For the last several months, members and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have navigated the challenging task of creating a Sabbath-day worship experience for children in the home, as well as resuming Primary activities in accordance with local COVID-19 guidelines and regulations.
On March 12, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced the immediate suspension of all Church gatherings in response to the spread of the coronavirus. Bishops authorized appropriate priesthood holders to perform the sacrament ordinance in their homes and the homes of others, and members worldwide made the adjustment to a fully home-centered Sunday worship experience.
Two months later, the First Presidency authorized the return to Church meetings and activities “on a limited basis using a careful, phased approach.” Area Presidencies looked to local regulations and worked with their assigned members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presidency of the Seventy in deciding when and how to begin Church gatherings.
The letter from the First Presidency outlined several guidelines and principles for resuming meetings and activities, including guidelines for Primary leaders to “determine whether to have nursery and some younger Primary classes. They may also determine whether to hold both singing time and classes.”
Gospel learning in the home
Gospel learning and testimony building has not stopped for Primary children, despite the ongoing restrictions on Primary meetings. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Primary general presidency has learned more of the depth of the resilience and faith of children.
“These children have come to earth so prepared. They are noble, they’re extraordinary, and they know they have a work to do and they want to get to work,” said President Joy D. Jones, Primary general president.
She said she marvels at “how young our children understand doctrine, and how they can articulate what it is like to feel the Spirit. They explain that they want to follow Jesus Christ just like all the rest of us.”
Recently, while speaking with two children from West Africa, one who had recently been baptized and her younger sister, Sister Lisa L. Harkness, first counselor in the Primary general presidency, asked the younger sister why she was looking forward to baptism.
“Without even missing a beat, the little girl said, ‘Well, because I want to receive the Holy Ghost!’ I thought, ‘What a powerful lesson she just taught me,’” Sister Harkness said.
The Primary general presidency expressed their hope that families with children will create a simple at-home Primary experience, in conjunction with the family’s weekly “Come, Follow Me” lesson. This can include a short singing time using the suggested music section in the back of the “Come, Follow Me” manual, giving a short talk, or reciting an Article of Faith or scripture.
“We hope that families realize that singing Primary songs and hymns in the home is such a fast and sure way to bring the spirit into your home. The Spirit testifies of truth as the words are sung. Children often feel it deeply in their hearts, and they remember that feeling,” President Jones said. “That’s what we want to create for children. We want them to have experiences feeling and responding to the Spirit. Primary songs and hymns are remembered and cherished long after children learn and sing them in Primary.”
She continued, “What a great time this is to focus on using music in our homes. Along with feeling the Spirit, it brings peace and comfort and a feeling that all is right with the world. What a blessing and benefit singing can be in this challenging pandemic season.”
Sister Harkness added that teaching the gospel to children is often as simple as “bearing your testimony and singing a song.”
“Children need and want their parents’ attention and love, and they want to be taught in simple and loving ways,” she said. “The memories they develop during this COVID time will carry with them throughout the rest of their life. More time at home, more time with family, more time with dad, more time with mom, this is what they will remember.”
Along with gospel learning, the Primary general presidency expressed a hope that parents will take the opportunity to continue preparing their children for baptism, preparing them to receive the priesthood and preparing them for temple service.
“Two of my grandchildren were baptized during the pandemic. Even though their baptisms were a little bit different, they were beautiful because the ordinances were performed and the Spirit was present.” President Jones said.
Sister Harkness said one of the greatest blessings that the pandemic has brought is the opportunity to learn what it “really means to be home-centered, to live the gospel in our homes, and to simplify things in such a way that we focus on that which is most important: our covenants, hearing the voice of the Lord, reading His word, listening to His prophet.”
From dispensation to dispensation, the most important things have not changed, she said, adding: “Ours is the last and the fullest dispensation, and all covenant people throughout time have focused on these same simple things: Loving God, living the Gospel in the home, and keeping our covenants.”
Adapted Primary meetings and activities
The virtual experiences that some wards and branches are creating for Primary children can be done on a ward or branch basis, based on what leaders decide is appropriate and right for their members.
“(Primary leaders are) involving the children in some miraculous ways. Now, I know that it is a little different everywhere. I just wish I could hug every single Primary leader and teacher and music leader who has been so prayerful and so mindful of these precious children,” President Jones said. “We’re deeply grateful for their loving efforts to support home and family as they seek heavenly guidance in ministering to the children in their units.”
President Jones said she he hopes Primary children will remember “that Heavenly Father and Jesus love them, that they are not forgotten, and that Primary has not gone away.”
In Lehi, Utah, the Allfrey family has been doing online Primary as a family with their cousins.
“We rotate weeks having the mothers teach a quick lesson with a song or two,” said Christy Allfrey. “We have loved having time to giggle, learn more about Jesus, and catch up each week with some of the faces we love most.”
The Primary leaders in the Bocaue Ward in Valenzuela, Philippines created an incentive plan for the Primary children to memorize the 13 Articles of Faith in lieu of traditional Primary meetings at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, as the local regulations made it impossible to gather. The children sent videos of them reciting each article of faith to leaders, with the help of their parents.
“Because of this, we came up with the idea of having a Primary devotional the following month,” said Ethel Baltazar, member of the Bocaue Ward. “Most of our ward members don’t have a strong internet connection so it was difficult for them to join virtual meetings, but because of (Facebook) messenger’s free data they could easily send their videos for the pre-recorded virtual devotional.”
When Susan Otterstrom, a Primary chorister in Blackfoot, Idaho, realized that Church meetings had been suspended, she decided that the Primary children still needed a connection with both the ward and singing.
“She decided she would do a singing time video,” said her husband, Rick Otterstrom. “I have a little experience editing video, so we decided to give it a try.”
Susan Otterstrom chooses the songs she feels will be best for the children that week, records herself singing them, and then posts the video to the ward social media page. Some of the videos have involved road trips for different locations, green screen experiments and guest participants.
Some wards have chosen to hold Primary meetings using the Zoom technology. The East Pasadena and Pasadena wards in the Pasadena California Stake have held 20-minute Primary meetings each Sunday over Zoom, alternating each week between singing time and a lesson or game.
“I deliver candy to the winners that week. We also still do a spotlight child every week and the kids love it,” said Diane Riveros, a Primary leader in the Pasadena ward.
In some areas though, where limited internet connections or access to devices prevents Primary children and their leaders from connecting virtually, Primary leaders have found other creative ways to reach out and continue teaching children, explained Sister Cristina Franco, second counselor in the Primary general presidency.
“In Peru, one Primary president decided she would go to each of her Primary children’s homes to teach them a short lesson and sing song with them through a window to make it COVID safe,” Sister Franco said. “I know that distances are great in south America and that not everyone can jump into a car to get to different places, but where there’s a will there’s a way.”
She expressed her gratitude for the many ways dedicated teachers are reaching out to meet the needs of children. “They really touched my heart,” she said.
In the Conway 2nd Ward of the North Little Rock Arkansas Stake, ward Primary leaders have delivered letters from the Primary presidency, bracelets, candy and bookmarks to the Primary children.
“In the letter, we let our kids know… that our families can be together forever and we can talk to our Father in Heaven and ask for help about anything. He is always there,” said Monica Dixon, a Primary leader in the ward.
One ward in Gilbert, Arizona, has created a ward Primary Instagram account. Each week, they post a message from various adult leaders, like teachers, activity leaders, bishopric members or members of the stake Primary presidency. Other posts on the Instagram page include children giving talks and content from music leaders.
“My daughter is doing at-home MTC and she did the adult message one week, gave a tour of at-home MTC and bore her testimony in the language she’s learning, French,” said Meredith Simpson, a ward Primary leader.
In the Sierra Vista 4th Ward in the Sierra Vista Arizona Stake, Primary leaders put together a video for their Primary program, and held a “drive-in movie” style ward party in the Church parking lot to watch the video. The bishopric rented a radio station for ward members all to tune into to listen, and the Relief Society and Primary helped put together goody bags for the different cars, all with pre-packaged goodies.
The Bel Aire Ward in the Derby Kansas Stake has a combined Primary and nursery of about 100 children. Jenifer Horner, the ward Primary president, and other ward Primary leaders wanted to reach out to the children to let them know they were loved and missed.
They’ve held activities for the children, like a socially-distanced carnival or a drive-by ice cream activity in the Church parking lot. Children who could not attend were delivered goody bags and treats from the activity.
“Our purpose was to reach out to the children, whether they could attend or not, and make sure they knew the primary loved and missed them,” Horner said. “With each activity, we strived to add a spiritual element but mostly an opportunity to get out of the house and safely be a child and do fun activities.”
She added, “We are here to support them and share Christ’s love for each of them, even though it must happen from a distance.”