Mormon wards have always been outstanding at taking care of our own. And the LDS Church as a larger institution has some programs that help non-LDS recipients, such as the Humanitarian Aid Fund and several outreach programs that sponsor immunizations, gifts of wheelchairs and eyeglasses, and clean water around the world.
But on the local level, at least in the United States, community service has not typically been a priority for LDS wards. For example, the Mormon Helping Hands program, which started in 1998, is a terrific initiative. Last month, for example, my own ward did several small service projects around Cincinnati. Wearing our bright yellow “Helping Hands” shirts, we painted, cleaned yards, sewed blankets for the Children’s hospital, and did other tasks.
I’m so glad we did this; it’s our second year. The service projects helped individual people, strengthened our ward unity, and built some community good will in the process (which is not something Mormons ever take for granted).
It’s not enough, however. Mormon community service tends to be a series of one-offs: a tornado swoops down, and then so do we, lending support to the victims of a disaster. Or we head to a soup kitchen one day a year to serve people we don’t take the time to get to know . . . and then don’t return until the next year.
There are plenty of individual Mormons who go out and serve in the community in various regular ways according to their time and talents. But rare indeed is the ward in which this is routinely emphasized as a congregation. Our bishoprics remind us from the pulpit that it is our ward’s turn in the rotation to clean the ward building every week for a month; our Relief Society presidencies hand around sign-up sheets saying that we need to feed the missionaries.; our elders quorum presidents tell everyone that a beloved family is moving on Saturday and they need help carrying boxes and furniture. Mormon service in action is a beautiful thing to see.
But these are service opportunities that benefit our own and only our own. We are an insular people.
And we are a busy people, already “cumbered about much serving” with the deep expectations of volunteer hours each week in our ward callings. Being Mormon has never been just a Sunday gig. I know that, and yet I sink a little lower in my pew whenever I visit mainline Protestant churches and see the abiding partnerships that they always seem to have with community service organizations. Those churches are fully enmeshed in the fabric of their communities, warts and all; they are committed to helping over the long haul and getting involved in people’s messy lives.
My husband’s church, for example, hosts the homeless one week of every six in the church building itself, trading off with five other congregations so that these families have lodging, (really yummy homemade) food, child care, and transportation to and from the building. In fact, when the church was redesigned some years ago, one explicit focus was how the kitchen, classrooms, and bathrooms could be reconfigured to accommodate these families each night for a week, over and over again.
The thing that is both beautiful and sad is that it’s many of the same families from rotation to rotation: relationships develop because the church volunteers are in a long-term partnership with these people, but the sadness is there because the same families are still on the streets.
Recently at the Power of One conference a Vineyard pastor in our area shared some videos of the ways their people have been building up our city. Here is one I particularly liked.
Mormons have long been admired for having close-knit congregations that take care of one another. How can we also extend that love to others outside the fold?