When I turned 18, I automatically became a member of the largest women's organization in the world, the Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among the excellent aspects of this organization is being a part of the visiting teaching program. In every congregation, women are assigned two visiting teachers. These two companions go to the homes of the women on their 'routes' once a month with a message of hope/encouragement/inspiration as a way to form friendships that will then enable them to ascertain the needs of these women and make sure these needs are met.
For example, Mary is visited by Jane and Emily. They could be the same age or not, have similar family situations or not, be devout members of the church or not. Jane and Emily probably have 2-4 women they visit. Say Mary has a baby. Jane and Emily will either take a couple of meals into the family or ask other people to do so. That's easy enough. But say Mary is battling severe depression, is struggling to take care of herself and her children, and is possibly even wondering if life is worth living. If Jane and Emily have truly become friends with Mary and love her as a sister, they have an opportunity to help this woman out of a deep hole. They listen to her, watch her children, take her to doctor's appointments, and if the situation warrants, talk to the Relief Society president about getting more help and support for her. But Jane and Emily will never know about any of this unless Mary trusts them. They can't just show up once a month, give a five minute lesson and blithely say, "Let us know if you need anything," as they hurry out the door.
When I was 23, I was the Relief Society president of a single adult ward, and thereby oversaw the visiting teaching in my ward. Every woman was assigned visiting teachers unless they absolutely refused to let them visit. Few did, even if they never attended church. Who doesn't need two more friends watching out for you? All women were asked to be visiting teachers; most accepted; some were consistent in their monthly visits; some were consistent and compassionate. Great acts of service were accomplished by these consistently caring visiting teachers. Great acts of service were even accomplished by the ones who only made visits occasionally because the important aspect was making friends with the women you taught--establishing relationships of trust that enabled them to ask you for help. Even when these acts of service weren't necessary, something pretty wonderful usually happened--lasting friendships.
I'm 62 years old. I have been a visiting teacher for 44 years. I have been visited by other women for 44 years. I have served and been served. I have been consistent in my visits at times and have been horribly inconsistent during other times. I have had incredible visiting teachers who became life long friends and others who did not visit me. We're all human and this program is as simple as it sounds, but not easy. Calling women you may not know and asking to come to their homes can be scary. Getting to know them can be difficult. Developing friendships takes time and effort. People move; there are times in our lives when adding one more duty seems daunting if not impossible.
Starting in my mid 40's, I took more than I gave. I was a single parent, worked full time, had health issues, money problems and challenging parenting issues. My visiting teachers were wonderful, but I wasn't such a great visiting teacher. The Relief Society presidents switched my companions and my routes, and there were times I rose to the occasion, but I slowly lost confidence in my ability to adequately handle my own life, let along help someone else. I still reached out to others and served in other areas, but I didn't feel like I was the kind of visiting teacher I had been in the past.
I left a ward I had been in for for over 30 years and moved into a new ward almost two years ago. I was asked to be a visiting teacher and given a companion and a route. It was slow going. They were all strangers and I was still working full time and dealing with all the same issues of the past 15 years. One Sunday, the Relief Society president let me know that a sister on my route had reached out and asked to be visited. At first I felt guilty that I had to be reminded, but at least I knew I was welcome. I visited Kristen alone a few times, with my first companion a few times, and then my next companion. Not every month, but often enough. I started making friends with this young mother of three who looked like she belonged in a Jane Austen movie. I retired almost a year ago and Kristen and I continued to form a friendship. She had a fourth baby and she and her husband moved in with his sister and her family. Four adults and eleven children lived together as Kristen and Adam helped the larger family financially while his sister's husband recovered from an illness.
It wasn't always easy for Kristen to merge her four young children with seven older cousins, less room and different family habits and lifestyles. One day, I asked if she wanted to bring her kids over to my house once a week or so, let them play in my (awesome) toy room while she and I sat in the living room with her baby and talked. It seemed like an easy offer to make, but it made a world of difference for a couple of months. I loved the feeling of helping and she felt loved and cared for. And her kids liked the toy room. She cooked a couple of times--she missed having her own kitchen and mine is largely unused. We laughed together and shared hopes and frustrations.
Kristen is moving to Florida tomorrow morning. New city, new house, new job, new friends. She'll have new visiting teachers, too. I hope they love her as much as I do. Thanks, Kristen, for reminding me that I can help another woman in small and simple ways. There's a reason that we call each other sisters in our church.