In 1995 Leah and Kharine were baptized in Moscow, Russia. Leah was from the Republic of Georgia and Kharine was from rural Armenia. Each sister returned home to her native country soon after her baptism. Leah was the first and only Georgian member; Kharine, the first in her region. Leah and Kharine’s stories aren’t that unusual to other stories from around the globe. Because I am most familiar with Russia and Eurasia, for the sake of this discussion my examples will continue to be from that region of the world.
Though the church did have a presence in Armenia, Kharine did not read the dialect of Armenian excerpts of the Book of Mormon had been translated into, and could not easily maintain contact with members in Yerevan because of distance once she returned home. The church did not (and still does not to my knowledge) have an established presence in Georgia.
As membership grow in different regions of the globe, Area Presidencies formally organize the members into a Group—kind of the pre-cursor to a Branch. It is my understanding that this entails the presence of men as priesthood holders so there can be a designated ‘Group Leader’. However new converts are most often women. Sisters living far from the organized church are isolated, and often feel lonely and less important in the church. They may not be sure of their place in the church.
President Julie Beck recently quoted the Prophet Joseph Smith in saying, “The Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized.”[i]
For many reasons it is difficult, and even a very bad idea, to formally organize the Church as a religious entity in various parts of the world. But why not formally organize a group of member sisters into a Relief Society group? With a very small group of sisters, a Relief Society President could be called to organize them, assess their personal, family and even community needs. For example, sisters in Central Asia could be organized under the direction of the Area Presidency, or the under the direction of the nearest mission president (maybe Samara, Moscow or Rostov). I see several benefits.
- The Relief Society could be registered in some countries as a charitable organization.
- Relief Society sisters could serve in the community, fostering relationships of trust with others within communities and governments, assess the needs of families and communities in their respective countries, and display a spirit of good will.
- Sisters would know better than anyone the needs of families in their communities. They could work with LDS Philanthropies as they plan and carry out much needed projects in their respective countries.
- Relief Society sisters would feel more enabled to share their personal experiences studying and living the gospel, without violating laws in the countries they live. If anywhere in the world, sisters isolated from branches and wards need the safety net of Relief Society. Organizing the Relief Society for these sisters makes President Beck’s words more meaningful.
I have asked sometimes, “Why do we have a Relief Society president on the general level and the local level?” And the reason we have a president is so we can have an organization, and we have an organization because we have a purpose; and when we have a purpose there is an expected work and outcome. Relief Society isn’t just a feel-good, get-together, let’s enjoy each other, do anything, anytime, anyplace for any reason—this is part of the Lord’s work. It has a president at every level and a purpose that was delineated by the Lord and His holy prophets. This work needs a specific outcome. In a worldwide organization, it can grow exponentially, country by country, and provides a system of watchcare and sisterhood and discipleship and education that is growing every day.[ii]
- Sisters could be appointed as Regional Relief Society authorities, much like regional priesthood Area Authorities, to travel and support the needs of sisters in Relief Society groups. For instance, a sister in Russia could serve in this capacity to reach sisters in Central Asia; a sister in Germany could be appointed to assess the needs and support more isolated sisters and groups of sisters in the Balkans.
- Formally organized sisters would feel a sense of purpose.