orig_orig_helpinghands_23Dec09Mormon 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?

 

26 Comments

  1. Jana, you may be pleased to know that there are indeed efforts underway to increase Latter-day Saint charitable activities within local communities. In the Bay Area of California, for example, members of the church have been encouraged to sign-up and participate in helping others via an initiative called JustServe.org. The site is intended to draw participation from a broad range of religious and community organizations to match willing volunteers with the needs of the area.

    While the church periodically emphasizes a particular date for entire congregations to mobilize to clean up a park or a beach, it also regularly encourages individual and family participation in recurring activities, which include such things as feeding the poor and reading to children. I would place these latter activities under the heading of people being “anxiously engaged in a good cause, [doing] many things of their own free will, and [bringing] to pass much righteousness,” (D&C 58:27) without a particular set date or monumental congregational project to govern whether or not to take time out of one’s busy life to serve side-by-side with others in the community for causes of mutual interest to all of our Father’s children.

    I’d imagine the effort will expand as lessons are learned and the kinks are worked out from wherever this is initially being tried.

  2. Hi Jana:
    You bring up an interesting topic, which we have recently been thinking about at church. If its any consolation, my (Presbyterian) congregation struggles with this too: we devote a noticeable percent of our church budget to a lot of community and international charities, and a number of members volunteer in the community at near heroic levels. But, we know that’s not enough: God is calling us to be personally engaged as a Christian community with the people we are helping. And, its much harder to get the congregation to work on a service project. But, when we do, this helps us present a better witness, makes us healthier as congregations, plus it grows our individual faith in ways that being alone doesn’t. You talked about this in ‘Flunking Sainthood’, observing practicing the spiritual disciplines with others or as a group, is much more valuable than doing them all by yourself. I think the same is very true with Charity.

    Just an idea to do what you’re suggesting, is that LDS Wards might inquire about getting involved with the multi-church activities that are likely already happening in your community. In my own small town, a range of churches (Protestants of various traditions, and Catholic) , will from time-to-time band-together for ongoing service projects such as manning a kitchen for the homeless, or raising money for international hunger relief. I remember discussions both in my church, and with secular non-profits I have been involved with, the gist of which ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could get the Mormon’s involved with this!’, but the response has always seemed to be ‘we do our own thing’. I don’t know why that is, but I know it contributes to some hurt-feelings amongst other Christians that the LDS as an institution doesn’t want to have anything to do with us. I think that getting involved with other Christians who are try to serve many of the same mission causes are you are, would both strengthen the endeavor, as well as be an excellent way to reduce distrust, and past hostility.

    • Jeff, I’m gratified to hear that the ecumenical community where you live seems not just open to, but desirous of attracting LDS congregations to collaborate with them in their charitable endeavors. Unfortunately I have also lived through the other side of that equation when I lived in Southern California several years ago. There was a time when we regularly participated with several denominations in a rotation at a local soup kitchen. And then out of nowhere we were disinvited from any future participation because the organizers of the charitable effort (according to my best recollection) decided that Mormons weren’t really Christians and that permitting them to be part of the charitable effort inappropriately validated the perception that they might really be Christians after all.

      I’m sure every part of the country has its own dynamics for this sort of thing, but it would be nice if everyone could truly rally behind the common good and set aside their petty denominational differences when it comes to our neighbors in need.

      • Hi Tom:
        I’d like to be able to tell you that enlightened ecumenism was at work: however, in the cases I was thinking of, we just were looking for more help, and the size and organizational abilities of the LDS churches here could make a big positive impact on any project.

        I am very disappointed to hear about your experience at the food bank, and I can see that would be very hurtful and insulting. Yes, you are entirely right: we do need to put aside our differences to focus on our shared mission of helping others in need. Squabbling doesn’t do anything to build God’s kingdom. Feeding people does.

  3. Simple.
    Easy.
    Repeatable.
    Reduce it to the ridiculous.
    Can I stand up?
    Yes…
    Can I walk to the neighbor next door or a mile away?
    Why don’t I?
    I am afraid.
    I am busy.
    I don’t want to meddle.
    Will every project needed to be done in a city/nation ever be headquartered on one Web site…? So that all can be efficiently organized into a cohesive joint effort?

    YES…
    1st Step…
    Build the website …. that will list everything being done… and the methods…
    then start with breaking it into categories….
    and cities and neighborhoods and then
    ENLIST the willing…
    Perfect the process… and then that will
    Enlist everyone…
    then in 5 to 500 years..
    Peace will prevail … Everywhere…

  4. “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?”

    I hope the growth of our missionary program will compel us to start answering that question. When I was a missionary we knocked doors — we were socially awkward and mostly annoyed people — and then did the occasional service project.

    Just think: if our missionaries went out into the communities and focused first on serving, then teaching when opportunities came up. We’d change communities and also shape an entire generation of returned missionaries to serve in the church, instead of focusing on meetings and quotas. People would stop seeing us as an awkward nuisance. I can’t wait for that day.

    • For what it’s worth, we also “did the occasional service project” during my mission in the late 80′s. In recent years, however, service has been a much more prominent aspect of missionary work. Ask any missionary you encounter and they’ll be able to tell you about their service in addition to their teaching.

    • I get irritated with the whole “ask the missionaries” thing within the church. I go out with them 10-12 hours a week, every week, and I find myself more irritated by the week. Not by them, but by the work that’s poured on them. “Hey Elders, we need you to go visit Br. X.” That’s great, but might I ask why ‘you’ don’t go visit him? Or why his relative, who is in the ward, doesn’t go visit him? Fact of the matter is, as a whole, our congregations are lazy, and it’s just a terrible circle when it comes to doing anything else.

  5. Of course, you can’t know what service is done in the name of Christianity if the very definition of that service limits the believer from tooting his own horn about it. PTA/PTO boards, HOA and association committees, school and education panels, hospice and nursing home visits, Scouting leaders giving up weekends, vacation time and personal resources, genealogy work, employment services, food farms, tithes and offerings, educational funds, baked goods brought to neighbors, meals brought to shut ins, leaves raked, trash cans brought in… I could go on and on with how many ways the average Latter-day Saint tries to serve his fellow man all of the time. These acts of service happen every day, in countless and to countless people, members or not.

    I think you will find more examples of quiet, effective service if you are not looking for colored t-shirts and media attention. The Saints are doing more than most with less than most, and asking more for the sake of acknowledgment and publicity would negate the motive behind the service in the first place.

    Perhaps the question should be instead: why do most people shrink from service?

  6. Gabrielle, you raise a point that I have often struggled with. Sometimes while discussing charity vs government with some of my more liberal-minded friends, I am challenged about what I am personally doing to help others. And it is uncomfortable. Not because I feel convicted by failure to walk the walk, but rather because it is generally not considered appropriate to toot one’s horn about such things. I can always do better. So can those around us. I suppose there is a place for the more public showings of charitable endeavors alongside the anonymous acts which will never be known except between God and the giver.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Out here in eastern Washington our LDS stake has a number of community service projects each year, including providing labor to rehabilitate public parks and recreation facilities, and an annual drive to provide boxed kits of nonperishable food to the Salvation Army food bank. Some families donated two and three boxes each. Our project is the main support to their program. We are going to be involved in the Samaritan’s Purse Christmas Child program this year. We are funding a community Messiah sing-along performance by a local community amateur performing choir in another denomination’s chapel.

    We have been involved in Habitat for Humanity building projects, and when a Boy Scout organizes a service project as part of the Eagle Scout requirements, the work is being done by members of his congregation. The job hunting service we run for church members is also available to people who are not members. In areas of higher concentrations of LDS, the Deseret Industries stores provide inexpensive second hand goods as well as donated new clothing, and provide jobs and job training to people of any faith.

    When we fast for one day each month, and donate the value of the food money saved to care for the needy, there is a very direct connection between personal sacrifice and help.

    When Mormons donate labor on farms to grow wheat that is used to make bread that is given to needy families through the Bishop’s Storehouse, while it may be “internal” to the membership of the Church, it is filling a need that is real and would otherwise fall to the larger community to address. It is hardly “selfish”. When I assist my adult son when he is unemployed, it is no less charitable than if I had done it for a stranger, and it helps society just as much either way. I don’t get a tax deduction for it, and am not legally compelled to help him, but I do it out of love, as a free gift.

    I don’t think that the service that Mormons give as individuals is negligible either. When you see a business donating goods or services or cash, you will find that many of the owners who made those gifts are members of various denominations in their community, including Mormons.

    Jana, I know from your blog that you are actively involved in many organizations that address people’s needs. I think if you come across a need that can best be addressed by tapping into the organized resources of your LDS ward or stake, you will get a positive hearing from your Ward Council, though whether it is something within the time and other resources of your ward will have to be determined by them.

  8. I’ve looking into a lot of the ways that Ginghamsburg UMC near Dayton has grown their church. Listened to a fair number of things from Mike Slaughter. I took a plan to ward leadership for getting into a community school that’s less than 1/4 mile from our church. Had a solid plan for work in the school, one that probably could have yielded numerous new families to the ward. My plan was shot down. But why was it shot down? Because we do a terrible job at the things we’ve been commanded to do. You know, things like home teaching, visit teaching, visiting inactive members, doing work with the missionaries, and any number of other things. We want to do more work in the community (which I do) we need to stop sucking at the tasks that we’ve been commanded to do. And we need to stop throwing work on the full-time missionaries because we’re too lazy to get off our butts and do anything. Why don’t we do work in the community? Because we’re generally too lazy to do work within our own wards.

  9. Our ward in Pennsylvania provides a meal every month at a local women’s shelter. We are on our second year. Our bishop decided on the opportunity so we could serve the community as a ward family. We’ve served and donated to this shelter as a congregation for more than 15 years. Some leaders get it!

  10. Really? Blog of flunking sainthood? Service is just not about whole wards doing the community all volunteer all the time. We help others just as well as members every weekend as well. My ward alone spends fast weekend cutting up and grinding wild pig that was hunted by members, and distributing to the needy who come to us and not to just our ward. We spend another around the church grounds itself since the Stake cut back on outside maintenance. We spend another on a families like seniors who need help with their yard or home cleaning or repair maintenance. Not to mention service for community grave yard and hospital, or other community events.

    There are millions of Americans now out of work who don’t lift a finger in doing any volunteer work. Blogger needs to quit chastising those who dedicate much of their personal time often sacrificing family to do service projects. This really irritates me on the presumption we don;t do enough. These elders, and sisters have to also work for a living to provide for their families. This is just asinine assertion from a poor reporting generalization pov. We don’t need the yellow shirts around Big isle Hawaii. The communities know our reputation to help when they call. The blogger should get out in the field more often and look around outside of Utah.

    If Jana Riess would like a field trip on Big island. Then I will be glad to welcome with much aloha the workload we share here.

    • thank you thank you ! it is so nice to read something positive for once. Jana should leave her home once in a while and spend more time serving and loving her neighbor then blogging. As part of the Young Women’s group in my ward we focus on attending to each others and our neighbors needs. Believe me it is NOT a once a year thing. Never has been and I grew up in the church!

        • Jana Riess

          Thanks, Tom, and thank you to everyone who has chimed in both here and on Facebook. I’m encouraged to hear other wards’ stories of service. And I’m sure there is more that all of us could be doing, myself included, while bearing in mind the injunction that we not run faster than we have strength.

          “Holy envy” is a wonderful term for how I feel about other religions’ more sustained and systematic approach to community service. One of the commenters on FB noted that her ward is part of a pilot program in the LDS Church called Just Serve. She writes:

          “Do you guys have justserve.org for your area? We have that here and service out in the community is pretty constant now. Relationships are being built between the LDS community and several local services. It’s pretty awesome. I think we were the pilot area, and I am curious to know if this is expanding to other areas. . . it has been promoted in all of the stakes in Northern Colorado. We have had trainings about it, and are being reminded of it pretty consistently. It works wonderfully. It is very easy to sign on, find needs, and fill them. There are still some glitches, but they are being fixed. If the website doesn’t work, then there are phone numbers for contact. There is nothing on the justserve website that is linked to the church. That is nice. It is not just for members (volunteers). It is for anyone (love that!) that wants to find places to volunteer.”

          It’s great to know that the Church is testing this out as a program, and training members more intentionally on how to serve in their communities.

          • Jana Riess

            I should have added that from the website, it looks like the Just Serve program has been tested in San Jose, CA; Plano, TX; and Boulder, CO. There may be more areas/cities that just aren’t listed on the website.

          • Jana, with regard to your FB friend’s comments on JustServe.org, I’ve experienced a few hiccups in the site as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were to learn that its creators moved on afterward to help with the Obamacare website. (The last thing I signed up for never actually let me sign up. I just had to show up anyway on the appropriate date and time and hope they could use me.)

            It has indeed been actively promoted in our stake, including special instruction on a 5th Sunday combined Priesthood/Relief Society Meeting. There was a specific month earlier in the year where everyone was asked to simply sign up for SOMETHING over the course of the month rather than being herded into any particular project.

            I wouldn’t say that the promotion has been sustained. It’s been more along the lines of what I would consider the typical ebb and flow of an LDS program, where there’s a major emphasis initially, a certain measure of short-term follow-up, and then it somewhat disappears into the recesses of people’s minds until the next re-emphasis.

            JustServe.org did initally have a hyperlink to LDS.org, but I think the folks tinkering with the site design responded to concerns about it being perceived as a thinly veiled proselytizing tool and simply put a line of text at the bottom acknowledging the church’s sponsorship without a hyperlink.

            My primary difficulty is that most of the activities seem to take place during weekday work hours. (Of course, you can’t get people to restrict their eating to Saturdays!) I remember one activity which was posted for a Sunday, which would not only have been incompatible with worship services but would also not have been a typical Sunday-type activity for Latter-day Saints. I figured since the site is open to all, the hope/expectation was that non-LDS might be interested in signing up.

  11. Howdy! This article could not be written any better!
    Looking at this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I most certainly will send this information to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a very good read. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Very good article. It really torques me off that “Christian” churches exclude LDS because of ther bigotry (non Christian behavior at its finest). My ward and stake do nothing of service on a community level. It is a small town where lots of volunteer work is desperately needed. The other religious denominations are not much better. As for me and my family we volunteer when ever we can where ever there is a need.
    Two Sunday’s ago we were getting ready for church. It was a cold rainy day. A new single mother neighbor was trying to put up horse fencing all by herself. We put on work clothes, missed church, and helped our neighbor. She had to get the fence up as her horses were in another area that was not good for them. Not community service but Christian service non the less.

  13. Saints Insular? One-off? Far too many times, the answer is “yes”.

    However, giving focus to the issue, on-going community involvement, not past behavior, needs to be the foremost. Here’s an outside the box idea: neighbor with knee replacement was told he had to walk each day. His mind’s eye vision: a 3-gal bucket for one hand, a debris grabber for the other. He walks a three mile loop….his adopt-a-street idea has been picked up by others. His “exercise” gives him visits and conversation with his neighbors. Issues get discussed. The discussions lead to solutions. What a novel idea. The Saints can be inventive, practical, and involved in the community

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