SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon women and girls around the world rallied Monday to accept the invitation from their leaders to help refugees in their local communities in a new effort dubbed "I Was a Stranger."
Since the effort was announced Saturday night, BYU-Idaho senior Kayla Rivera hasn't been able to get information fast enough. The 21-year-old English major immediately scrolled through a new LDS Church website launched Monday morning, iwasastranger.lds.org, and was excited to find a need she can fill — refugees coming to America who need to learn English as a second language.
Rivera turned to Twitter to ask, "Anyone know of ESL places online or in Idaho?"
She and tens of thousands of others found additional encouragement Monday in the form of a new letter issued by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that explained the relief effort to local church leaders around the world.
"'I Was a Stranger' gives sisters a way to serve as individuals, in families and in organizations and to offer friendship, mentoring and other Christ-like service to the refugees in our midst," said the letter, signed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.
A Mormon scholar said the new effort matches the Christian and maternal, nurturing impulses of LDS women with an international need.
"There has been a groundswell for helping refugees building for a while among Mormon women," said Andrea Radke-Moss, a professor of history at BYU-Idaho. "I believe Mormon women feel particularly called to help when they see images of women and children in need. This is what Relief Society should be, bringing help and succor to the poor and needy.
"It gives me chills, really."
The women serving as the faith's general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations also sent a letter Monday to be distributed in meetings of their organizations around the world.
"The relief effort 'I Was a Stranger' focuses on serving refugees in our local neighborhoods and communities," said the letter, signed by Sister Linda K. Burton, general president of the Relief Society; Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, general president of the Young Women; and Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, general president of the Primary.
Sister Burton announced the relief effort Saturday night at the General Women's Session that began the church's 185th Annual General Conference, which resumes on Saturday.
She said "I Was a Stranger" was organized as the women in the general presidencies considered the First Presidency's October 2015 letter that invited church members to participate in local refugee relief projects, where practical.
"There are more than 60 million refugees, including forcibly displaced people, worldwide," Sister Burton said. "Half of those are children. These individuals have undergone tremendous difficulties and are starting over in different countries and cultures. What they need is a friend and an ally to help them adjust to their new home, a person who can help them learn the language, understand the systems and feel connected."
"Honestly," said Rivera, who watched the session at the BYU-Idaho Center, "it took my breath away for a moment."
On the way home that night, she and her roommates talked about ways they could help. On Sunday, they began to researched how they might engage. The new website provided her a mission to fulfill.
The site says: "We each have the invitation as women and young women to open our eyes and our hearts to see those among us who may feel alone, afraid or uncertain so that we are no longer strangers."
Sister Burton talked about meeting refugee women last summer and learning their stories. “I have wondered many times since meeting these wonderful women, 'What if their story were my story?'"
A video shown during the session made it clear that their story has been the Mormon story. "When We Were Strangers" depicted the time 7,000 Mormons became refugees forced from Missouri. In the winter of 1839, the residents of Quincy, Illinois, welcomed the strangers crossing the river from Missouri and generously provided life-saving relief.
"I loved that they used that example because the similarities are so clear," Radke-Moss said. "When the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric was building up last year, a few of us on campus were posting about Quincy. Some of the rhetoric is that we can't accept so many, that the financial and geographical burdens will overwhelm us. But in 1839, the Mormon refugees increased Quincy's population by one-third, but the people of Quincy helped willingly and lovingly."
Included with the First Presidency letter was a page of guidelines instructing local leaders that the intent of the relief effort is to help church members "be more involved in ongoing, one-on-one ministering efforts."
In their letter Monday, the church's women leaders said "no sister is obligated and no one should serve at the expense of her family and other responsibilities," but they encouraged women who desire to help to consider finding trusted organizations in their area to support.
Women like Rivera trying to match their skills to a need can use iwasastranger.lds.org and justserve.org. Additionally, those in the United States can call 2-1-1 to learn about service opportunities. Those outside the United States can contact their area welfare manager to identify trusted organizations they can help in their community.