They opened the letter, looked at each other, and laughed. Not that what they had read was funny; it was anything but that. It was just so unexpected. Gary and Molly Dolana of Highland, Utah, both had been working in the medical technology field and were only a few years away from retirement. They had been planning to serve a mission and had expressed to their stake president their willingness to serve. But when they read the words “Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia,” and “humanitarian mission,” they almost couldn’t believe their eyes.
“We were knocked off our feet by the call,” Sister Dolana says. “It was a complete shock. But we went to the temple. We prayed and fasted. We thought about it, and there was no question that we would go. We knew it was a call from the Lord.”
So Brother and Sister Dolana took early retirement, packed their bags, and stepped onto the plane that would take them half a world away to Mongolia.
When the Dolanas accepted the call to serve as humanitarian missionaries, they joined more than 700 others who serve throughout the world relieving suffering and fostering self-reliance among some of the world’s neediest people. Through their service, they are living testimonies of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s belief that “a man 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” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 174).
In 1990 the first full-time welfare missionary calls to serve in humanitarian assignments were extended to three couples and two sister missionaries to travel to Romania and assist those who cared for the many thousands of children in state-run orphanages. Each of these missionaries had specific training in a field that would be of use: Harold and Enid Davis, a businessman and a social worker; Alvin and Barbara Price, a professor of child development and a special education teacher; Fred and Dorothy Fife, a physician and a nurse; Beverly Campbell, a professor of education; and Virginia Bruce, a registered nurse. They worked with physicians, teachers, and government officials to improve the lives of the children in government orphanages. These pioneers of modern-day humanitarian work discovered that as they worked with local officials and child care providers, bonds of friendship developed and mutual respect, love, and understanding grew.
Today welfare missionaries serving in humanitarian assignments come from a wide variety of occupations and life experiences. Although many have medical or dental expertise, welfare missionaries today are just as likely to have worked as teachers, administrators, homemakers, or accountants. The Church has discovered that although a specialized skill can be useful, what is most needed is someone who can go into the world and represent the Church following the counsel of the Prophet Joseph Smith “to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them” (Times and Seasons, 15 Mar. 1842, 732).
Joel and Kathryn Sperry of Heber City, Utah, always wanted to go on a mission. After Joel retired from a career in education, they received a call to Surin, Thailand. They felt stunned. They didn’t have much idea of what they’d find there. They knew they would be in a rural area and their primary assignment would be training local elementary and middle-school English teachers. For several months, the Sperrys worked to introduce new teaching techniques and to help Thai teachers and school administrators refine their English pronunciation.
But as they taught, the Sperrys noticed many of the children arriving at school without shoes. Some had little to eat. The more the Sperrys investigated, the more they realized the children’s diet consisted mostly of rice, very few vegetables, and almost no protein.
Joel had always loved gardening and Kathryn’s father had worked as a county agricultural agent, so the thought occurred to them that it might be possible to create a few self-sustaining projects that could not only provide additional nutrition for the children’s school lunch but also help the children learn to grow their own food.
School administrators were excited about the idea, and the Sperrys proposed it to the Church Welfare Services. With funding from the Church, projects began to spring up in schools all over the province of Surin. In one school, the students created an agricultural plot where they weeded, watered, and grew fresh vegetables. In another, they created an artificial pond and stocked it with fresh fish. Chickens laid eggs and provided protein in another school project. In yet another, they built a specially designed shed for growing mushrooms.
In each case, the schools purchased the products from the projects, providing funds to ensure the projects would continue. Lunch at the schools became more nutritious, providing students with needed vitamins and protein. Students learned valuable skills as they grew food and cared for animals. By the time the Sperrys had fulfilled their mission and were ready to return home, they had created projects in 36 schools.
“When we first announced we were going to serve a mission,” Sister Sperry says, “people would say, ‘But we need you in the ward.’ After serving in Thailand, I know that we were needed more in the world.”
When Larry and Kathleen Call of Afton, Wyoming, received their mission call to serve as Church Humanitarian Service directors in Zimbabwe, they had no idea where the country was. Larry, a retired business executive, had thought it would be enjoyable to teach religion in Spain; Kathleen was happy to go wherever the Lord wanted them. Like many members, they thought humanitarian missionary assignments were only for those with a medical background. But they had a willingness to serve, and so they accepted the call.
“It’s a mission we wouldn’t trade for anything in the world,” Sister Call says. “This is the most exciting thing we’ve ever done!”
In Zimbabwe they worked with churches and other nonprofit agencies, bringing in food, clothing, blankets, and hygiene supplies to people in extreme circumstances. They worked with schools, hospitals, orphanages, and social service organizations. They combined their efforts with countless people of various religions to relieve suffering and improve the quality of life for the people of the country.
So many have so little in Zimbabwe. There are hospitals without aspirin, soap, or towels; schools without books or electricity; homes without food or hope. “We didn’t scratch the surface,” Brother Call says, “but we made a difference! We had no idea before we left how the Church has been prepared by the Lord to make such a difference in people’s lives.”
Patricia Walsh of the Dominican Sisters Health Desk in Zimbabwe (she is an authority on the AIDS pandemic and one of those responsible for the health care of tens of thousands) wrote Brother and Sister Call: “The two of you have given so much hope and courage to so many; you have been so generous with your precious time, your friendship. We have never received so much material support from one group before. This is not just ‘material.’ It is indeed love translated into action. I pray that both of you and your family, friends, and Church will be abundantly blessed for all that you are to God’s people and for all that you are doing for them.”
Jean Webster, head of orphan work for the Evangelical Fellowship in Zimbabwe, told the Calls, “When people ask me where I get my help, I tell them I get it from the Mormons—and that they are good Christians.”
During the Calls’ mission, a Catholic nun and friend with whom they had worked closely asked Brother Call to give a blessing to a young girl dying of AIDS. He willingly responded. Sister Call comments, “I learned that true religion is to ‘visit the fatherless and widows’ and alleviate the suffering of God’s children. That’s what we were there to do.”
Graham and Colleen Misbach of Levan, Utah, found rich experience assisting the poor in India. They discovered a school for the blind that had only one toilet. It was connected to the main building by a rope, and the children had to hold on to the rope in order to find it. The Misbachs, with the resources of the Church Welfare Services, helped build six new toilets and also acquired Braille typewriters for the school. Sister Misbach noticed how beautifully the children sang, and she organized a choir made up of students from the school. They entered a talent competition sponsored by a TV station, and students from the school won first, second, and third place.
Later the Misbachs discovered a leper hospital founded by Mother Teresa that had fallen into disrepair. The Misbachs went to work once again, binding up wounds, providing leper bandages, bringing in blankets and baskets of fruit and nourishing food.
“We could have stayed home and been content,” Brother Misbach says, “but we know we are needed so much more here. As a consequence, we feel much closer to the prophet and to our Savior.”
“What a tragedy if we had missed this opportunity,” says Brother Dolana of the call to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “This was a life-altering experience. Our marriage was strengthened, and our children and their families were affected as well. While we were away, our children kept in touch with their elderly grandparents. Without that, they might never have grown so close to their grandparents.
“We wanted our children to understand more than their little world. We wanted them to understand what the Savior did when He walked among the poor. We hoped that through our example, they would feel His presence.”
“After this experience,” Brother Sperry says of his time in Thailand, “material things don’t mean so much. We have a whole new set of things to think of and pray about.”
President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988) taught, “The Lord doesn’t really need us to take care of the poor, but we need this experience; for it is only through our learning how to take care of each other that we develop within us the Christlike love and disposition necessary to qualify us to return to his presence” (“Living Welfare Principles,” Ensign, Nov. 1981, 92; emphasis in original).
“Our life in Peru was better than anything we’ve ever known,” says Rick Meyers of Victorville, California. He and his wife, Alma, accepted a call to serve as welfare missionaries in Peru while still in their 40s. “Nothing matches the fulness of joy we had down there. We felt that we were following a call from the Lord, that we were fulfilling our purpose on earth, the mission of Jesus Christ.”
Neil and Laverle Christensen of Holladay, Utah, served three other missions before being called to Djakarta, Indonesia, on a humanitarian mission. “When we accepted this calling, we knew it would take us out of our comfort zone,” Brother Christensen says. “To say that our lives will never be the same is an understatement. This is so much more fulfilling than sitting in a chair watching your birth certificate expire. It’s real adventure. We’ve had wonderful experiences we never dreamed we would have.”
Perhaps these experiences are what President Gordon B. Hinckley had in mind when he said, “Generally speaking, the most miserable people I know are those who are obsessed with themselves; the happiest people I know are those who lose themselves in the service of others” (“Whosoever Will Save His Life,” Ensign, Aug. 1982, 5).
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “If the Savior were among us in mortality today, He would be found ministering to the needy, the suffering, the sick” (“Inspired Church Welfare,” Ensign, May 1999, 78). Those who serve welfare missions spend their lives in service to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). They walk in the footsteps of the Savior, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely, and giving hope to the despondent. They understand in a profoundly personal way the Lord’s counsel to “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).
“Have compassion, making a difference” (Jude 1:22). Those who serve welfare missions show that rich blessings come into the lives of both givers and receivers when loving, generous people exercise this compassion that makes a difference.
“You have received much in your life; go forth and freely give in the service of our Lord and Savior. Have faith; the Lord knows where you are needed. The need is so great, brothers and sisters, and the laborers are so few.”
Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Couple Missionaries: A Time to Serve,” Ensign, May 2001, 27.
There are three types of welfare missions:
Welfare operations. Many are called to serve in and administer welfare operations (such as overseeing bishops’ storehouses or serving in an LDS employment center or in an LDS Family Services office). These operations are primarily within the United States, although as Welfare Services operations expand throughout the world, opportunities for serving international welfare missions (particularly in Employment Services) are increasing.
Humanitarian assignments. Welfare missionaries who serve in humanitarian assignments generally work in areas where the Church is less developed (Asia, Russia, eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa). These missionaries often work with community groups and already established agencies to help those of other faiths. In some areas, welfare missionaries may assist with leadership development, reactivation, and other missionary activities.
Additional assignments. Sometimes proselyting missionaries can be given additional assignments in welfare (these are primarily single sister missionaries). They work with members as well as with those of other faiths to improve living standards.
Although all mission assignments are directed by inspiration, consideration is given for those who request a specific kind of mission. Certain skills and qualities may lend themselves more to a welfare mission. These include:
Fluency in a second language or a desire to learn one.
Technical background (such as medical, social science, engineering, health, or education).
Administration and management background.
Ability to serve 18 months. (Those serving less than 18 months are rarely asked to serve an international mission.)
No dependent children.
Church leadership experience.
Interest in serving a humanitarian mission.
Those interested in serving a welfare mission may want to:
Discuss their interests with their bishop.
Talk with others who have served similar missions to get a feel for what the experience is like.
Work to get medical concerns resolved.
More on this topic: See Vaughn J. Featherstone, “Couple Missionaries: ‘Too Wonderful for Me,’”Ensign, Sep. 1998, 15; David B. Haight, “Couple Missionaries: A Wonderful Resource,”Ensign, Feb. 1996, 7; Giles H. Florence Jr., “So Many Kinds of Missions,” Ensign, Feb. 1990, 6.