Mother of seven, Relief Society president provides relief in foreign war zone

Carol Gray, housewife, mother of seven and a Relief Society president in the Sheffield (England) 2nd Ward, wept in 1992 as she watched television news coverage of civil war in former Yugoslavia and the extreme suffering of the refugees from that conflict.

She desired to do something to help, but after writing a check, she felt she was not finished yet.

"She felt like the Spirit was moving her to do more," said Kate Holbrook, a specialist in women's history with the Church History Department who holds a master's degree in world religions from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in religion and society from Boston University. Sister Holbrook was the presenter Oct. 8 at the monthly "Pioneers in Every Land" lecture series sponsored by the Church History Library and held at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

"Because she was a Relief Society president, she put out a call for supplies," Sister Holbrook said. "She said to donate diapers, formula, sanitary supplies, clothing, blankets and foodstuffs, and she found a charity that said they would deliver it."

Little did Sister Gray realize that from the initial effort, she would find herself immersed in a decade-long pursuit that took her on dozens of journeys deep into the dangerous Bosnian war zone to distribute supplies.

"They collected from all over the country 38 tons of aid," Sister Holbrook said.

As news spread about this Mormon Relief Society president and her quest, supplies continued to pour in.

Then, two days before the charitable organization was to come pick up the supplies, they called Sister Gray and told her they had run out of money and the trip was off.

As she fretted and wondered about what to do, her husband, Stuart, saw an ad for a group called Convoy of Hope and suggested to his wife that she contact them.

"She hoped they would say, 'Sure, we'll deliver your supplies,'" Sister Holbrook recounted. "They did not. They said, 'We'll be glad to have you join our convoy.'"

The Stuarts thought and prayed about what to do. They had to face a disturbing reality. She was uninsurable because of cancer she had while in her mid-20s. There were seven children to care for. If father went and was killed, there would be no insurance or support for the rest of the family; if mother went and didn't survive the trip, the family would still be well off financially.

One of the older daughters, Samantha, was 22 at the time and newly married. She went along with her mother as they drove one of the 110 trucks in the convoy, a 7-ton, 28-foot-long vehicle.

"They knew God was with them, and they felt protected," Sister Holbrook said, "but sometimes Kate was quite terrified, especially because her beautiful daughter was with her, and she wanted to keep that daughter, with long, blonde hair, safe."

When the convoy would pull up to a refugee settlement or village, at first the people would be afraid to come out. "But when they finally started to trust, they would come out and would form a line and would get all organized," Sister Holbrook said. The relief workers would unwrap the children's feet, blue with cold, from plastic bags, and give them socks and shoes to keep them warm.

"They took food, warm supplies, blankets, medical supplies," she said. "With those first convoys, it was mostly the pressing immediate needs they could think of."

A Catholic priest asked the convoy to go to Rovanjska, one of the more dangerous areas. Eighteen people comprised of Sister Gray and other Latter-day Saints traveling with her went to the village. Meanwhile, the priest and his parishioners prayed and lit 18 candles, one for each person who had gone.

"Carol said when they were returning, after dark that evening, she at first thought she saw fireflies, but when they got closer, it was these parishioners holding candles, just standing and praying and waiting for their safe return," Sister Holbrook recounted.

She told of miracles that occurred on subsequent convoy trips. On one they were taking bathroom supplies. The Grays had what they thought was an ugly, pea-green tub and shower set that had been stored in the barn for three years. Sister Gray was embarrassed about it, but took it along anyway.

"They delivered set after set along their way," Sister Holbrook said. "They get to this one village, and they have only two sets left. One is beautiful and white, and one is pea-green."

But when the door to the truck was opened, a Bosnian woman saw it, and tears streamed down her face. Her bathroom had been partially destroyed in bombing; what was left was tile that matched the pea-green set beautifully.

"Hugging was a major theme of what she did with people," Sister Holbrook said. That brought trust and restored a light to their eyes.

On one occasion, they found an old couple in a ruin of a dwelling, too afraid to answer the door at first. All of their children and grandchildren, who lived in houses surrounding them had been killed. Only the old couple was left, and they had nothing.

As they opened the door a crack, Sister Gray said the only thing she knew how to say in their language at that time: "I love you."

"A little light came into their eyes, and then they started weeping and went and fell on her and hugged her," she said. "She was able to give them food and warm things to keep them comfortable."

The war in Bosnia ended in 1996; Sister Gray did not stop her work distributing relief supplies until 1999. By then LDS Humanitarian Services was established and had taken over what she was doing. They asked her to go with them to Ghana. There, with a non-governmental organization she had established called Starlight UK, she purchased 36 acres of land in 2001 and fulfilled a dream to establish an orphanage for the destitute children there.

Sister Gray died of cancer a few years ago, Sister Holbrook said, but left an autobiography, so far unpublished, that contains this line: "What a wonderful challenge it is to take both the good and bad things in life and create something out of them that brings about the renewing power of hope."

• Each lecture in the series is video recorded and made available on the website a few weeks after it is given. All lectures from past years are also available on this site.

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