Mormon Care for the Poor Will be Accelerated
By Warner Woodworth
Four days ago, on Saturday, December 26, 2009 friends, family, and I reflected on the five year anniversary of the Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004 that devastated millions of people who were injured or lost their homes and family members, as well as killing more than two hundred thousand others. With a band of approximately a hundred Latter-day Saint university students, I had the privilege of serving the survivors in Thailand during the months after the damage hit. Over a five-month period, we served in the hot, humid Khao Lak region of the Pang-Na province of Thailand, where the tsunami had devastated whole villages and left more than 8,000 Thais killed. Our volunteers served to restore the quality of the victims’ lives. Instead of desperation, they gained dignity.
During the past few days, Buddhist monks in orange robes chanted on a Thai beach to remember five years ago when the waves ripped across Asia. An outpouring of aid that followed the tsunami has helped replace homes, schools and impoverished coastal communities decimated by the disaster. But still, after these years, at Saturday’s ceremonies, survivors spoke of deep emotional wounds.
Back in 2005 as we launched our plans, we called our efforts “Wave of Hope,” a contrast to the earlier tsunami waves of destruction, as well as referring to it at times as the Joseph Smith Rescue Brigade. We gave more than 14,000 hours of service to many different projects, laboring with other volunteers from around the world. On beaches we gathered debris for miles, and worked in the ocean with divers to clean up trash from homes, hotels and shops taken out to sea by the tsunami. We were able to clear away many tons of garbage. Other Wave volunteers helped the Thais construct and paint furniture for their homes and play sets for their schools, teaching Thai adults how to use donated power tools.
Most of us worked with the Thais on their house-rebuilding efforts in the villages of Thap Tawan, Laem Pom, and Bang Sak, preparing and pouring foundations, raising walls, installing roofs, applying plaster finish, and painting the completed houses. In all, we helped in the construction of more than 120 houses. Still others worked in the boatyard, applying waterproofing caulk and paint to the newly constructed boats for fishermen who had lost their livelihoods. Additional LDS volunteers taught children English in the schools, as well as to adults who needed to improve their language skills for future tourism jobs.
While some back home saw our efforts as noble and inspiring, others viewed them as a waste of time and energy, an activity that did nothing to help students earn monies to return to college in the fall, nor would the service rendered aid students in getting future paid internships or jobs. We shook such criticisms off, reflecting on prophetic teachings about our moral and social obligations to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).
Whether or not we as Church members have the will and the capability to significantly move beyond our formal Church callings and initiate service to those who suffer, in our own communities or around the globe, has at times been a source of criticism, not only against me as the organizer of such projects, but to my collaborators as well.
So imagine how thrilled I was a few weeks ago to hear confirmed that the Church is expanding its original three-fold mission to add a new fourth one: “to serve the poor and needy.”
Over coming months of 2010, the three key thrusts of past decades will be enlarged. To the ideals to “Proclaim the Gospel,” “Perfect the Saints,” and “Redeem the Dead,” a new purpose will be emphasized that will stress the importance of laboring among “the least of these.”
I always believed that we should work to save the dead, but I also deeply felt we should labor to save the living. Yet in many cases, the response of fellow members appeared to ignore, or at least de-emphasize the poor. Some people’s reaction was to dismiss this idea as secondary, and they countered that the essence of their religious effort ought to fit neatly within the official three-fold missions stated by the Brethren.
Yet our leaders have always advocated we do more to reduce human suffering. I have always had a special love of the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith about seeking the poor. I knew them by heart since they had become a kind of anthem that had guided my life for decades. He boldly declared his ideal of consecration and stewardship thus: “A man (or woman) filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”
Likewise, thundered Lorenzo Snow: “Men and women of wealth, use your riches to give employment to the laborer! Take the idle from the crowded centers of population and place them on the untilled areas that await the hand of industry. Unlock your vaults, unloose your purses, and embark in enterprises that will give work to the unemployed, and relieve the wretchedness that leads to the vice and crime which curse your great cities, and that poison the moral atmosphere around you. Make others happy, and you will be happy yourselves” (Lorenzo Snow).
“The time has come when the talents of the men of business shall be used to benefit the whole people… not for individual benefit alone, nor for individual aggrandizement alone, but for the benefit of the whole people, to uplift the masses, to rescue them from their poverty” (George Q. Cannon).
Taking the initiative as Mormons has always been emphasized: “Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness: For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves “ (D&C 58:27-28).
“We are engaged in a work that God has set his hand to accomplish…to introduce correct principles of every kind—principles of morality, social principles, good political principles… the Lord has called us… to be his co-adjustors and co-laborers” (John Taylor).
In our day, President Thomas S. Monson expressed this doctrine of community outreach and service articulately: “Today, in lands far away . . . there are those who suffer hunger, who know want and are acquainted with poverty. Ours is the opportunity and the sacred privilege to relieve this hunger, to meet this want, to eliminate this poverty.”
Our current prophet is the perfect leader for adding a new thrust to our institutional efforts as a people. He has long been the one admonishing us by precept and example to “visit the fatherless and the widows in their affliction,” to give of our time and energy to minister to the have-nots, in our own community, as well as around the world.
When reviewing reader comments to the Salt Lake Tribune article (December 10, 2009) regarding this new LDS purpose, I felt great sadness at the criticisms heaped upon the Church and its members about serving the poor and needy. There were 172 responses to the story. Some seemed pleased, others surprised, a few simply uninformed, but many were downright critical, even vicious. Do any readers of this blog understand why the attacks about doing good were so negative?
On the other hand, over the past month or so, as I wrote predicting to friends around the globe that this new emphasis was going to soon materialize, I had dozens of reactions cheering the news. One good friend who helped lead the rebuilding efforts in Thailand, said how she rejoiced in the soon-to-be-announced statement. Others from Latin America and Africa reacted with calls of “Long live Zion,” or similar rejoicing.
Email responses to my announcement caused me to further reflect on the tsunami’s impacts–seeing the silent tombs of unidentified bodies in Thailand, still boxed in huge refrigerated shipping containers six months after the 2004 tsunami. I recalled feeling a bit of the anguish survivors must have felt. Last Saturday, December 26, 2009, I watched CNN as hundreds of residents and foreigners returned to the sandy beaches of southern Thailand to remember. A moment of silence was observed as onlookers shed tears of profound sorrow. Later as darkness fell, many lit lanterns which floated up into the night’s sky.
As I watched the ceremonies, not only in Thailand, but Indonesia and Sri Lanka, I felt great joy that our Church is raising the ante about caring for the poor and needy. In a sense, it will be a test for many members. I believe it will be akin to raising the bar for missionary work that occurred a few years ago. We will feel a greater moral obligation to reach out to those in need. One opportunity is already appearing for those who wish to accelerate their service to others in renewed ways.
Today, five years after the tsunami, my associates and I through an organization known as HELP International (Help ELiminate Poverty), are mobilizing another cadre of young college-age LDS volunteers to head to Thailand and expand our services to those in need. If readers know of potential volunteers, please pass the word. Our focus this time won’t be so much on tsunami survivors as it will serve the ongoing poor of Thai people. I anticipate that in 2010 we will send a total of over 150-170 individuals since other teams will go to India, Uganda, El Salvador, Fiji, and elsewhere (learn more at www.help-international.org .)
We will do village development, train families in Square-Foot-Gardening methods, teach in local schools, and train indigenous people in microcredit and microfinance so they may move toward economic self-reliance.
As we wrap up the year 2009, may we reflect on this significant new emphasis in Church policy and practice. Let me conclude with a favorite analysis of Brigham Young as to why some people are in poverty as he called the Saints to action:
“For the lack of opportunity (people) are not able to develop the talents and ability that are within them. This is the condition of the peoples of most of the nations of the earth….Jesus requires, absolutely requires, of us to take these people who have named through baptism, and teach them how to live, and how to become healthy, wealthy, and wise. This is our duty.”