Empowering women to find their unique role in family history

No one can do it all when it comes to family history — the work of researching ancestors, performing proxy temple ordinances, recording one’s own story, indexing, interviewing living family members and more can become an endless to-do list.

A few years ago, several women who scrapbooked together came up with a vision to simplify those responsibilities. They founded “Light Keepers” — a family history conference at RootsTech specifically for women.

Event organizer Wendy Smedley said women should come asking, “How should I participate in family history?” If they leave with one actionable item, it’s a success.

Designed by and for Latter-day Saint women and now in its third year, Light Keepers 2020 was offered in two identical sessions on Friday, Feb. 28, and Saturday, Feb. 29, to accommodate hundreds of participants.

Divine assistance

Speaking at the conference, Primary general president Sister Joy D. Jones testified that the event leaders were inspired: “They have followed the counsel of our Prophet; they are seeking personal revelation. … They’ve been guided.”

Reiterating the organizers’ hope for attendees, she added, “They’re sharing, hoping that something will prick your heart — something that they’ve shared will resonate, and the Spirit will confirm that that’s important for you.”

She, too, shares a passion for family history because of the spirit that comes when talking about ancestors, Sister Jones said.

Primary general president Sister Joy D. Jones speaks during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020.
Primary general president Sister Joy D. Jones speaks during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Cherie Mask

“They know us by name. They know what we’re doing. They know our challenges. They know our successes, and they are with us,” she said. 

Sister Jones said since her son Trevor passed away, she has felt an increased awareness that those on the other side of the veil are nearby and laboring to accomplish God’s work.

Temple work, family history and missionary work are all part of the one work of God’s divine plan, she added. Echoing President Russell M. Nelson’s recent invitation to “hear Him,” she invited attendees to seek inspiration from Heavenly Father: “We don’t have to get a revelation from anyone else; it can come directly from Him.”

One simple act will allow Him to work miracles, she said. “He loves you. He knows you by name. He is there for you every step of this journey. … I love being a daughter of God, and I love my Savior. I will be with my son again because of Him.”

Sister Jones also encouraged attendees to help young people as they participate in family history: “When you look at a child or any member of the rising generation … will you look at them and pray that Heavenly Father will help you see who they really are — their vast potential? [Help] them to understand that potential. … Their testimonies of this work will empower them and help them to learn at much younger ages why covenants and ordinances are so important.”

The power of stories

Each attendee received her own bound workbook — a “family history experience guide” decorated inside and out with photos of flowers. The floral motif symbolizes families, Smedley said, because each family is unique. Like different kinds of flowers, “we thrive in different conditions,” she explained, noting that some are divorced, some are married, some have children and some do not — but all are beautiful.

Light Keepers organizers Wendy Smedley, left, Maria Eckersley, second from left, Kirsten Wright, third from left, Amy Miles, second from right, and Rhonna Farrer, right, smile with Primary general president Sister Joy D. Jones at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020.
Light Keepers organizers Wendy Smedley, left, Maria Eckersley, second from left, Kirsten Wright, third from left, Amy Miles, second from right, and Rhonna Farrer, right, smile with Primary general president Sister Joy D. Jones at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Cherie Mask

Smedley invited those in attendance to “pay attention to what the Spirit calls you to do.” Each woman present had an opportunity to find out how Heavenly Father wants her to contribute to her family history, she said: “This is a room of revelation.”

What that opportunity looks like is for each individual to discern.

A team of four women who have been called as church service missionaries presented on four themes: connect, discover, strengthen and gather. All of them gave examples of accessible ways individuals can participate in family history work — even if they have never been engaged in it before.

Sister Rhonna Farrer spoke about how stories connect people, even with a few simple details. When she learned that her third-great-grandmother Catherine brought hand cream, jewelry and high rubber boots on her pioneer trek west, she felt an immediate kinship. Now, when she and her daughters wear rubber boots, they think of Grandma Catherine and her perseverance.

Sister Farrer invited attendees to open FamilySearch’s Family Tree app on their phones. She showed them how to access “ancestors with tasks” and gave them several minutes to complete “hints” in their own family tree — such as attaching a census record to an ancestor’s profile.

As she participates in family history work, Sister Farrer said, she feels her heart turn to her ancestors and her ancestors turn her heart to Jesus Christ.

“I testify that He is our deliverer,” she added. “He will deliver us from anything that’s holding us back in this work.”

Sister Kirsten Wright connected with her great-great-grandfather during a difficult time when she found out he wore a fresh carnation in his lapel every day to spread cheer. She wore a photo of him in a locket to remind herself of his infectious optimism.

Attendees smile during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020.
Attendees smile during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Cherie Mask

To help attendees discover their own family history, she showed them how to complete “micro-tasks” in the Family Tree app. 

“How can you use your waiting time?” she asked, inviting audience members to take a couple of minutes to add a photo of themselves to the “Memories” section of their Family Search profile. Simple tasks like this can be completed in line at the grocery store or before bed — perhaps instead of scrolling through social media one more time.

Sister Wright challenged attendees to find five simple things they could relate to in their families in order to forge connections with ancestors.

Healing and strength

After spending most of the past 10 months in bed, Sister Amy Miles was able to stand and walk on two feet to present at Light Keepers. Though she continues to fight cancer that originated in her foot last year, she feels the healing power of family history work.

She received a spiritual impression to keep a detailed journal during her treatment process. “Keeping a journal taught me how to counsel with God,” she said.

One night as she writhed in excruciating pain, her body began to go into shock and she thought, “This is what death feels like.” Then she remembered the story of her great-great-grandmother, Hannah Jane, who warded off death by caring for her sick family members through the night on the Mexican frontier. In that desperate moment, Sister Miles drew strength from the story of Hannah Jane’s “great spiritual gift for healing.”

“What strengths did your ancestors possess?” she asked the audience, encouraging them to learn about the spiritual gifts of their forebears and identify similar talents in themselves — then use them to bless others.

Recently, in an effort to “make sense of our cancer year,” Sister Miles gathered her husband and children to record their perspectives on the past 10 months. As each member of the family described the loss as well as the hope they felt, Sister Miles witnessed the healing that comes from sharing personal stories.

Attendees participate during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020.
Attendees participate during Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Cherie Mask

As she spoke about the work of gathering people, Sister Maria Eckersley emphasized that knitting hearts together goes in both directions — women are called to connect their ancestors and future generations.

Two years ago, she attended Light Keepers to support her friend — not because she had any interest in genealogy. But she found in family history an opportunity to use her talent for gathering people together and creating relationships. This gift led her back to Light Keepers — this time to speak from the stage.

Sister Eckersley loves to plan parties, not because of the work it takes, but because she enjoys seeing people make connections and even enduring friendships at school carnivals or holiday scavenger hunts.

“We’re intergenerational party planners,” she said, explaining that family history creates “welding links” that unite and heal.

“If you have any control over what your great-granddaughters are going to feel and think, it’s right now,” she said, encouraging women to record their stories and facilitate lasting connections with future family members.

“There is something about the lift that comes from family history that can’t be replicated in other ways.”

Sandy Brunt traveled from Vancouver, Washington, to attend Light Keepers with three of her former roommates from Brigham Young University–Hawaii — one from California, one from St. George, Utah, and one from Redmond, Oregon. Brunt came because she wanted help getting started on family history and understanding the available technology.

“We knew we could only handle something short and simple,” she said — and Light Keepers provided accessible guidance.

An attendee raises her hand at Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020.
An attendee raises her hand at Light Keepers, a RootsTech event for Latter-day Saint women at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Feb. 28, 2020. Credit: Cherie Mask

She added that she loved the floral images on the workbook and the event’s “visually joyful” elements.

Attendee Lauren Glazner said she appreciated the encouragement to learn about her ancestors’ talents, as she recently learned that her grandmothers both graduated with bachelor’s degrees from the University of Utah. Although they died when she was young, she feels connected to them because she has also earned a bachelor’s degree and values her education.

Sister Farrer emphasized that the Light Keepers team fasted and prayed for each attendee by name — and they grew to love the women who came to the conference.

Women have an innate, nurturing light, she said. “We keep the light of our family — past, present and future.”