Caught in a Casserole


In serving others, are we giving what we want to give—or what is needed?
True generosity requires … imagination—the capacity to see people in all their perplexities and needs, and to know how to expend ourselves effectively for them.—I. A. R. Wylie

A family of Vietnamese refugees moved to the United States not long ago. They had left everything—family, friends, home, professions, savings—and were suddenly thrust into a new culture in which nothing was familiar and everything was frightening.

Fortunately, they had moved into a community where the neighbors rallied around them. They offered various jobs to the father. They took steaming pies and casseroles to the door. Then they went home feeling content with the wonderful welcome they had given this new family.

And it was a wonderful welcome—if you’re from Iowa moving to Oregon, or from Texas moving to Maine. But despite their good intentions, the neighbors had forgotten to take the first step of service: to determine exactly what was needed.

A highly educated professional in his home country, the father was astonished to be offered menial work that would have been greatly insulting in Vietnam. And while the food may have won ribbons at a county fair, it was unfamiliar and even distasteful to these neighbors from a culture in which rice is the dietary staple. They appreciated the thought, but how much easier might their transition have been had their neighbors instead offered to make phone calls for them, or to baby-sit, or to take them to the store to help them find the things they needed and desired.

In trying to render compassionate service, I have often found myself “caught in a casserole,” so to speak. I have been guilty of giving what I want to give, instead of what would be most appreciated. If only I had asked more questions of those in need, I might have been able to serve them better. When we neglect to assess our fellowman’s real needs, we not only fail him, we fail ourselves and spin our wheels, expending energy we could channel into deeds that make a real difference.

Christ taught that when we respond to the specific needs of those around us, “ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.) He enumerates the various acts of kindness that perfectly fit certain needs: “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” (Matt. 25:35–36.)

Alma, too, admonishes us to serve in the specific ways that are needed. “If ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.” (Alma 34:28.)

When we impart of our substance, does that mean only our material substance? Can we not also impart of our wisdom, our time, our humor, our experiences?

How many widowers would love to be invited along on a camp-out? What pressured neighbor wouldn’t welcome our offer to run some errands? Often, the best helping hand is a foot, and a few kind words the best healing balm.

Sometimes what people need is to give service to others, rather than to receive it. One brother found that his health began to deteriorate after he retired. “I think I need to feel needed,” he whispered to me. He wanted to know that his life mattered to those around him. Instead of needing somebody to do his yard work, he needed to do theirs.

Oftentimes, we don’t ask the questions that will help us assess needs because we fear rejection. We don’t want to offend by intruding in a situation that is none of our business. Yet sincere expressions of concern are rarely seen as other than the loving gestures that they are. And practice proves that “perfect love casteth out fear.” (1 Jn. 4:18.)

How could someone be offended by such offers as “If I called you tonight, would you feel like talking?” or “How about if I watch the kids this Saturday so you can get things done or just get away?” Such questions ring with real caring, and their sincerity is easy to accept. How different these offers sound from “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

Sometimes our souls are willing but our schedules are tight, and time—the greatest gift—becomes the most expensive commodity. Busy life-styles don’t always permit us to drop everything to soothe an aching soul. Often we have to sacrifice other things to make time. But such adjustments are essential if we are to follow Christ and love one another as He has loved us.

I recall the story of a young girl named Rebecca. She had spent the afternoon playing dolls with her friend Kimmie. Soon Rebecca’s mother came to pick her up, but Rebecca stayed in Kimmie’s room, where the two of them were crying over Kimmie’s broken doll. Repeatedly, Rebecca’s mother asked her to put on her jacket and come along. Finally the mother walked into the bedroom and said, “If Kimmie’s doll is broken, there’s nothing you can do to help.”

Rebecca looked up at her mother and said in all innocence, “Yes, there is; I’m helping her cry.”

This child was learning to bear another’s burdens. She was doing just as Alma had taught at the waters of Mormon when he identified Saints as those willing to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:9.)

One of the difficult, yet essential, lessons of our own adversity is that we discover how to comfort others. When my father died, I needed to talk about him. How grateful I am to those who let me reminisce over and over, taking as long as I wished to bid him good-bye. Had everyone avoided the subject, I would have been denied the chance to speak my thoughts and work through my feelings.

During an especially low point in my life, my mother commented on a friendship that seemed to lift my spirits. “Does Dawn help you talk about your problems?” she asked.

I thought for a moment, and then it hit me: Dawn talks about hers. By sharing her troubles with me, Dawn had taken my mind off my own. She had also given me the gift of feeling wise—exactly what I needed then.

Later, when I was tempted to plan a suitable menu for a couple in my ward whose daughter had undergone heart surgery, I remembered those who had served me in the ways that I especially needed. I realized that the couple were at the hospital day and night; they didn’t need a refrigerator full of food. What they needed from me was to donate blood so that their child could have necessary transfusions. Months later, when the girl died, I searched for the name and phone number of a support group for them.

Finally, learning to give others what they can truly use makes giving not only a blessing for us, but a precious gift of true value. My stake patriarch and his wife tell of moving to a state far from the warm memories of home. Soon afterward, a Church leader who was passing through the area came to stay with them. While there, he asked the wife what she missed most of all. She thought for a moment, then sighed. “The roses,” she said, looking out at their barren yard. “I miss my beautiful roses.”

A few days after the leader departed, she heard a knock at the door. When she opened it, there stood a delivery man from the local nursery with twelve rosebushes and instructions to plant them wherever she wished. Here was a leader who took the time to discern needs, then meet them exactly. And he, too, benefited as he felt the joy of giving a delightful surprise.

When a missionary couple were assigned to a remote village in the Far East, the wife commented to a family on how much she missed the fresh fruit she could get at home. Several days later, she was surprised to find one of the sons of the family standing on her porch with his arms full of fruit. Amazed, she looked behind him at a distant mountain—the only place where he could have picked the fruit. She was dumbfounded. “You went such a long way for this,” she said.

The boy smiled. “Long journey … part of gift.”

A creative gift from the heart is not always an easy one to give. But it heals our souls, lifts lives, and establishes friendships that last forever.

[photo] Photography by Craig Dimond

Joni Winn Hilton serves as Relief Society president in the Tarzana Ward, Canoga Park California Stake.