An anonymous sister writes:
Our Relief Society teacher was raised in the church, in Idaho, attended BYU, and sometimes seems to have read everything ever written about the lesson material and even to know many of the authors. I am a recent convert, just moved to the United States from Tijuana, Mexico, speak very little English, and feel like I can grasp only a rare glimpse of what she is saying. I know I am not the only sister in the room who feels she is in the accelerated graduate program when I need to be in kindergarten. My new mother-in-law approached the Education Counselor with this concern, but we “new kids” are still on the outside looking in. Can we address this issue in Circle of Sisters?
How well I can relate to your situation! Do you realize that you are dealing with three new languages? First, English; second, Church terminology; and third, learning gospel principles themselves? No wonder you feel overwhelmed!
Nineteen years ago, I was in a similar situation. Moving to Germany with two viable words in my vocabulary, being totally immersed in the culture with no relatives and only one American friend, and attending a German-speaking branch were so overwhelming! Week after week, my ear strained to pick up a few phrases or a familiar word. I asked myself how I would ever understand the lofty ideas set forth in the lesson. As sweet as the German brothers and sisters were, translators were very few and the teacher did not simplify her vocabulary or presentation for my benefit. It was frustrating and I often felt very much alone.
It became very clear to me that if I was going to learn this language, be integrated into community and branch activities, and not feel like such a total loser (one can only smile and nod so long), I must assume responsibility. The journey to fluency was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life and it began on my knees in a flood of tears.
May I suggest a few things that helped me greatly:
- Do not be afraid to make a fool of yourself. It’s going to happen anyway (as it does to all of us who learn a new language), and you might as well laugh about it. If a comment you make produces a few giggles, enjoy the joke and be a good sport. It’s disarming and people will try hard to help you understand. Remember, odds are, none of them know a second language, so you are way ahead even attempting to express yourself.
- Read, read read! I started with (sorry intellectuals) children’s comic books and familiar fairy tales or stories. After taking apart a few grammar books, I tackled a comparative study of the Book of Mormon, English and German versions side-by-side. The Lord opened the eyes of my understanding and miraculously, understanding filled my soul and vocabulary filled my memory banks.
- Take a small notebook to Church. Write down words or phrases you don’t understand. Spelling doesn’t matter. Ask the teacher or a friend to explain these concepts to you. Go back and read the lesson and I know that you will be thrilled to find and understand new words and phrases.
- Accept callings and even ask to be “put to work.” None of us wants to move out of her comfort zone, especially when it comes to a new language. When we are forced to speak and practice, we become fluent. One of the most spiritual things one can experience is being blessed with the “gift of tongues.” As you move forward to serve your brothers and sisters, I promise that this gift will be yours. You will be blessed with confidence and an ability to express yourself and understand in ways you never imagined. It will touch and improve every facet of your new life in this country.
Being a minority Utah native while living in Florida the past ten years, I have often been teased, not about being personally acquainted with all those quoted, but about knowing many of the cast members of church-produced videos! That’s what hanging around BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center will get you!
Don’t be intimidated by who your teacher knows or who you don’t know. That’s mostly a matter of geography and is only meaningful in that it’s fun to hear. As for what to do in Relief Society, I believe there are two fundamental questions that need to be addressed:
How does the Relief Society deal with various levels of gospel knowledge among its members?
Having a single class that includes both those who are brand-spanking new to the gospel and those who are fifth-generation stalwart members, is definitely a challenge. The teacher has to try to meet the needs of both extremes and of those in between. I have a similar (though smaller) situation in the Laurel class I currently teach. Some girls are life-long members with European pioneer ancestry and others have been members for only a matter of weeks and speak only Spanish, Portuguese, or French-Creole!
Neither group can be catered to at the exclusion of the other. But while preparing our lessons we need to prayerfully look at the content in our lessons to make sure that there is something valuable for each group represented.
For the newer members we need to make sure they understand the basic principle being discussed and that they are gaining a working knowledge of how it applies to their lives. I have found that the Gospel Principles manual is an ideal source to help explain basic gospel principles in language that is understandable to those who don’t yet have all the “prerequisites” for an advanced gospel discussion.
Make sure that definitions and relationships that long-time members take for granted are stated explicitly. For example, whenever LDS jargon is used, it must be defined and time given for any needed clarification. Words like “patriarchal blessing,” “endowment,” and even “priesthood” and “temple” have been words that some of my Laurels were not familiar with. When a prominent church figure is quoted or mentioned by name, take time to explain who he or she is and what position they hold. (This is often necessary in Young Women as the manuals are quite old and many of those being quoted are long dead!) [Hint to anyone in the curriculum department: occasionally checking copyright dates on teaching materials is a fine idea.] Often the position itself needs to be explained. (Few new converts will know what a “General Young Women President” is.)
For the more “seasoned” members, make sure that you include the insights and applications that will build on their current knowledge. And include scriptures or quotes that will extend what they already know and give new light to the topic. Often the challenge with this group isn’t explaining the principle, it is motivating those who already know the principle to do something about it!
How do members deal with various levels of gospel knowledge among its Relief Society teachers?
On the other hand, we have those who are in the position of listening to what the teacher has decided to present. This is also an important role, one that can greatly affect the outcome of the meeting.
An educated friend who was a lifelong member once complained to me about the “very young” ward (as far as gospel understanding goes) that she lived in. She claimed that she and her husband were bored by the teachers and never learned anything in any of the classes. What a waste of time going to church was! She never left feeling “spiritually fed.”
My first thought was about an audiotape I listened to a few years ago when I was serving as our ward’s Gospel Doctrine teacher. The tape featured Hugh Nibley teaching Gospel Doctrine while translating on the fly from his Greek Bible. Talk about feelings of inadequacy!
But I noticed that Dr. Nibley who very likely is the preeminent gospel scholar on earth still attends church regularly. If we are bored, how can he stand to be around the rest of us dolts at all?
It reminded me of the time many years ago when President Benson said that he still learned something every time he attended the temple. That statement pierced my heart! I, proud and very immature in my early 20’s, was quite certain that I understood everything in the ceremony. And here stood a man I greatly respected, who had likely attended thousands of sessions more than I, who was still learning. It was only then that I realized that the entire temple experience was completely over my head. What a humbling experience!
I have tried to apply those lessons to my life. I have tried to understand that sometimes it is my time to “feed” others and sometimes it is my time to be “fed” by others. I have learned that no matter how long I am a member of the church and no matter how much I read and study, I will always have a great deal to learn. And now I know that some of my greatest lessons will be taught by those who have far less formal gospel education than I do.
If you are new to the church, realize that you won’t understand everything. Remain positive. Prepare for class during the week by reading the lesson and associated scriptures. Ask for clarification when needed. Glean from the lesson whatever you can to build a working knowledge of the gospel. Show patience, support, and love toward these volunteer teachers who may not always do things the way you would prefer or may not be able to address your particular situation.
If you have been a member forever and you already know everything there is to know about the gospel, realize that in reality you don’t. Remain humble. Prepare for class during the week by reading the lesson and associated scriptures. Add clarification when needed. Glean from the lesson whatever you can to build your already working knowledge of the gospel. Show patience, support, and love toward these volunteer teachers who may not always do things they way you would prefer or may not be able to address your particular situation.
We’re all pretty much in the same boat.
First, to our Tijuana Sister and others on the same courageous adventure, new to the country, the language, the gospel and even to marriage:
You are on a wild and scary adventure! I sure hope your mom-in-law has found you a visiting teacher who speaks native Spanish. I hope your visiting teacher is also an �migr� and understands how lonely and alien you will feel at first. I would say, before we tackle any of the difficult challenges that lie ahead, you need to cut yourself a lot of slack emotionally. I don’t think I have ever known a new bride who didn’t shed a few tears figuring out how to cope with all the radical changes. It’s a huge transition, and has nothing to do with how much you love your new American hubby or how much he loves you.
Please don’t feel you have fallen off the edge of the earth. There’s still gravity, and we promise it gets easier. I would really like to see you volunteer to teach the sisters in your ward a little bit of Spanish. Everybody should know enough to get by. You could choose a key phrase from the lesson manual, perhaps the stated theme of the lesson, translate it and teach it to the sisters at the beginning of the lesson. If there is a bilingual sister in the Ward or Stake, please be sure to make it a goal to prepare at least one comment each week for her to interpret for you. Challenge yourself to learn one simple phrase in English, as your opening, then speak Spanish and let her interpret. Relief Society is for everyone in the room, not just college graduates or Utah transplants. The things you are feeling and thinking are too valuable to miss just because of a language barrier.
There are two ways to look at the idea of contributing:
First, what if you are the only person in the room who has that insight? If you don’t share it, everyone will miss out. Second, often you are not the only person in the room who is thinking about something the teacher said that seemed open to a different interpretation.
You can validate their feelings and help everybody share a more balanced understanding of that point of the lesson. We know from the Savior’s manner of leading us, as described often in the New Testament, that there are always different levels of understanding and applying a principle. He was careful to use a story and an idea that were very, very common and obvious, and then to introduce a new way, the Christlike way, to apply that ideal.
Then we often will see, upon further searching and pondering, praying and practicing, there were many levels of understanding that story; and increasingly challenging ways of applying the principle, “line upon line, precept upon precept.” We can all learn at our own pace, patient with others and patient with ourselves, but always trying to pay attention to the principle.
A pretty little Christmas song asks why the angels appeared to the lowly shepherds. The answer according to the lyric is, “Because they were awake.” They were not expecting to see angels, but they were alert just the same, so they wouldn’t lose their family’s sheep.
I know that if you cling to your testimony and keep in mind how much your Savior loves you, trust your new sisters in Relief Society to love you too, and try to pay attention even if there are no angels most Sundays, your desire to be alert like the little shepherd boys will always be rewarded.
We have had a number of Latina teachers in our Relief Society, and their special way of looking at many of the basic principles of love and discipleship have blessed us. We have been especially fortunate in our Ward, in a college town, to have families from all of the continents of the globe, many with very little English, but enormous love for the gospel and all the courage of our emigrant and pioneer forebears. We love them so much!
Sometimes we know we can’t communicate with words, but we trust them to understand our hearts when we just rush into their arms and hug them and kiss them. They are so dear, so brave and so patient with us! I hope you will write back to the circle soon, by yourself, using whatever level of English you have learned, and let us know it’s getting a little better. Throw in a couple of Spanish phrases too, OK? All your Latina sisters in our reading audience will be so excited to hear from you again!
In fact, all the new converts, new brides, and people who represent any sort of minority will be pulling for you. (I think that’s just about all of us!) We love you and we are glad you are here with us in our Circle of Sisters.
Sister, I have gathered a few resources that may be useful to you. Best wishes in your pursuit!