Aim of gospel literacy effort: enrich lives

Improving literacy doesn't just mean learning to read and write. It includes enlarging the mind, according to the Relief Society general presidency.

"By enlarging the mind and appreciating and understanding more, we will enjoy the circumstances we live in," said Elaine L. Jack, Relief Society general president. "Gospel literacy, for example, helps us know that we do have a Heavenly Father who loves us and has blessed us with many things."To increase literacy throughout the Church, the Relief Society general presidency has announced a gospel literacy effort to cap off the organization's sesquicentennial celebration.

"We've had a celebration and a time of remembering and reaching out into the community to do good, but the literacy effort will be the ongoing part of the celebration," Pres. Jack explained. "This is what will reach into the future. The ongoing effect of gospel literacy efforts will be beyond what we can imagine."

In a Church News interview, the Relief Society general presidency spoke about the literacy efforts and gospel literacy guidelines that recently have been sent to Church leaders, including all area presidents. The guidelines are also being translated into Spanish.

The purpose of the literacy effort is two-fold: to teach basic gospel literacy skills for those who cannot read or write, and to encourage Church members to study the gospel and improve themselves and their families throughout their lives, the guidelines state.

"The skills of women are very important because the work they do not only affects their lives, which is important, but other lives as well," said Aileen H. Clyde, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency. "When women improve their literacy skills they can gain a better understanding of the gospel. Strength not only comes to them, but to their families, neighbors and many others."

Pres. Jack added: "Home is the chief learning place in any society, and the more a mother knows, the better prepared she is to teach her children to be functioning, contributing members of society. There is no greater factor on the health of a child than the education of the mother. Education in itself can improve health."

"Illiteracy is an age-old problem, and it is spread throughout the world," noted Chieko N. Okazaki, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency.

In the United States, one in five people are illiterate, according to the Literacy Volunteers of America organization, she added. And it is found that the illiteracy rate among women is higher than any other group.

"Reading and writing is a skill, but it is difficult for a person to say she lacks this skill," Sister Okazaki explained. "If we help women understand it's a skill like learning how to swim then I think it becomes a much easier problem to solve."

Pres. Jack continued: "Needing this skill does not indicate a lack of ability or potential. It is just one of the skills a person may be lacking that might enhance her life. Until a person can read, she lacks an important tool to improve herself."

Through the gospel literacy effort, Relief Society will be a facilitator in contributing literacy to women and their families wherever the Church is organized, Sister Clyde remarked.

"We know its success will depend very much on the working together of welfare principles and the welfare system of the Church as well as the Church Educational System," she continued. "Now Relief Society will be an avenue for those agencies to work even more effectively."

The gospel literacy effort is geared to help members learn to read, write and understand the gospel, the guidelines state. The program is intended to be optional and flexible as wards and branches identify literacy needs and help members meet them.

The guiding principles behind the effort includes reliance upon the Spirit of the Lord, reliance upon Church welfare principles, reliance upon individual responsibility and reliance upon family responsibility and involvement.

Resources for the program include members' talents and service, scriptures, handbooks and other Church materials, and the Basic Scripture Literacy Course of the Church Educational System (a scripture-based course which teaches basic language skills to adults).

"This [the Basic Scripture Literacy CourseT is a culmination of a lot of years of preparation and learning and experimenting," said Stanley A. Peterson, Church Educational System administrator of religious education. "Now the Relief Society is going to provide the real moving force behind it to make it really have an effect on the membership of the Church, particularly in developing nations."

By teaching members how to read through the scriptures, they also learn to feel comfortable with the scriptures, Brother Peterson noted. "This gives them an opportunity to teach their families and other members and to serve missions. We have watched lives change."

CES materials, however, are only available in Spanish and now English and will not meet the needs in all areas, the Relief Society general presidency said. Literacy guidelines encourage Church members to turn to community resources for help when necessary.

The First Presidency, in a letter accompanying the guidelines, encouraged "priesthood and Relief Society leaders to carefully read the enclosed guidelines, prayerfully consider local literacy needs, and implement an appropriate gospel literacy effort."

The letter also stated that the "effort will operate with the direction of local priesthood leaders and with the help of the Church Educational System administrators. Relief Society and priesthood leaders will share the responsibility for successfully developing and implementing this effort."

Each unit's Relief Society education counselor will be responsible for coordinating the gospel literacy effort with the direction and help of the ward Relief Society presidency, the guidelines state.

Ideas for implementing gospel literacy efforts include not only teaching literacy classes, but also encouraging members to read and discuss the scriptures, record testimonies and study the words of the prophets, encouraging families to read together at home, volunteering to help children read in school, and encouraging members to write their testimonies and add them to their family records.

"When we talk about literacy many feel it doesn't concern them, but many people can improve their literacy of the gospel and the scriptures," Sister Okazaki remarked. "Each of us has to find what skills we can improve to become literate."

Many wards and branches throughout the Church have already been involved in literacy efforts as part of their sesquicentennial projects, Pres. Jack noted.

For example, in Morgan Hill, Calif., Relief Society sisters helped tutor at an after-school program for low-income youth. In Marshalltown, Iowa, women donated books to local libraries. And in Brunswick, Ga., sisters volunteered at an adult education program.

"We anticipate that the literacy efforts will start small and then build," Pres. Jack remarked. "As Relief Society leaders increase in their understanding of how to help those who have not had the opportunity to read and write, then it will gradually mushroom and be more influential."

Sister Okazaki added: "The guidelines will help leaders administer the efforts, but we hope they will think of how to minister to the needs of the people."

"If this is going to be successful, ward councils must first be committed to the literacy effort," she said. "Then that will transfer to those who will teach and those who are taught."

Each council should prayerfully and thoughtfully review the needs of the ward and branch members and become invested in the needs and successes of one another, Pres. Jack added. The success of the program will depend upon the initiative and inspiration of local members and leaders to identify and address the needs in their community.

Pres. Jack concluded: "Being literate lifts us out of ignorance. It brings us added blessings of being able to really read and study the gospel. When we expand our thinking, then it enriches and fulfills our lives. It takes us beyond functional reading and writing into a spiritual realm where life's real significant meanings come into focus."

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