When the Relief Society, the women’s organization for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was first organized in 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith charged the women of the church to “provide relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan for all benevolent purposes” and to “save souls. From those lofty purposes, the present-day visiting teaching program evolved.
Visiting teaching becomes the “heart and soul” of Relief Society as women in the Church connect with one another on a regular basis.
For example, the day after newborn Ruby Santiago arrived at home in Eagle, Idaho, her five siblings joined their father and grandfather on the ski slopes, leaving her with private mother/daughter time. The well-intentioned ski trip rapidly turned chaotic when 5-year-old Mary was hit by another skier, seriously injured and air-lifted to a nearby hospital. Her father, Todd, spent five days and nights at the hospital with Mary while her mother, Stephanie, tried to hold things together at home. Though Stephanie’s parents and then Todd’s were able to help for a few days, Stephanie’s Relief Society visiting teachers rallied to the aid of the family.
“We’ve haven’t lived in the ward that long,” Stephanie admitted, “but these women stepped in, organized meals, drove my other children to school and activities, delivered library books to our home and offered many other services. Without knowing them well, I feel this instant love and gratitude for their service to our family. I’m not used to being on this end of service, but I know that I could ask for any help and it would willingly be provided.”
From an organizational perspective, every woman in the ward or branch (geographic boundary) is assigned a pair of visiting teachers, teachers who may live next door, around the corner or miles away. The assignment charts provide only a foundation to marshalling the women-to-women associations. A pair of teachers contacts their designated neighbor on a monthly basis, but generally speaking the “assignment” aspect of the relationship stops there and the loving concern begins. As women share experiences, feelings and hopes, a bond of caring develops between them.
Such a bond is sometimes described as “watchcare” and is more than a brief visit or a cheerful conversation. As Joseph Smith suggested more than 150 years ago, “Watchcare is caring for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the women and their families.”
Included in this regular visit is a message of spiritual instruction and encouragement, a message adapted to meet the needs and concerns of the individual woman. Messages often inspire further gospel discussions, and women learn together. When a problem occurs within an assigned family, such as the Santiago family, visiting teachers readily volunteer to support their neighbors.
Most women in the Church have the opportunity to serve as a visiting teacher. “Your calling (as a visiting teacher) is to bless lives,” noted President Henry B. Eyring, a senior church leader. “That will be true even in the most ordinary tasks you are assigned. You see, there are no small callings to represent the Lord.”