“We are going to do something extraordinary—when a boat is stuck on the rapids, with a multitude of Mormons on board we shall consider that a loud call for relief—we expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.” – Emma Smith (in first Relief Society meeting)
Welfare is an important part of what we do at church. Until I served in ward leadership callings and watched my husband serve in them, I had no idea just how important it is. As Relief Society president I had expected to spend time thinking and praying about how to bring women to Christ (and I did do that!). But I found that I spent even more time figuring out how best to help families who didn’t have enough food, couldn’t pay rent or were suffering from serious mental or physical health issues. From talking with others who have served in ward leadership callings, I don’t think this was unique.
Welfare is central to the work of Relief Society. I love the quote from Handbook 2: Administering the Church, that says, “[Joseph Smith] taught that the Relief Society was organized for ‘the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes’ In addition, he taught that the Relief Society was ‘not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.’” I have come to believe that relieving the poor and destitute is an integral part of saving souls.
I think often of a story shared by David Burton in his April 2011 General Conference talk: While serving a mission in Scotland, David O. McKay knocked on a door where “a very haggard woman opened the door and stood before him. She was poorly dressed and had sunken cheeks and unkempt hair. She took the tract Elder McKay offered her and spoke six words that he subsequently would never forget: ‘Will this buy me any bread?’ President McKay later wrote: ‘From that moment I had a deeper realization that the Church of Christ should be and is interested in the temporal salvation of man. I walked away from the door feeling that that [woman], with…bitterness in [her heart] toward man and God, [was] in no position to receive the message of the gospel. [She was] in need of temporal help.’”
There were few things I have done in my life that have found as meaningful as reaching out and extending help to those who need it most. I recognized that as Relief Society president, I had unique access to divinely inspired Church tools to assist them.
Yet, I also began to harbor frustration. I became acutely aware of the tools I didn’t have—and more aware than I ever had been before of the gender divide in church leadership. I felt that when we talked about the welfare work done by Relief Society, we often talked about making casseroles for women who had just had babies. “Real” welfare, at least when we talked about it, was left to priesthood leaders. I remember hearing President Eyring’s talk in the October 2014 conference in which he told a story of an emergency where the male leaders planned and organized the response. Completely exhausted from my own emergency responses within our ward, tears formed in my eyes as I asked my husband, “Where was the Relief Society president? I know she was helping too. Why don’t we ever talk about her?”
It wasn’t equal power or recognition I longed for. It was equal resources—resources that could enable me to be more effective in my stewardship to “relieve the poor.” I know male leaders are not given tons of training in our church, but they were certainly given more than I was. Bishops attended monthly Stake Bishopric Training Meetings where they covered topics like depression and abuse. Meanwhile, a women overdosed on pills while on the phone with me, and I sat with a family while children interviewed by child protective services and police. In desperation one day, I called the 24-hour welfare help line, designated for bishops. I couldn’t reach my bishop and I had an emergency on my hands. There were many times when someone reached out to me in a financial crisis. A check was needed in short order, perhaps to prevent a family’s eviction. Yet, I couldn’t sign any checks. Neither could any of my counselors. Instead, we had to drive the check to others—men—who were authorized to sign checks, men who often had no knowledge of the situation or connection to the family.
In April 2015, President Eyring again raised the topic of welfare work in a General Conference talk. But this time, he spoke of the bishop and Relief Society president using fast offerings to relieving suffering. It may seem like a small thing but the positive effect on me was huge.
We must first recognize the important role that Relief Society plays in church welfare work—and always has since the time Relief Society was established by Joseph Smith. Only then will women leaders get the resources and tools they need to be more effective in their efforts to “relieve the poor” and to “save souls.”