“Relief Society: Mukluks in Alaska, Night School in Mexico, Canned Bananas in Missouri,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 13
Relief Society is a mirror and an extension of the finer traits of womanhood: love, compassion, vitality, unselfishness. Throughout much of the world, Relief Society sisters are carrying out its purposes “to manifest benevolence in the home, Church, and community; to care for the poor, the sick, and the unfortunate; to give assistance at time of death; to give guidance and training to the sisters in homemaking arts and skills; to foster love for religion, education, culture, and refinement; to develop faith; and to study and teach the gospel.” (Relief Society Handbook, pp. 3–4.)
No doubt Relief Society is, or could be, doing something for you, as it does for many thousands of sisters. Examples from many areas show Relief Society sisters adapting to their needs, to peculiar circumstances, by discovering and developing incredible resources.
In Mexico City, for instance, sisters face a tradition of limited schooling for women. They have responded with a drive to have each Relief Society member add “something extra” to her life. Lilia Saunders de Olivas, first counselor in the Mexico City North Stake Relief Society, describes the steps in this effort as (1) teaching the sisters to organize their time so they can attend a class, (2) providing lists of low-priced schools of various types, (3) organizing the sisters so they can attend classes together, and (4) arranging transportation for them.
“It is amazing the difference this can make in their lives,” says Sister Olivas. “The older sisters were raised with the traditional point of view on education, but they also are happy to see the contributions they can make by helping with their husbands’ business or by sewing at home after they have learned such skills.”
When a group of sisters graduates from a course, they are honored at a Relief Society party. Priesthood leaders have also given them recognition.
In contrast, Relief Societies in Alaska face the challenge of traveling long distances with limited transportation. Sister Constance Petersen, counselor and secretary in the Juneau Alaska District, reports that the sisters in her district get together only once a year for regional conference. All other communication throughout the district, which includes the Yukon, must be by mail. The Relief Society nearest to Juneau is sixty miles away, a six-hour trip by boat.
Even more difficult is the situation for scattered Relief Society sisters who have been organized into the Tongass Branch in Alaska. These sisters are isolated in lumber camps and fishing villages, often alone or in twos and threes. They are so widely separated that group organizations are impossible, so these sisters receive their lessons by mail.
Relief Society activities in this fascinating area include sewing parkas, canning and smoking salmon and wild game, and a mini-course on making mukluks (soft leather boots) in the Anchorage Alaska Stake. The Juneau District sponsors a winter survival camp-out at which the sisters learn survival techniques including how to cook wild game, and the selection and preparation of wild berries and mushrooms.
In the Independence Missouri Stake, sisters have had interesting mini-classes, taught by a group of Samoans, on how to bottle green bananas.
Still another contrast is the special situation met by a Relief Society for the homebound in two Salt Lake City apartment complexes. As one of few Church contacts for these sisters, many of them confined to wheelchairs, this special session of Relief Society is the “highlight of our week.” This Relief Society, meeting in the home of Sister Delilah Brown, functions under the direction of the Salt Lake Eighteenth Ward, with visiting teachers provided from that ward’s Relief Society. Once a month priesthood brethren administer the sacrament to them. Average attendance is thirty, with five of the sisters in their nineties.
Compassionate service to sisters in these and many other difficult circumstances is a hallmark of Relief Society. Throughout the Church sisters organize to provide service in times of need, illness, and death—and often substitute for mothers temporarily unable to care for their families.
The availability of compassionate service was dramatically demonstrated to Robin Milne Goates, now of Provo, Utah, last April. She was traveling with some of her family when an automobile accident just outside of Choteau, Montana, took the life of her sister and her sister’s baby. Robin was seriously injured but never lost consciousness. As she was taken from the ambulance to the operating room of the local hospital, she asked to have a Latter-day Saint bishop called to administer to her because, she said, she didn’t want to die. The doctor called the Choteau Ward’s bishop and within five minutes he was there with another priesthood holder. The bishop assured her that she would live if her faith was strong enough. He then called her parents in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to reassure them that he felt she would live. Two Relief Society sisters stayed with Robin constantly. Even after her parents arrived, the sisters insisted on sitting outside her hospital room all night “just in case we needed their moral support,” her mother, Sister Thelma Milne, says. She continues, “Almost every sister in the branch called to offer her love and sympathy and brought cookies or little treats that helped to make the forty-eight hours when Robin’s life was so uncertain pass more pleasantly.”
After the doctor felt Robin was out of danger, her family returned home to arrange the funeral of her sister. “We just couldn’t have left Mother (Robin’s grandmother) alone with Robin in Choteau unless we had known the Relief Society sisters were there to comfort and sustain them,” her mother says. After Robin was transferred to Calgary for more specialized treatment, the sisters from Choteau continued to keep in touch with cards and flowers.
Four months later Robin and her husband, Blair, included Choteau in their honeymoon so they could express their gratitude to the members there.
“We were really impressed,” says Robin. “Other people who have heard about it realize that their towns probably have similar opportunities to help someone in need who happens to be in their area.”
Stories of compassionate service come from all over the Church. Sister Shoko Matsushita, president of the Tokyo Japan Stake Relief Society, tells of a family with three children, the oldest just age five. When the mother, Junko Ishii, was pregnant with the fourth child, her husband was killed in a car accident. The family’s home teacher and visiting teacher, Brother and Sister Makoto Fukunda, took Sister Ishii into their home until her baby was born and arranged for the older children to stay with relatives. Now that Sister Ishii is back with her children, Brother and Sister Fukunda visit every Sunday to help her get the children ready for church. On Monday evenings the families hold family home evening together.
In other areas, Relief Society sisters have tended children, cooked, and cleaned while mothers were hospitalized or very sick at home. Sometimes, as in a case in the Independence Missouri Second Ward, the care is continued through long periods of chronic illness. For more than a year this Relief Society provided supper for a sister, Fannie Holt, who was confined to a wheelchair. In a nearby ward, Kansas City First, the Relief Society cared for Sister Ruth Brazil through a long illness with cancer.
Many good things come from such compassionate service. Not only are the givers and receivers strengthened, but others who see the good works and receive some of the benefits are impressed and motivated. Such service can be a very effective missionary tool, as in the case of Sister Brazil. Her husband joined the Church after his interest was sparked by the loving example of those who visited his home and cared for his wife.
Missionary work is a concern of the Relief Society in many other ways, both in activating members and in fellowshipping nonmembers. Visiting teachers are often the vehicle of this concern. Mary Helen Giles of the Riverton Wyoming Stake tells of a pair of visiting teachers who went month after month to an inactive sister. She was not interested in going to Relief Society, but she did ask her visiting teachers for help in crocheting. Through this interest they began to take her to homemaking day where she became involved with other friendly sisters and was soon attending every week.
Ruby Herrington, education counselor in the Victoria British Columbia Stake, was introduced to the Church through Relief Society. “I had been married only one day—we didn’t have honeymoons in those days—when a girlfriend invited me to Relief Society. They all sat around quilting frames talking about Joseph Smith and the three degrees of glory. I wasn’t sure about the ideas, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I started out on doctrinal meat instead of milk, but I certainly got a testimony.”
In other instances, an organized Relief Society activity benefits the missionary effort. In the Eatontown Ward of the East Brunswick New Jersey Stake, the Relief Society sponsored a quilt show and bake sale. About sixty-five heirloom quilts, some of them more than 100 years old, were displayed, along with handiwork the sisters had done recently. The handiwork sold, along with baked goods, earned about $1,000 for the ward budget. Many visitors returned for instruction in quilting and 183 nonmembers signed the guest book. The full-time missionaries made contact with them all and one family has already been baptized. Others are taking the missionary discussions.
In the Ogden Utah Weber Stake the Young Adult Relief Society is doing missionary work another way. They have agreed to financially support a sister in Hong Kong who wanted to serve a full-time mission. The sisters are finding ways to earn the money and are also corresponding with the missionary they support.
Besides all these special projects, Relief Society accomplishes much through its regular program of homemaking, spiritual living, mother education, cultural refinement, and social relations lessons. Mini-classes on homemaking day are organized to meet specific needs. Visiting teachers make their rounds, filling all sorts of small but real needs.
Overall, Relief Society is what it claims to be: “a diversified program … so that women may find relief from poverty, from selfishness, sorrow, apathy, ignorance, immorality, worldliness, mediocrity, fear, personal limitation, and loneliness.” (Relief Society Handbook, p. 4.)