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Led to the Savior: How Sister Aburto found healing from both sides of the veil after tragedy

by | Mar. 03, 2021

Editor's note: This article is the cover story of the March/April 2021 issue of  LDS Living magazine.

To the average person, the date of October 15, 1989, might not hold much significance. But for Sister Reyna I. Aburto, this day changed her life forever. And it all started with the moment she chose to reach for the Savior.

Living in San Francisco, California, 26-year-old Reyna had just been through a painful final separation from her first husband and was doing the best she could to provide for herself and for her 3-year-old son, Xavier. Though her days were full and busy, she described it as a time of spiritual laziness—a time when she wasn’t stretching toward the Lord. During that time of sorrow, she experienced feelings of hopelessness, despair, and fear.

That all changed after her mother, who had previously met with a senior missionary couple, invited Reyna to attend church with her. Reyna had been to Catholic mass occasionally as a child, but when she stepped into that meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a stake conference, it was unlike anything she had experienced before.

She described that moment as a wonderful feeling—a feeling of love, hope, and peace—a light that dispelled the darkness that had encompassed her heart. Every single message resonated with her soul, and she knew this was exactly what she wanted in her life. She started to meet with the missionaries and embarked on a journey that would lead her to the Savior, and in turn, give her the opportunity to invite others around the world to reach for Him too.

Years later, when Elder Quentin L. Cook learned that Sister Aburto, who is now the Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, attended stake conference at that time, he realized he was her stake president. When he told her about that connection, gratitude filled her heart.

“For me, when I found out that he was the stake president, I told him, ‘I’m so grateful for everything you did so I could feel the Spirit in that meeting, because that day my life changed.’ I didn’t know that he had been part of that. It had been a miracle for me,” she said in an interview with LDS Living.

Now, as a presidency member of one of the largest women’s organizations in the world—an organization with more than 7.5 million members according to Church News—Sister Aburto knows the impact one church meeting can have.

“You never know who’s going to come for the first time. That person needs to be nurtured, needs to have friends, and needs to have responsibilities,” she said, referencing a teaching from President Gordon B. Hinckley.

In her new book, Reaching for the Savior, Sister Aburto shares experiences in her life that have prompted her to reach for the Savior and times when He has reached for her. She testifies of angels who have guided her to the Lord throughout her life on both sides of the veil.

“The Lord promises that He will send us angels and He does,” she said. “Sometimes I can feel that strength—those words that come to my mouth without even knowing where they come from, that love that comes from heaven and through other people. He sends angels, and I can testify of that, and that’s why I’m here. I’m still here because of all the angels that have supported me.”

An Angel by Her Side 

When Sister Aburto thinks about what led her into that San Francisco stake center, she thinks about her mother’s invitation. She thinks about the caring senior missionary couple, the Bangerters, who visited with her mother. She thinks about her life circumstances that created space for the Savior. And she thinks about angels on the other side of the veil that may have played a role in preparing her heart.

She believes one of those angels is her older brother. In 1972, 9-year-old Reyna and her 10-year-old brother, Noelito, lived in Managua, Nicaragua. Though they were only a year apart in age, she doesn’t recall ever fighting with her brother. Instead, she remembers him holding her hand when they crossed the streets. He was her brother, her protector, and her friend.

Just two days before Christmas Eve that year, Sister Aburto fell asleep in the bed next to her brother’s, already feeling the anticipation of the upcoming holiday. She awoke in the middle of the night to find her legs trapped by a heavy object. She couldn’t move herself, but she felt the earth moving around her. When she heard a woman yelling for help in the distance, she followed suit. That woman turned out to be her mother, who was eventually able to rescue her daughter with the help of their neighbors.

A 6.3-magnitude earthquake had devastated the place Reyna called home. She and her family became part of the 300,000 people displaced by an earthquake that killed 10,000 people. Included in the number of those killed was Noelito, who was brought to the family after he was found in the rubble by a neighbor who pronounced, “He is dead.”

“I was in shock for a long time,” Sister Aburto said. “I think that is actually a protection that we have—that when our mind and our body cannot take something, we are protected.”

Because their home and possessions were destroyed, all she had were the clothes she had worn to bed that night.

“That experience taught me so much about life and about material things, especially because we lost everything we had. Even though I was very young, I learned that we own things, but we never know if we’re going to have them the next day,” she said.

She also learned the importance of family, faith, and the goodness of people. At that young age, she remembers being the recipient of charity (even though at the time she didn’t have a name for it) as she stood in line in the town’s main plaza to receive items donated by members of the community.

She also remembers a neighbor who her family barely knew gifting them a coffin. The family used it to bury Noelito and her baby cousin, who also passed on in the earthquake, together.

“We received so much help from so many people and it felt good,” she said. “I felt protected. I felt loved. I felt cared for.”

And though she received help with temporal things, her spirit still longed to know more. She wondered where her brother was. She questioned if she would ever see him again. Through her Catholic upbringing, she had developed a belief in God, but she didn’t know much about heaven.

A few years later, she started to have a daydream where Noelito would come and knock on their door and pronounce that he was alive and he would stay with her. Years later, after learning about the plan of salvation, that daydream finally made sense to her. She knew Noelito really was alive.

“I honestly believe that my brother has been one of those angels by my side all this time,” she said. “He’s probably the one who made me go to that meetinghouse that day, and the one who has been pushing me to turn to the Savior all along.”

► You may also like: Church releases video series on Sister Aburto's life

Called to His Work 

In April 2017, then-President Dieter F. Uchtdorf announced a new Relief Society General Presidency with Sister Aburto as the Second Counselor.

“I was not expecting the call,” Sister Aburto said. “My first reaction is to always feel inadequate. I think we all have what they call the imposter syndrome. We feel like, ‘I don’t belong here. I don’t deserve this. What am I doing here?’ But then shortly after that feeling came so much peace, and I realized that this is something I would not do by myself. I would have people around me, and most of all, I would have the help of the Lord.”

Sister Aburto recalls that a few days before she was sustained, she talked with Sister Sharon Eubank, who would be called as First Counselor. Both shared with each other that even though they were about to receive massive new callings, they felt peace—a peace that can only come from the Savior, Jesus Christ.

“No matter how crazy things may be and no matter how impossible a task may look, He can give us that peace,” Sister Aburto said. “I can testify that we both felt that peace just a few days before we were sustained, and it’s a testimony that this is the Lord’s work. He really takes us by the hand.”

Another calling that changed the course of Sister Aburto’s life came shortly after her baptism. As a new convert, she served as Sunday School teacher of the Gospel Principles class. Though she worried about her limited knowledge, the branch presidency member who extended the call assured her that people would be there to help.

One day, a man named Carlos Aburto came to her class. The two became friends. However, it wasn’t until three years later that they took interest in each other. Five months after that, the couple was sealed in the Jordan River Utah Temple. They were both in their 30s and Sister Aburto’s son Xavier, who was age 6 at the time, was sealed to them. They later had two more children: Elena and Carlos Enrique.

At the time of her call to the Relief Society General Presidency, Sister Aburto’s youngest son, Carlos Enrique, was serving in the Paris France Mission. He learned of her call the next day due to the time difference and told his mom that the Lord had somehow given him the feeling that something like this could happen.

Meanwhile, her second child and only daughter, Elena, had a more surprising experience when she heard the big news. Just three days prior to her mother’s call, Elena had finished her mission in Modesto, California. She was sitting in the Conference Center next to her grandmother when she heard the name “Reyna I. Aburto” read over the pulpit.

“With Elena coming back from her mission, it was kind of crazy,” Sister Aburto recalled. “I couldn’t tell her what was happening. She was in shock sitting there in the Conference Center.”

“Thru Cloud and Sunshine”

An experience Elena and her mother shared earlier in Elena’s life prepared Sister Aburto to give a special address in general conference. Between high school and her mission, Elena encountered a bad wave of depression. In hopes of helping her daughter, Sister Aburto scoured Church resources for more information, printing out talks and resources from the Church and from Brigham Young University.

“I didn’t read them lightly,” Sister Aburto explained. “I would just read three or four paragraphs a day and ponder about what was said. I truly studied them. I wanted to learn. I wanted to know.”

As she learned about how to support someone with emotional afflictions, she discovered the importance of being there to listen to her daughter. She deepened her understanding of the baptismal covenant as she realized what it means to stand with “those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9), which she believes can sometimes mean listening instead of fixing.

“You need to have sincere conversations and be willing to hear things that sometimes you don’t want to hear, be patient, and just be a good listening ear. And sometimes I forget to do that,” she said, noting that she has to remind herself at times to listen instead of try to find solutions.

And like most aspects of parenting, it takes time to learn.

“We all have good days. We all have bad days. And we just have to keep trying and don’t give up. Keep learning. Keep trying. Keep listening. Keep loving. Keep understanding,” she said.

When she received her second assignment to speak in general conference, Sister Aburto kept finding herself in conversations about topics like depression or anxiety. As she visited with sisters around the world, they would sometimes ask if it was appropriate to discuss these topics in Relief Society.

After pleading for guidance about her talk, she knew she was supposed to speak about mental and emotional afflictions. She also knew that if she was going to encourage conversation on the topic, she needed to lead by example and open doors for conversations in her own family.

Previously, she had avoided talking about her father’s death by suicide in order to cope with her own feelings. But as she did her research, she discovered that talking about suicide can actually help prevent it. She decided to sit down with her children—they did not know the details of their grandfather’s passing—and tell them more about what had happened. They cried together and the conversation strengthened their family bonds.

When Sister Aburto shared in her general conference address that her father had died by suicide, the impact was instantaneous. Immediately, people began talking about her remarks on social media, saying it was “amazing,” “open,” “honest,” and “destigmatizing.” After the session ended, wives of General Authorities approached her and shared how things like this had happened in their family, too, and how this talk would open the dialogue on the difficult subject.

“For the families that have gone through that, so many thoughts come to you. You feel guilty. You would like to go back in time and change this or that, so you can prevent it,” she said. “But the truth is that we cannot change the past. We need to accept that someone made the decision in that state of mind and that God is merciful. He receives them in His arms.”

Now, when people prepare their own stack of papers to learn about mental health, perhaps included in the pile is Sister Aburto’s talk, “Thru Cloud and Sunshine, Lord, Abide with Me!

“I can testify that the talk came from the Lord,” she said. “He is the one who guided me. It was not about me.”

And when it comes to healing from afflictions associated with mental health, she said she hopes her talk guides people to the Lord, because that is where she found healing in her own life.

Connecting with the Other Side 

A few years after her father passed away and his temple work had been completed, Sister Aburto had a dream where she saw her father sharing an inspiring message from a meetinghouse pulpit. She hopes this dream means he has accepted the gospel in the spirit world.

► You may also like: How a dream provided the way for Sister Aburto to be sealed to her parents and feel the Savior’s healing balm

“It’s beautiful to feel that connection with the other side of the veil,” she said. “It’s something that of course we feel in the temple in a very tangible way, but we also feel it in our daily lives. There is life after death. Our family members are somewhere where they have interest in us, and we will be able to see them again, and we will keep progressing even after that. I think it is such a beautiful concept and a beautiful thing to give us strength as we go through hard times in our lives.”

In April 2018, Sister Aburto gave her first general conference address, “With One Accord,” during the Sunday morning session. In the Sunday afternoon session, President Russell M. Nelson announced a temple to be built in Managua, Nicaragua. The spot where Sister Aburto had lost her brother would become a place where people are sealed to their families forever.

“Had President Nelson announced the temple at the beginning of the Sunday morning session, I would have been a mess,” she said. “For me, that was a tender mercy, just the fact that he announced it at the end of everything because I just couldn’t stop crying as I thought about all the blessings that it would bring to my people. I know that a temple blesses not only the members, but also the people that live around that place. It brings light and hope and peace.”

Sister Aburto firmly believes that every knee will bow before Christ as it says in the scriptures (see Romans 14:11, Mosiah 27:31, and Doctrine and Covenants 88:104), and plans to teach her ancestors the gospel on the other side—if they have not already accepted it.

“Maybe they are the ones who helped things happen so that I would accept the gospel. Instead of us telling them what to do, they may already know,” she said.

Different but United

This year will mark the beginning of the fourth year Sister Aburto has served alongside President Jean B. Bingham and Sister Sharon Eubank. Each member of the Relief Society General Presidency represents a wide variety of experiences. To highlight just a few ways they’re unique: President Bingham became a foster parent after years of infertility; Sister Eubank has decades of experience working with the Church’s humanitarian programs, including in her current role as director of Latter-day Saint Charities—and she relates to the single sisters in the Church; and Sister Aburto has background as a Spanish-speaking convert to the Church and she also knows the pains of divorce.

“Sometimes we think that we need to be alike,” Sister Aburto said. “And of course, we need to be in alignment with the Lord’s will. We need to have similar objectives in life, but we need to realize those differences really are what make us strong.”

The presidency often jokes that even their hair colors are different. But Sister Aburto points out that what makes the Church work is that every person is unique and so are the offerings they bring to the table.

“I honestly believe that we misunderstand somehow the consecration covenant that we make in the temple,” she said. “Sometimes we think that it only applies to when we are spending time on a calling, and if we don’t have a calling then we’re not consecrating. But I think that real consecration implies what we do with our life—what we do with our body, what we do with our time, what we do with our energy.”

Sister Aburto pointed out that living the law of consecration can be manifested in the good things we do in our lives.

If we are doing things that are good, like working to provide for ourselves and provide for loved ones, if we are going to school trying to acquire more knowledge and abilities, if we are helping other people, if we are reading the scriptures, if we are praying, fasting, and strengthening our faith and helping others to strengthen theirs, we are consecrating our lives.

I think that if each woman in the Church would truly understand that—and I don’t think I totally understand it, I’m still in the process—we will see ourselves differently. We will see our connection with God differently. And we will be able to enjoy it more and really focus on building the kingdom of God everywhere and on preparing the earth for the Second Coming of the Lord.

Right after her call to the Relief Society General Presidency, Sister Aburto prayed to feel love for the sisters and for everyone in the Church. That prayer has been answered tenfold. She finds herself feeling love when she goes on a trip, when she sees people on the street, and she even says she has found new friends by taking the train from Orem to Salt Lake City.

“Before the pandemic, I would ride the train to Salt Lake every time I had to go there,” she said. “And I would meet people on the train and have conversations with them, and so many of them have become my friends. We keep in touch. And I met them on the train!”

And though the pandemic has changed how she meets with Saints around the world, she said that in a sense, virtual meetings can actually be more intimate.

“When you go to a big meetinghouse room, you have people all the way to the back and you cannot really see their faces,” she said. “This is more personal, in a way. Of course, it’s impersonal because we cannot hug and give each other a kiss on the cheek, but it’s personal in a different way.”

Every time she interacts with sisters across the Church, Sister Aburto encourages them to think about Relief Society as more than just a room in a building or more than just an hour spent with sisters every two weeks. Sisters are always a part of Relief Society.

“We all fit and we are all needed,” she said. “And we need to have this trust in the Lord that He organized this organization. It will help us in knowing who we are and in knowing what we are supposed to do to keep our covenants or prepare us to make covenants. It will help us in being more intentional about doing good around the world. Every woman is important. Every woman is a daughter of God. We just need to believe that and be empowered by that knowledge.”

Photos of Sister Aburto by Jed Wells. Photos from Sister Aburto's early life courtesy of Sister Aburto. Presidency Photo by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. 

Image titleIn her characteristic warm, relatable style, Sister Reyna I. Aburto, Second Counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, invites us to consider the different ways we can reach out for the Savior’s help and guidance. Just as His arm is ever outstretched to us, we can reach back to Him as we trust in His promises, take His name upon us, love as He loves, and make other simple but significant choices to follow Him. Reaching for the Savior is available now at Deseret Book stores and at DeseretBook.com.


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Lindsey Williams

Lindsey Williams joined the LDS Living team with a passion to find the stories that matter most. Previous stops in her career include BYU-Pathway Worldwide, the Special Projects Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Utah Valley Magazine. When she's not searching for stories to write, the Colorado Springs native is most likely on a hiking trail. Follow her on Twitter with the handle @lindsey5brooke.

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