“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead” ( Luke 10:30).
Gerry was constantly in trouble. Out of work. Spending money he didn’t have. Always asking others for more. He started drinking, and it wasn’t long until he was heavily into drugs.
“When he walked into my office,” the bishop said, “he looked so sick, I thought he would die right there. Thick red sores covered his face, neck, and arms. Half his front teeth were missing. He was dirty, his clothes were torn, he smelled, and I had to resist the inclination to shrink away from him.”
“Can somebody help me?” Gerry asked.
Never had the bishop seen anyone weep so freely and so genuinely. Tears flooded his eyes and fell down his cheeks.
“I’ve destroyed my life,” he sobbed. “Can anybody please help me?”
“But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him” ( Luke 10:33).
The Larsens hadn’t been to church in years. In fact, only a few members knew who they were. They kept to themselves and did not answer their door unless they knew who was calling. But the bishop had a nagging feeling about the family and wondered how they were doing, so he decided to pay them a visit.
No one answered when he knocked, but the bishop knew the Larsens were home, so he took a seat on the porch and waited.
For nearly an hour he waited.
Finally, the door cracked open an inch, and a small voice asked, “Can I help you?”
When he explained who he was and that he had come to visit, the door closed.
Again, the bishop took a seat on the porch.
Ten minutes later, the door cracked open again and a voice asked, “Do you want to come in?”
The bishop felt pleased to meet with the Larsens but was distressed when he entered the house. The only piece of furniture in the bare room was a stained and torn couch. As he spoke with the family, he learned they were sleeping on blankets on the floor. The father had been injured six months ago and was unable to return to work.
The family had eaten the last of the food, and it would be another week until the next disability check would arrive. The look in the children’s eyes told the bishop that experiencing hunger was not unusual for them.
“And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him” ( Luke 10:34).
When Brother and Sister Lippman accepted callings as missionaries assigned to Welfare Services, they were excited about the opportunity to work with people in the ward—not that it hadn’t caused some initial fear, but the more they considered it, the more they appreciated it as an opportunity to serve others. The bishop assigned them to visit with five families to see if there was anything they could do to help.
That’s how they met the Hall family—Brother and Sister Hall and five young children all living in a one-room apartment in an unsafe part of town. Kitchen, bedroom, dining room, and living room were all combined into the small space in which they lived.
The father worked two jobs, but that still wasn’t enough to improve the family’s situation. With five children and the cost of food, housing, and medical bills, they had tried to make the best of their situation.
Blessings of the Fast
While the people in each of the above stories differ in many ways, they all have one thing in common: their lives, along with the lives of many others, have been blessed and enriched as a result of giving or receiving fast offerings. Fasting and giving a generous offering for the relief of those in need strengthens and edifies us and offers opportunities for rich spiritual experiences.
The process of fasting, of going without food for a little while, helps us both physically and spiritually. “Periodic fasting,” explained President Ezra Taft Benson, “can help clear up the mind and strengthen the body and the spirit.” 1 President Heber J. Grant promised that “every living soul among the Latter-day Saints that fasts two meals once a month will be benefitted spiritually and be built up in the faith of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—benefitted spiritually in a wonderful way.” 2 President Joseph F. Smith said that “such a fast would be a cure for every practical and intellectual error; vanity would disappear, love for our fellows would take its place, and we would gladly assist the poor and the needy.” 3
Fasting, however, has another purpose besides benefiting us personally. Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “An important reason for fasting is to contribute the amount saved from the meals not eaten to care for the poor and the needy.” 4
Showing compassion to those in need and giving of our abundance to help others is an ancient principle. The Lord commanded Moses, “Thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need” (Deut. 15:7–8).
Isaiah, in his day, suggested the same. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” he asked. “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him?” (Isa. 58:6–7).
The Saints of Alma’s day offered an example for all ages: “In their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need” (Alma 1:30).
In these latter days, the Lord has restored the law of the fast as a pattern for caring for the needy. President Brigham Young explained, “Before tithing was paid, the poor were supported by donations. They came to Joseph and wanted help, in Kirtland, and he said there should be a fast day, which was decided upon. It was to be held once a month, as it is now, and all that would have been eaten that day of flour, or meat, or butter, or fruit, or anything else, was to be carried to the fast meeting.” 5
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “Let this be an [example] to all saints, and there will never be any lack for bread: When the poor are starving, let those who have, fast one day and give what they otherwise would have eaten to the bishops for the poor, and every one will abound for a long time. … And so long as the saints will all live to this principle with glad hearts and cheerful countenances they will always have an abundance.” 6
Something as basic as paying a generous fast offering can have a profound effect in blessing the lives of those in need. President David O. McKay taught that fasting and giving fast offerings provides “an economic means, which, when carried out by a perfect and active organization, will supply the needs of every worthy poor person within the confines of the organized wards and branches of the Church.” 7
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said that if the principles of fast day and the fast offering were observed throughout the world, “the hungry would be fed, the naked clothed, the homeless sheltered. Our burden of taxes would be lightened. The giver would not suffer but would be blessed by [this] small abstinence. A new measure of concern and unselfishness would grow in the hearts of people everywhere. Can anyone doubt the divine wisdom that created this program which has blessed the people of this church as well as many who are not members of this church?” 8
Some members may not know that fast offerings are used exclusively to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and relieve the suffering of others. Glen L. Rudd, formerly of the Seventy and author of Pure Religion, a history of Church welfare, explained in an interview: “When you see a mother filling her empty shelves with food and realizing she can feed her children, that’s when you get a sense of the sacred nature of fast offerings. Fast offering funds aren’t sacred until they are used to bless someone’s life.”
As a steward in the Lord’s kingdom, the bishop has the responsibility to seek inspiration in determining who receives assistance. Elder Rudd has said: “The welfare program was not instituted only for worthy people. It was instituted to bless everybody, the worthy and the unworthy. To help center them and change their lives. The whole purpose of welfare is to help people be better, happier, and to experience more joy.” 9
In Gerry’s case, the bishop knew that fast offerings were at his disposal to help this broken man in his desire to put his life in order once again. He could literally, as the Samaritan in Jesus’ day, ensure that the man’s wounds were bound up, provide nutritious food to help restore his body, and take him to a place where he could rest and heal. Counseling would be available through LDS Social Services.
And when the Larsens’ bishop left their home, he felt confident that the family would not go hungry. He knew that he held in trust the fast offerings which faithful members of his ward had offered for this very purpose. Additionally, through the Church welfare system, the bishop could supply the Larsens’ cupboards with food from the bishops’ storehouse, he could furnish the home with beds and mattresses from Deseret Industries, and he could refer the older children who were looking for work to LDS Employment Services, where they could not only seek available jobs but receive training in interviewing, job finding, and résumé preparation.
Steps toward Self-Reliance
In all cases, however, the bishops knew they must do more than merely relieve present distress. They were to do what they could to teach principles of self-reliance so that people could, in the future, not only help themselves, but in time help others as well. This is one of the primary reasons the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so successful in helping people lift themselves.
One of the first steps a bishop takes as he works with families in need is to examine the resources available to them from members of their extended family. For example, an elderly widow’s roof was leaking, and with her limited income she could not afford the repairs. As she counseled with her bishop, he suggested they explain the problem to her children and see if there was anything they could do.
The children decided to help. One said although he couldn’t climb a ladder and work on the roof, he could care for the yard. Another offered money. Others offered labor. The bishop provided some of the roofing materials, and then the children, with help from members of the ward, came together and repaired the roof. The children felt pleased that they could work together and perform this service. The love the mother felt for her children as a result of this experience became a foundation for bringing the family closer together.
A primary goal of assisting families is to help them plan, prepare, and work for the day when they can live without needing help from others. “It is clear,” President Joseph F. Smith said, “that plans which contemplate only relieving present distress are deficient. … Our idea of charity, therefore, is to relieve present wants and then to put the poor in a way to help themselves so that in turn they may help others.” 10
Families who receive help from a bishop are expected to (1) work to become self-reliant so that they, in turn, can help other people; and (2) where they are able, perform some activity that will benefit someone else in return for the assistance.
Sister Larsen, for example, was offered the opportunity to help in the meetinghouse doing some cleaning. The boys pulled weeds and cared for a few of the widowed sisters’ yards. Since Gerry had worked on and off as a handyman, he was put to good use helping the elderly who were in need of home repairs.
When bishops use fast offerings in the Lord’s way to help those in need, miracles can happen. Gerry quit alcohol and drugs. His health improved and he began helping with Scouting and youth activities. The Larsens became active in the Church and never forgot the kindness of the bishop who came at the time they needed help the most.
The Hall family began to see that there was a way out of their one-room apartment. On assignment from the bishop, Brother and Sister Lippman helped arrange visits to the dentist and doctor. An optician provided glasses for the mother. For the first time in years, she could read to her children. The food and clothing the bishop provided helped them save some money. After a year, Brother and Sister Lippman helped them find a low interest home-buying program for which they could qualify. Today the Hall family lives in their own home. They are active in the Church and are preparing to go to the temple. And they give encouragement to other families who feel hopeless and helpless and stuck.
“Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise” ( Luke 10:37).
Back when John and Shirley Merrill were trying to survive graduate school, they watched as others extended a helping hand to people in need. They wanted to do the same.
But 30 years of marriage had been filled with the wonders and distractions of a busy life. Four of their six children needed braces; three went on missions; two played sports; one danced. Between play performances, nights of tending fevers, and days of struggling to bring in enough money to support the family, they hardly had time for themselves, let alone for much else.
Now, as their last son stepped on the plane to begin his mission, the Merrills were faced with an empty home for the first time. As they drove home they reminded each other of how they had wanted to do something significant for others in need. But Shirley had developed a painful arthritis that prevented her from being very mobile, and John still had another seven years before retirement.
However, they knew that in their own city there was suffering and hunger. How could they reach out and help the homeless? the hungry? the cold? One Sunday, as they sang the opening hymn in sacrament meeting, these words had a profound impact on them:
They realized that although their circumstances might keep them from doing some of the things they had planned, one thing they could do was increase the amount they paid in fast offerings.
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, reminded the Saints that “it is incumbent upon every Latter-day Saint to give to his bishop on fast day an amount equivalent to the food that he and his family would consume for the day and, if possible, a liberal donation to be so reserved and donated to the poor.” 12
“Sometimes we have been a bit penurious,” President Spencer W. Kimball said, “and figured that we had for breakfast one egg and that cost so many cents and then we give that to the Lord. I think that when we are affluent, as many of us are, … we ought to be very, very generous … and give, instead of the amount we saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more where we are in a position to do it.” 13
The Merrills came to discover that as they increased their fast offering, they were blessed in rich and wonderful ways. They felt nearer to the Lord and felt in a powerful way the blessings promised by Isaiah: “And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isa. 58:9–11).
Elder Harold B. Lee, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said, “If you would qualify so that in times of trouble you could call and the Lord would … say, ‘Here I am,’ … you must observe the fast day of the Lord and deal out your ‘bread to the hungry.’” 14
Elder Marion G. Romney, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught: “I believe the most practical way to protect one’s self and family against economic need is to make liberal contributions for the support to the Lord’s poor according to the law of the Gospel. I am not promising you riches, but I am telling you that this is the most practical way to protect yourselves and families from actual need.
“I believe that it is consistent with the laws of Heaven that one’s right of reliance upon the Lord for protection against want is in direct proportion to his own liberality in sustaining the Lord’s poor.” 15
The Savior urged those who followed him to be mindful of the poor and to have compassion on those who suffer. Thus, he immortalized a Samaritan who, as he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, encountered a man who had been robbed, beaten, and left on the side of the road to die. Never mind that the man was a Jew, despised by many of the Samaritans. Never mind that a priest and a Levite had previously passed by, ignoring him. Never mind that stopping to help was inconvenient, time consuming, and costly. The Samaritan “had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and … brought him to an inn, and took care of him” (Luke 10:33–34).
One of the ways we can follow the Samaritan’s example and follow the Savior’s counsel to “do likewise” (Luke 10:37) is to open our hearts and have compassion on those who suffer and are in need.
As we give generous fast offerings, we literally feed the hungry, bind up the wounds of the sick, and clothe the naked. By so doing, we not only bless the lives of others, but we open the windows of heaven and qualify ourselves to receive additional choice blessings from the Lord.
In Conference Report, Oct. 1974, 92; or Ensign, Nov. 1974, 66–67.
Deseret News, 18 June 1932, 1.
“Observance of Fast Day,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1902, 147.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1986, 39; or Ensign, May 1986, 31.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 150.
History of the Church, 7:413.
“On Fasting,” Improvement Era, Mar. 1963, 156.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1991, 73; or Ensign, May 1991, 52–53.
Interview with author.
Gospel Doctrine (1939), 237.
“Because I Have Been Given Much,” Hymns, no. 219.
In Conference Report, Oct. 1988, 55; or Ensign, Nov. 1988, 45.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1974, 184.
“Make Our Lord and Master Your Friend,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1968, 72.
“A Practical Religion” (address to seminary and institute faculty, Brigham Young University, 13 June 1956), 15.