Monday, June 10, 2013

Visiting Teaching

One of my favorite programs in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is visiting teaching.  Each willing adult woman is paired with another woman and together they are given a list of three or four (or sometimes more) other women in the ward (Mormon-speak for a local congregation) to visit, serve, and care for.  This often includes a monthly visit to discuss a gospel message, but can also manifest as swapping babysitting, meeting up for lunch, bringing over freezer meals after a birth or during an illness, or just having a familiar face to greet in the halls at church.

And done right, it is the essence of the gospel of Christ.

It's all about getting to know each other, making connections, serving, and loving each other.  Even if you are brand new in an area, you have immediate friends, people you can call on for help moving in or directions to the nearest grocery store or dry cleaner.  It crosses socio-economic and generational lines.  It forces us out of our comfort zones to get to know people we otherwise would probably never extend ourselves to.  I have visit taught, or been visit taught by, women who were decades older than me, those from completely different backgrounds including some from other countries.  Some of my dearest friends have come from visiting teaching and some of my greatest lessons have come from those I met through this program.

As a young adult, when I came home from college over the summers I would beg my Relief Society president for a visiting teaching assignment, even though I was only available for a few months.  One summer, I was asked to be C's companion on her visiting teaching route.  C was a single, middle-aged woman who had lost her left leg from the knee down and was on crutches, and was always unfailingly cheerful and optimistic.  Among others, we visited K, a woman who had found the courage to divorce her abusive husband and raise her two boys on her own with very little schooling and a minimum-wage job in the D.C. area.  They were both good, strong women doing their best with the cards life had dealt them.  From them I learned that you don't have to fit the "ideal" mold to be a valuable and righteous daughter of God.

M started as a "letter only" visiting teaching assignment, someone who was not in a position to receive personal visits at the time, but was open to getting something in the mail.  I wrote her a brief cheery note including a gospel message every month for years before meeting her face-to-face by chance at a book club.  We started visiting in person shortly after that, letting our kids of similar ages play together and just getting to know each other better.  She has become a dear, dear friend; I even got to visit her when she moved to Ohio a few years later.  From her example, I learned to graciously take life at its own pace because there is a time and a season for everything.

When my Relief Society president asked me to start visiting F, I was nervous.  F is Deaf and while I'd taken seven semesters of ASL in college, I hadn't really signed in at least a dozen years.  I was rusty to say the least.  But I took a deep breath and texted her one day, inviting her to a Relief Society activity.  To my surprise, she texted right back and said she'd come.  The evening of the activity came, and I picked her up at her house.  She was pleasantly surprised that I knew Sign - even if I was reeeeally slow - and her gregarious manner quickly put me at ease.  She was always happy, with a smile and a hug for everyone.  She started attending church regularly, and every week I would attempt to interpret for her.  Gradually, I started feeling a little more confident as she patiently taught me, gently teasing me about my frequent mistakes, encouraging me not to take myself so seriously.  Almost a year and a half after I met her, she recently moved to the other side of town, and now when I'm at church without her I feel almost like I've lost a limb.  She taught me not only better Sign, but perseverance and the power of a smile and a hug.

I already mentioned Sammy on Friday.  I started visiting her only last summer, and in just a year came to love her so much.  On our first visit, she told us how glad she was to have two "young" visiting teachers: "I told [the Relief Society president], 'You keep giving me all these old women.  And they're great, but if I need help they can't help me.  I need some young ones!'  And here you are!"  During one of our last conversations, I asked how we could help and she thought for a minute.  "I could always use some cookies," she said, so we showed up on her doorstep with a plateful.   She was a great example of saying what you mean with love and letting your needs be known.

These are only a few of the women whose lives have touched mine specifically because of visiting teaching.  I could talk about A or R or J or E or frankly dozens of other women who have been companions of mine, or my visiting teachers, or people I visit-taught.  Something about opening our homes and our hearts to each other, allowing ourselves to become just a smidge more vulnerable, breaks down barriers and allows connections to be made, even between people who seem to have little in common.  We remember that we are all sisters, all daughters of Heavenly Parents, all struggling with the challenges life brings, and that we can bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and just be friends, and in the process lift each other.

That's what visiting teaching is all about.

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