Happy birthday, Relief Society!

The women's organization in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is 158 years old and adjusting to the new millennium. One shift for the organization predated the actual Big Day of March 17th by several months. Sister Virginia U. Jensen, First Counselor in the General Relief Society, announced last September that the monthly midweek meeting formerly known as "Homemaking Meeting" would have a new title. The new (unwieldy) moniker is "Home, Family and Personal Enrichment Meeting." Everybody I know has already shortened it to "Enrichment."

The change is intended, Sister Jensen told us, to "refocus our attention on strengthening ourselves, and then to build our family members, friends, neighbors, and community so that each may be brought closer to our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ." The new format is to begin with a 15-minute spiritual lesson followed by a 60-to-90-minute activity based on that spiritual theme.

That's terrific of course. But will sisters seize up from "craft withdrawal"? How does one apply a lesson on repentance to crocheting a door knob decoration? Or a message on the blessings of the temple to creating the glass grapes of Relief Society lore? Tough noogies, apparently. It's time to get relevant.

Sister Jensen tells of visiting a small branch in the developing world. What would their Homemaking Meeting offer? One might hope the lesson would have been on "101 Ways to Conserve and Cook Rice" or "How to Tell When a Wound is Infected." But no. It was on gift wrap.

As Sheri Dew, Second Counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency, said at the same time, "Doing stuffed ducks and doilies is not a compelling need...Women my age don't care about those things. They care about their little boy who can't read or their 15-year-old daughter that they don't know how to handle."

Inner city wards have the complex problem of trying to meet widely divergent needs. One sister may need to know how to get prenatal care. Another sister in the same ward may be the doctor or midwife trained to provide it. What meeting could possibly appeal to the whole spectrum? It's important to avoid any arrogant attitude of "us" helping "them." Also, if an urban ward offers down-to-basic courses, will the women who most need them be willing--or able--to jump through the logistical hoops of bus fares or subway connections to get there? At night? In the dark?

Sister Dew's examples--education problems, rebellious teenagers--are excellent because they are timeless and universal. Regardless of the sociological make-up of the ward, women will always face these issues--marital problems, fertility issues, health concerns, financial stresses, job skills. From Day One, Adam and Eve had these problems to contend with as well.

If the mandate now is to provide lessons designed to "empower women to meet critical needs," let's pray the lessons won't be boring. Courses too basic or too preachy are likely not to draw crowds.

Not that drawing crowds is necessarily what we're after, however. In some wards, attendance at Homemaking meeting was deemed a measure of orthodoxy. That brought clusters of the pious and the grudging. The woman coordinating Homemaking meetings in a different ward made it clear that she did NOT consider attendance mandatory. It was an opportunity to, as Sister Jensen articulated so nicely, "share sisterhood, to gain knowledge, to learn skills, and to increase testimony." Happy crowds came.

Another homely truth validated: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The women making decisions about "Home, Family, and Personal Enrichment Meetings" in any ward face tough questions and deserve our prayers and support. In honor of the birthday, let's reinvigorate that motto of the Old Gal herself - "Charity Never Faileth."

While we assemble monthly to "meet critical needs" and provide "service wherever it is needed," there is groundwork to be done. Will I really talk with the women in my ward about these gritty issues if I haven't developed a bond with them? Not likely. How can I develop these connections? Some of it will happen listening to ardent lectures or sermonettes. Some will come from hearing other women's comments in the Sunday meetings or in the more personal setting of visiting teaching.

But sometimes what I really need is down time with the gals. Time to not have to think hard. Time to enjoy that underappreciated commodity called "small talk," which provides unguarded peeks into our souls, little touch points for deeper connections. What I'm getting at--heretical as it may be--is that sometimes I get much more than glass grapes out of making a craft.

If a Mason jar snow globe is the end and not the means, woe betide us all; but the activity can be a foil for something more meaningful under construction. There is still room in this vision of a relevant Relief Society for glue guns or crochet hooks occasionally. I promise I'll send all my potholders to Kosovo.

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