. The results have been overwhelming.
“I wanted to come back to the Lord and get the Spirit back,” said one literacy student. “I had to talk to somebody, and Sister Miller directed me to the bishop. I’m grateful we could work it out.”
Bishop Peck is grateful for the opportunity to help. “I see such a change in these ward members during my interviews with them,” he says. “Their growth has come from reading the scriptures. I review the oath and covenant of the priesthood with the men. I also set goals with them as part of their priesthood responsibility.”
Several of the class members are now preparing to go to the temple and attend a special class during Sunday School.
The changes that take place in the lives of those people who improve their literacy begin to affect others. Married couples often notice a necessary shift in their relationship, but spouses are not the only ones who may need to make a change. Extended family, friends, and coworkers all need to allow literacy students to use their newly acquired skills and to assume more responsibility. Sister Ingle, Kelso Ward Relief Society president, is especially sensitive to the needs of the wives of the men who are in the literacy program.
“The gospel literacy effort begins to make powerful changes in those who participate,” she says. “Often wives, who have managed the finances and assumed decision-making responsibilities because of their stronger literacy skills, are able to begin working as a team with their husbands. There is always a period of adjustment as things change. In the end, everyone is a winner.”
The literacy students have a wide range of abilities and many different reasons for taking the literacy class. But one thing is the same for all of them: this program is changing their lives.
“God’s got a purpose for me here on this earth helping the weak and the ones who are struggling,” says Bryan, his usual smile giving way to a few tears. “When I first started this class, Roger knew I was struggling, and he came up to me out of the blue. He said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll do just fine.’ I was really touched that he helped me pronounce some of the words. When I was stronger, I started helping Dan.”
Dan, who is serving as a stake missionary, says confidently, “I’m reading a lot more now, and I’m not so scared.”
And for Rita, the ward is “a big wonderful family. The Lord has things planned for me that I don’t even know yet. I live one day at a time. But I found a guiding light and a golden rod to follow.”
Like Roger Wingert, who penciled the words in his new journal, the students involved in the gospel literacy effort in the Kelso Ward all have reason to say, “I have hope in the future for me.”