Community Service: Reaching beyond Our Circle


Are you a Christian?” It was a headline for an advertisement soliciting community service volunteers, and it attracted Roger Freeman’s attention. Brother Freeman is a faithful member of the Church—a Sunday School teacher, home teacher, and father of nine. Surely no one could accuse him of not serving his fellow man in a Christian way. Still, the question concerned him.

Brother Freeman contacted the community service agency that had placed the advertisement and asked how he could help. The agency gave him the names of several elderly people who needed someone to do various tasks around their homes.

Since that day several years ago, Brother Freeman has mowed lawns, repaired furniture, cleaned yards, and done odd jobs in many of the older sections of his city—often taking along a few of his children to help. Every few months, he calls the agency for more names. Sometimes he has cried, seeing people who are so poor and so lonely. Occasionally, he can befriend a person he serves and maintain some personal contact. He wishes he could do more.

Where does he find the time to reach beyond his circle of family and Church associations? “It doesn’t take much time,” says Brother Freeman. And what motivates him? He explains, “It’s mostly a matter of reaching beyond my own needs. Sometimes I think of the Savior walking down the dusty roads he traveled. He was aware of people’s needs.”

Serving those around us is not merely something added to the gospel. In fact, the Lord equates serving each other with serving Him. (See Mosiah 2:17.) Brother Lowell Bennion, who runs the community service agency in Salt Lake City that Brother Freeman called, feels that Saints should go to church not to be satisfied, but to “be motivated to go out and serve our neighbors in need.”

King Benjamin also taught that neighborly helping is a prime responsibility of those who have been converted to Christ’s gospel. To those who had just experienced conversion, he said:

“And now, for the … sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:26.)

We must not limit our helping to those of our own faith, for human need—not church affiliation—defines our responsibility to our neighbors. Rather than agonizing about human need in general, the Lord asks us to do something definite to help those around us. Here are the stories of some Latter-day Saints who are doing just that.

Saints in Harlem Help Poland

Sometimes helping those in need requires reaching beyond political boundaries. Holland enjoys a relatively comfortable standard of living. But just several hundred kilometers miles away in Poland, many do not enjoy the same life-style or have the same blessings.

Brother and Sister C. R. Kirschbaum of the Haarlem Ward, The Hague Netherlands Stake, realized that alone they could do little to relieve the suffering of a whole nation—unless they joined together with others. So the Kirschbaums helped form a foundation called Holland Helps Poland. The foundation crossed religious boundaries, with members of nineteen different religious denominations.

Members of the Haarlem Ward worked with members from the other religious groups to collect food, clothing, shoes, blankets, vitamins, soap, and medical supplies. With plastic bags and lists of needed supplies in hand, volunteers collected door-to-door. Money donated was used to buy oil, butter, baby food, and vitamins at low prices. Hospitals offered expensive surgical equipment. A truck and a van were made available free of charge, along with two drivers. “Help came from all directions, in truly miraculous ways,” says Sister Kirschbaum.

Volunteers sorted, packed, and loaded the supplies. After a short religious service, the $83,000 shipment was on its way. The aid went to Methodists and Baptists, a home for the elderly, a children’s home, and a children’s hospital.

Sister Kirschbaum notes that reaching out together has created and strengthened friendships between people of many faiths in Haarlem. “It was as if all the walls that usually divide people had disappeared,” she said. In a religious service held after the vehicles had safely returned, a Baptist minister quoted from the New Testament: “For [the Lord] hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us.” (Eph. 2:14.)

The Power of a Single Voice

Spiritual needs may not be as obvious as physical needs, but they are just as urgent. Pornography and antireligious ideas are spiritual plagues that afflict many, including the young. Often parents and others feel powerless to stop the erosion of moral values in modern society. But Sister Gerda Jensen of Aalborg, Denmark, knows that a single positive voice can be very influential.

In Aalborg recently a proposed school textbook came up for approval that dealt with homosexuality in an explicit and approving way. Fortunately, Sister Jensen was a member of the parents’ council in that school, the body that votes on new textbooks. Sister Jensen was able to speak convincingly against the book.

“I mobilized all my strength and prayed to be able to speak well,” recalls Sister Jensen. The school’s principal and teachers all spoke in favor of using the book. But after Sister Jensen spoke, the parents unanimously joined their voices with hers to reject it.

Sister Jensen’s influence had not always been so persuasive on the council. During the first council meeting she attended after she was elected, another member stood and emphatically announced that “the school would not tolerate anyone who tried to pass out religious tracts at school.”

But Sister Jensen’s positive values slowly gained the respect of many in the group. She was given responsibility for publishing the school magazine and leading the school recreation group. She also spoke at the school’s graduation. “I exclusively used stories and ideas from Church manuals and talks,” she remembers. “Afterward, I was praised by teachers I hardly knew.” She was asked to speak the next three years in a row.

Naturally, not every battle was won. Some textbooks that Sister Jensen felt were inappropriate were approved. But by raising her voice to support positive values, she has helped create a better environment for the schoolchildren of Aalborg.

Love Songs

As Relief Society president of the Setubal Portugal District, Sister Teresa Pinto took seriously the idea that when we serve others, we serve the Lord himself. (See Mosiah 2:17; Matt. 25:44–45.) She began looking for a service project, and found her heart turning to those who are lonely in her community, those who rarely laugh. And she began to formulate a plan to lift the hearts of some of those people—especially those living in institutions.

The members of the Almada First, Costa da Caparica, and Setubal branches were excited by her plan. Every night for several weeks, young people and Relief Society sisters from those three branches met together to rehearse folk songs and dances, short theatrical plays, and poetry readings.

The group’s premiere performance was for fifty elderly people at a local nursing home. The group tried to show their joy in living the gospel through their enthusiastic performance. Toward the end of the show, tears were on many faces in the audience. And the performers felt the glow of sharing love and friendship with those in need. “I wouldn’t exchange this evening for the world,” said one youngster.

The joy of reaching beyond one’s own circle to those in need has been contagious in the Setubal District. A second project is already underway, with several other branches joining to prepare a show for an orphanage.

Understanding Our Neighbors

In some European countries, the Church is negatively identified as a “sect,” or an extreme religious group. This label has been troublesome for missionaries and members of the Church alike. However, negative opinions about the Church generally come from those who don’t really know any Latter-day Saints, says Brother Alain Marie, Public Communications Director for Western Europe. “Those who do know us admire us for who we are and that we live as involved Christians.” When Latter-day Saints serve in their communities, they help others better appreciate the Church.

But the need for mutual understanding also applies to Church members. For Brother Gerard Giraud-Carrier, getting to know others outside the Church was a primary reason for serving in his community. As a Regional Representative for the Brussels, Nice, and Paris regions, Brother Giraud-Carrier already had plenty to do. Then four years ago, he was elected to the city council in Lagny, France. His experience is teaching him to better appreciate his nonmember neighbors. “It gives me an opportunity to expand my understanding of others,” he explains.

Brother Giraud-Carrier makes no secret of his religious commitment. “Everyone on the council knows I am a Latter-day Saint, and they know I am in church every Sunday.” He also finds that principles of the gospel make him more effective in his work, which includes being a member of the public works and schools commission. “Before I go to council meetings, I pray,” he explains. “When I sense that I should interfere in a heated discussion, I raise my hand to ask permission to speak. I am always surprised that things quiet down and the group listens to me. Often they become calm, and even if they disagree with me, the discussion often takes a different turn.”

Serving on the city council is an unpaid position, and Brother Giraud-Carrier enjoys the satisfaction of serving his community. Equally important, he says, “It helps me to love people more, to appreciate them, even though they are not of the same opinion or even behave in a way that irritates me.”

Making Weak Things Strong

A young man tumbles from his sled into a snowdrift. Friends run to offer help. Waving his snow-covered arms and legs, he laughs, “No, no, I like the snow!” He is part of an enthusiastic group of young people in Rexburg, Idaho, who meet together for outdoor activities—snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, ice fishing, scuba diving, and water skiing.

But this is no ordinary group. Most of its members suffer from profound physical handicaps—spina bifida, cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness. They are part of the Ricks Outdoor Cooperative Handicapped Association—a program pioneered in 1984 by Brother Steve Anderson.

Steve knows firsthand about meeting the challenges of physical handicaps. Steve himself is a victim of severe cerebral palsy. After earning a master’s degree in educational psychology, he found it impossible to convince an employer to hire him. Finally, he approached two of his former professors from Ricks College, a Church-owned college in Rexburg, Idaho. They agreed to supervise him in developing an activities program for handicapped students at Ricks and handicapped people from the Upper Snake River Valley in Idaho.

Through the program, people confined to wheelchairs now take part in a bowling league, using a ramp made especially for them. Those with limited use of their legs can ski with “sit-and-ski” sleds. “Handicaps do not stifle a desire for recreation,” says Steve. “We are helping people overcome a built-in reluctance to participate.”

Accompanying the handicapped people on camping trips, river runs, and skiing trips are Ricks College students volunteering as aides. “Both the able-bodied and the handicapped give and receive service, spirit meeting spirit,” says Steve.

Steve loves the Hopi Indian story of a great bird who fell from the heavens, too weak to fly. As time passed, the bird gathered strength, stretched his wings, and one day began to fly. It flew with such beauty and grace that even stones wept with joy.

Steve considers it a miracle that he and his friends have been able to stretch their wings and begin to fly. “Our Father in Heaven has promised to make weak things strong,” says Steve. “In this promise lies our hope.”

An Impulse to Help

One day Sister Maria Willems of the Antwerp Belgium District read about a course in helping the elderly. She had joined the Church several years before and been repeatedly impressed with the idea of compassionate service taught in the Relief Society lessons. Her patriarchal blessing had also stressed the importance of this kind of service.

She followed her impulse and took the course. Ever since, she has been actively involved with the elderly in her neighborhood. She takes care of them, cleans their houses, and occasionally cooks for them and does their shopping. When her work is done, she sits down to chat with them. Her main goal is to make them happy. She tries not to “mother” them, but to show respect for their experience in life. “You can discuss things with elderly people you can’t discuss with anyone else,” says Sister Willems. She considers herself blessed to be able to associate with them.

This kind of serving has its heartaches. “When a friend you cared for and cared about dies, it always leaves an empty space. When you grow to love people, it’s hard to say goodbye.”

Recently, while studying a nursery manual, Sister Willems came across some examples of sign language. The first phrase she learned to sign was “I love you.” She realized that learning sign language would allow her to help a woman who lives nearby and her brother, both of whom have poor hearing. When she completes a sign language course, she hopes to help many people with hearing problems.

Sister Willems feels grateful to the Church for helping her see all the opportunities for compassionate service right around her.

“Why Doesn’t the Church Do More?”

Occasionally—as in 1985 when we joined in fasting to raise money for African hunger relief—the Church responds to world problems. But many have wondered why the Church, with its great human resources, does not do so more often.

For the most part, the Church uses its resources to meet its basic mission. This mission has been defined as threefold: 1) to preach the gospel, 2) to redeem the dead, and 3) to perfect the Saints. With missionaries to train, temples to build, and a growing number of new converts to teach, the Church has left the responsibility to solve many problems in our communities to us as members.

“We believe that to do otherwise would … be to divert the Church from its basic mission,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. (Talk to Regional Representatives, 31 March 1978.)

The wisdom in this philosophy is suggested by the Lord’s parable of the good Samaritan: The man left half dead on the way to Jericho had immediate needs. Could the help he needed be dispensed by a charitable organization or social institution? No; he needed immediate help of the neighborly sort—the kind that could only be given by a single person passing along the same road. The one who saved his life was a lone Samaritan, who was willing to help without regard for religious differences. (See Luke 10:30–36.) Making the lesson of the parable explicit for his disciples, the Lord said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37.)

Many problems in our world can be best and most effectively solved in a similar way—by neighbor helping neighbor, reaching beyond circles of family and church affiliation. Even great problems can be diminished when those who follow Christ look around them, and—seeing those in need—choose to help.

Guidelines for Helping

In September 1968, the First Presidency encouraged Church members to reach out to help those in need and also gave a few cautions. This has become a classic statement on the subject of community service:

“The growing world-wide responsibilities of the Church make it inadvisable for the Church to seek to respond to all the various and complex issues involved in the mounting problems of the many cities and communities in which members live. But this complexity does not absolve members as individuals from filling their responsibilities as citizens in their own communities.

“We urge members to do their civic duty and to assume their responsibilities as individual citizens in seeking solutions to the problems which beset our cities and communities.

“With our wide ranging mission, so far as mankind is concerned, Church members cannot ignore the many practical problems that require solution if our families are to live in an environment conducive to spirituality.

“Where solutions to these practical problems require cooperative action with those not of our faith, members should not be reticent in doing their part in joining and leading in those efforts where they can make an individual contribution to those causes which are consistent with the standards of the Church.

“Individual Church members cannot, of course, represent or commit the Church, but should, nevertheless, be ‘anxiously engaged’ in good causes, using the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ as their constant guide.”

[illustrations] Paintings by James J. Tissot

[photo] Sister Kirschbaum, pictured fourth from the right, helps sort and pack supplies for the relief effort.