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Mormon feminist, writer and blogger Neylan McBaine was in the LDS Conference Center on Saturday night when the faith's female leaders announced a new church-sponsored refugee-assistance program, "I Was a Stranger."

Like many others, McBaine was delighted to see Mormon women collaborating on a pragmatic program that fits within the mandate given the all-female Relief Society at its founding in 1842 — "to relieve the poor."

As the author of "Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact," McBaine was especially gratified to hear about the aid program since she proposed a similar direction for LDS women last fall.

In a November speech at Logan's Utah State University, the writer outlined the society's purposes, which also included "saving souls."

In the 19th century, she said, Mormon women took those goals seriously.

They established LDS Hospital, the cooperative store, silk manufacturing and grain storage, McBaine said in her speech. Beyond those efforts, they "looked to the spiritual welfare of each other by blessing each other, encouraging virtue within the community, and even honoring the divine potential of women by becoming actively engaged in the global fight for woman suffrage."

In recent decades, however, Mormon women and their leaders have focused most of their energies and speeches on shaping the home environment.

"I have seen very little institutional effort to answer the Relief Society namesake purpose: to administer not just to the widow and the new mother, but to the poor," she said. That role has been "folded into the larger organization of the church, becoming almost exclusively male in its administration."

McBaine proposed a "thought experiment" — that women take over the leadership of the church's massive welfare department.

"The government of the Relief Society now in place, strengthened with similar tenures and benefits as members of the Quorums of the Seventy and with the addition of a vast network of employed and volunteer women and men," she reasoned, "would have primary responsibility for any church effort to 'relieve the poor.' "

When McBaine gave her USU speech, "it seemed like a far-fetched exercise with far-fetched, imagined results," she writes on her current blog. "But on Saturday night, at the general women's session of [General Conference,] that far-fetched vision seemed to take a giant leap toward reality."

No, it is not the fulfillment of all that she imagined, she says, but still a reason to cheer.

"While it might be some time before the Relief Society takes over the ecclesiastical and managerial administration of the church's Welfare Department," McBaine writes,"the spirit of our namesake mandate was stronger than I've ever experienced it in my life."

She sees Mormon women's involvement in the refugee effort as potentially "the beginning of the unfolding of a remarkable vision of what Relief Society and women's authority can truly be."

Peggy Fletcher Stack