Last Tuesday morning I baked chocolate cookies with peanut butter chips and asked my 4-year-old, Evan, to draw a pretty picture for our friend Sally*. He wanted to draw a bunch of flowers in her favorite color, but since he didn't know what her favorite color was, he drew flowers in all different colors to make sure he got at least one in the right shade. Around noon we drove over to her house, cookies and pretty picture in hand. We only stayed for a few minutes because she was tired and even the best and most welcome of visitors are draining. We sat by her hospital bed, set up in the living room, and chatted about our family's upcoming camping trip, about the hummingbirds we saw around the feeders outside her window, about her favorite color (blue, so Evan had it covered).
Wednesday night, she passed away. Sally was 75, and we had known she was terminally ill for a couple of months, so it was expected, but it was still a blow. Sally was a dear soul, friendly and feisty, generous, with a great sense of humor and optimism, always ready with a story and a plate of goodies. My life is immeasurably richer for having known her.
And I most likely never would have, if not for visiting teaching.
In every local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, under the direction of the Relief Society president, 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 to visit, serve, and care for. This program is called “visiting teaching” and it often includes a monthly visit to discuss a Gospel message, but can also manifest as friendly phone calls, 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.
Done right, it is the essence of the gospel of Christ.
It's all about making connections, serving, and loving each other, recognizing the worth of each individual soul. Visiting teaching 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, and those from completely different backgrounds including 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 Cathy's* companion on her visiting teaching route. Cathy was a single, middle-aged woman who had lost her left leg from the knee down, and was always unfailingly cheerful and optimistic. Among others, we visited Kristin*, 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 precious daughter of God.
Michelle* 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 hit it off and 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 whom I love and admire greatly. 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 Melanie*, I was nervous. Melanie is deaf and while I'd taken American Sign Language in college, I hadn't 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. She texted right back and said she'd come. The evening of the activity I picked her up at her house. She was pleasantly surprised that I knew Sign — even if I was really slow — and her gregarious manner quickly put me at ease. She was always happy, with a smile and 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 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 perseverance and the power of a smile and a hug.
I could share similar stories about dozens of other women who have been my companions, my visiting teachers, or people I visit-taught over the years. There’s something about opening our homes to each other that makes it a little easier to open our hearts to each other as well. And when we allow ourselves to become just a smidge more vulnerable, barriers start to break down and we’re able to make connections with others, even those with whom we 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. We can and should bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort (see Mosiah 18:8-9). We become friends and, in the process, lift each other a little higher, a little closer to God.
That's what visiting teaching is all about.
*Names have been changed.
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