I remember more than 30 years ago when I was first called to be a visiting teacher, I was assigned a young woman who never came to church,” recalls Catherine Carr Humphrey of the Hillside Ward, Rancho Cucamonga California Stake. “She impressed me in those early 1970s as a hippie type. I faithfully went every month and knocked on her door. She would open the inside door but leave the screen door shut. I was never really sure what she looked like. She would not say anything. She would just stand there. I would look cheerful and say, ‘Hi, I’m Cathie, your visiting teacher.’ And as she would say nothing, I would say, ‘Well, our lesson today is on …’ and try briefly to say something uplifting and friendly. When I was through, she would say, ‘Thank you,’ and shut the door.
“I did not like going there. I felt embarrassed. But I went because I wanted to be obedient. After about seven or eight months of this, I got a phone call from the bishop.
“‘Cathie,’ he said, ‘the young woman you visit teach just had a baby who lived only a few days. She and her husband are going to have a graveside service, and she asked me to see if you would come and be there with her. She said you are her only friend.’
“I went to the cemetery. The young woman, her husband, the bishop, and I were at the graveside. That was all. I had seen her only once a month for a few minutes at a time. I hadn’t even been able to tell through the screen door that she was expecting a baby, yet even my inept but hopeful visiting had blessed us both.”
Scenes of service such as this are repeated in various forms over and over again throughout the Church. Relief Society general president Bonnie D. Parkin recently said: “I see legions of faithful sisters around the world going forward on the Lord’s errands, performing simple yet significant service. Why do we do visiting teaching? Sisters, it’s because we’ve made covenants. [Alma] described it this way: ‘To bear one another’s burdens, … to mourn with those that mourn; … comfort those that stand in need of comfort’ (Mosiah 18:8–9). …
“One morning … I received an e-mail from a college friend. She wrote, ‘Ray died this morning.’ And then she said, ‘Visiting teaching works. It really works.’ … Here was my dear friend bearing testimony to me that what we call visiting teaching is really so much more than a visit or a thought. It’s how we connect with one another. …
“Mourn, comfort, stand as witnesses. All of those promises came together for my friend. … [The Lord] had sent her two sisters who had entered into a covenant with Him. … They were sisters in the gospel who understood their charge to do this work with heart and soul. … That’s the essence of visiting teaching.”
And, Sister Parkin continued, “visiting teaching is the heart and soul of Relief Society.”1
Lucy Mack Smith, mother of the Prophet Joseph Smith, said in the second meeting of Relief Society, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction, that we may all sit down in heaven together.”2
We are reminded: “The purposes of visiting teaching are to build caring relationships with each sister and to offer support, comfort, and friendship. In visiting teaching, both the giver and the receiver are blessed and strengthened in their Church activity by their caring concern for one another.”3
Teaching our new young Relief Society sisters that visiting teaching is the heart and soul of Relief Society is critical. Training and mentoring can be provided by assigning a new sister to exemplary visiting teachers and, for some, to be a companion to her own mother.
Cara S. Longmore, now of the BYU 176th Ward, Brigham Young University Second Stake, was called to be a visiting teacher with her mother as her companion. Her mom was excited, but Cara considered herself too young for Relief Society. She remembers: “We were assigned to two wonderful women. As I look back, I realize the significant impact these sisters had on my life at that difficult time. They became not only examples to me, but also friends in a true sense—not just older mentors. When we would visit, I felt calm, secure, and truly loved.
“I am also so very thankful for that time with my mom. Now that I am at college, I realize how valuable those visiting teaching visits were to our relationship. I feel so grateful that I got to see my mom in that setting, hear her strong testimony, and learn more about the love she has for her ‘sisters in Zion’ [see Hymns, no. 309]. Because we were in the context of a team, we were more equal and I truly felt that we were ‘sisters in Zion’ as well.”
While visiting teachers are asked to make monthly contact, some circumstances require more. President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) said: “Your duties in many ways must be like those of the home teachers, which briefly are ‘to watch over the church always’—not twenty minutes a month but always—‘and be with and strengthen them’—not a knock at the door, but to be with them, and lift them and strengthen them, and empower them, and fortify them.”4 This type of visiting teaching is “watch-care.”
Watch-care was experienced by a sister who worked nights at a hospital. Her visiting teachers began coming each month to the hospital during her lunch hour, which was in the very, very early hours of the morning. She was amazed that they were willing to make such a sacrifice but greatly appreciated it.
Cynthia E. Larsen of the Heritage Ward, Calgary Alberta Stake, discovered the joy of watch-care with a challenging visiting teaching assignment. She says: “I remember being filled with apprehension the first time I visited Deanna. I thought we were complete opposites. She was single, an executive with an oil company, and a recent convert to the Church. Yet with each visit we found that we had much in common.
“After Deanna developed cancer, she put my anxiety to rest as she calmly answered my questions with honesty and courage. From that day on, she began to teach me by example what dignity and endurance are.
“In the following months, she enthusiastically educated herself and others about cancer. She organized a cancer information night for our Relief Society. She joined a local cancer support group.
“Eventually the medication and chemotherapy treatments sapped Deanna of her strength and energy. On her ‘good days,’ she went for walks and encouraged other cancer patients. On her ‘bad days,’ she worked at maintaining her optimism, conserving her strength, and building her testimony.
“As Deanna’s condition worsened, our visits became daily. We laughed, we cried, we were silly, and we were intensely serious. She anticipated death, hesitantly at first, then confidently. She worked to make each day the best she could.
“For months before her death I watched my dear friend and sister in the gospel find opportunities to serve. Yes, I served Deanna as her visiting teacher, but it was she who taught me about the blessings of living the gospel.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley explains: “We have some of our own who cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear. Ours is a great and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness.”5
Watch-care is certainly the goal of visiting teaching and can be achieved even though some situations call for creativity and flexibility. In the Anchorage Alaska Bush District, for example, visits can usually be made only by snowmobile. If the nearby river is frozen solid enough to drive on, they can be made by car. Obviously, the preferred monthly face-to-face visit in each home is not possible. These sisters must connect hearts and souls through telephone and e-mail visits. Sister Parkin has counseled: “If monthly visits aren’t possible, please don’t do nothing. Be creative and find a way to connect with each sister.”6 Remember President Hinckley’s encouraging statement: “Do the very best you can.”7
Certainly this was the thinking of Florence Chukwurah of Nigeria when she was assigned to visit teach a sister who was having difficulties in her marriage and in her home, making it necessary to meet at the marketplace for a visit. After listening to and observing this sister’s challenges, Sister Chukwurah asked her husband for a priesthood blessing so that she might know how to help this troubled sister. Following the blessing she felt prompted to discuss with this sister the importance of tithing. “She tearfully told me that she did not pay her tithes because she was not making enough money,” Sister Chukwurah remembers. “I suggested that she and I discuss Malachi 3:10 and that we do so in my house so we could relax and be alone for the discussion. She consented. After our discussion I encouraged her to exercise her faith and pay her tithes for at least six months. I bore my testimony to her by the Spirit.”
Sister Chukwurah testifies that within a few months of this meeting, this sister’s circumstances changed dramatically. Her daughter received a scholarship to complete her high school education, her husband worked with the bishop to become active and accept a calling, husband and wife teamed up to improve their financial situation and their relationship, and eventually they became an inspiration to others.
One young woman remembers how her visiting teacher shared a spirit of caring, concern, and friendship with her. She had moved into a new ward at the end of her last year of law school and found herself to be the youngest member there by about 30 years. “Feeling uncomfortable and not knowing anyone,” she recalls, “I drifted into semiactivity. I would appear and disappear in Church like a shadow without exchanging words with anyone.
“In the next few weeks there appeared at my door a vibrant, good-humored, white-haired lady who announced she was my visiting teacher. I received visits from her on an almost weekly basis, many times with other sisters of the ward in tow so that I might become acquainted. [Before long] I was no longer a shadow in Church. [My visiting teacher introduced] me into a vast army of friends. After having been away from [this ward] for several years, I still count its members [as] some of my most cherished friends.”8
To give your heart and soul to visiting teaching requires you to be prayerful about those you visit. The Lord will direct you in doing His work as you listen and respond.
As a Relief Society president in São Paulo, Brazil, Elizabeth Contieri Kemeny felt impressed to assign herself to visit a shy, pregnant sister who attended church alone as her husband was often away on business. The ward Relief Society had just participated in a stake project to make baby layettes consisting of blankets, clothing, and other supplies for infants. The layettes were supposed to be delivered to the stake on a particular Sunday morning. On that day Sister Kemeny awoke at 6:00 A.M. with a strong impression she should deliver the layettes to the home of this sister, rather than to the stake.
Taking along her counselor and the bishop, Sister Kemeny arrived at this sister’s apartment only to learn that she had already gone to the hospital in labor. Pressing on to the hospital, they found her holding her new baby in her arms, with tears streaming down her own cheeks. She had been praying that Heavenly Father would send somebody to help her. Her husband was out of town, and she had nothing—not a blanket to wrap the baby in nor money for a bus ride home.
That afternoon at the stake meeting this ward had no layettes to contribute. They had been given to bless a sister both temporally and spiritually—all because a visiting teacher had prayed and listened to the promptings of the Spirit.
President Hinckley reminds us “to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them.”9 As a visiting teacher you have this responsibility and privilege.