Today’s headlines are filled with accounts of natural disasters, extreme poverty, wars, terrorism, vicious murders, diseases, and all manner of evil. It is sobering and saddening to view a world so full of pain. How ironic it is that at a time when the fulness of the truth is available, society in general is choosing its own way of life under the banner of liberation and freedom! As a result, we find suffering everywhere in the form of broken homes, bodies, minds, and spirits.
Hence, our world has an infinite need for remedial help requiring financial and human resources of which there is a finite supply. If we lived in a world where gospel principles were understood and practiced by all mankind, resources would be adequate for all needs. The Lord has assured us: “It is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
“But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (D&C 104:15–17).
The scriptural charge to take care of the casualties of our society is abundantly clear in our dispensation. On 2 January 1831, only nine months after the Church was organized, the Lord said: “And for your salvation I give unto you a commandment, for I have heard your prayers, and the poor have complained before me, and the rich have I made, and all flesh is mine, and I am no respecter of persons” (D&C 38:16).
Just one month later, the Lord said, “If thou lovest me thou … wilt remember the poor, and consecrate of thy properties for their support” (D&C 42:30).
The importance of this commandment was dramatically illustrated again, in June of the same year, in a revelation received by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Lord directed 28 elders to travel two by two from Kirtland, Ohio, to Jackson County, Missouri. They were to go by different routes, preaching the gospel as they went. They were destitute and had to travel through primitive country. This was the background against which the Lord said to these men as they started, “Remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple” (D&C 52:40).
It is worthwhile to note to whom the commandments to take care of the poor were given. My review of the scriptures suggests that caring for the poor is more of an individual responsibility than an institutional one. The Church gets involved to make it easier for the members to accomplish this objective. For example, by contributing tithes and fast offerings, we help people in our wards, stakes, and nations, as well as the Saints in poverty-stricken areas. We need the Church organization to help us reach our brothers and sisters in faraway places. In the Lord’s wisdom, bishops are called from the people over whom they will preside. Each bishop knows the people of his ward individually and collectively. He understands the local culture. When he was ordained a bishop, he received a mantle which enables him to discern to whom help should be given. Hence, in taking care of our poor members throughout the world, the Church, as an institution, helps members meet their individual responsibility to care for the needy.
On the issue of helping people outside our own church, Joseph Smith stated, “Respecting how much a man … shall give annually [to constitute good membership] we have no special instructions to give; he is 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 March 1842). Joseph Smith’s counsel echoes the scriptural mandate that we are to relieve suffering, “whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who [stand] in need” (Alma 1:30).
My testimony on the issue of reaching out beyond the walls of our own church increased 10 years ago when I was the managing director of the welfare program of the Church. At that time, we began seeing television documentaries about the drought conditions in Ethiopia. With sensitivity to the plight of the starving people in Africa and sensitivity to your desires to help, the First Presidency called a special fast in January and again in November of 1985. As a result, many millions of dollars were donated to help alleviate the suffering.
To determine how to spend the funds donated in the first special fast, Elder M. Russell Ballard and I went to Ethiopia to see the situation firsthand. We had some heart-wrenching, soul-stretching, and faith-promoting experiences. Neither of us will be the same again. Some of my most vivid memories are not of the terrible suffering we witnessed, which you saw on your television screens, but of the great outpouring of love and service from nations of the world. We saw doctors and nurses giving humanitarian service in deplorable settings. They were tired, but smiling.
We learned of a Catholic priest who had been laboring in the drought- and war-stricken province of Tigre for 11 years. He saw a need and was trying to help long before the television and news accounts made it fashionable.
We saw an Ethiopian man who was perhaps 80 years old stumble into the feeding station camp with a desperate, beaten look on his face.
He was obviously starving to death. However, on the way to the feeding station, he had passed a deserted village and had heard the cry of a baby. He searched until he found the baby sitting on the ground next to his dead mother. In spite of this man’s emaciated condition, he picked up the baby and carried him in his arms for 25 miles to the feeding station. The man had a look of glassy-eyed bewilderment, but his first words were not “I’m hungry” or “Help me.” They were “What can be done for this baby I found?”
I feel that the members of our church should be doing all we can to alleviate suffering. I am thrilled with the fact that our full-time missionaries now devote several hours of their week to community service. When followed properly, this program does not detract from the primary goal of missionaries, but enhances that goal.
An experience I had in Guatemala observing some welfare missionaries had a great impact on me. When the welfare sisters walked onto the church grounds, the atmosphere became electric. Men, women, and children alike ran to them and embraced them. I was told the sisters had helped them through a recent epidemic. They had helped deliver some babies and were present when some members of the families had died. They had brought food for both the soul and the body.
Knowing that we have been commanded to care for the poor and needy within and without the Church, what priorities should be placed on those two activities?
President Joseph F. Smith taught: “It is the first duty of Latter-day Saints to take care of themselves and of their poor; and then, if we can extend it to others, and as wide and as far as we can extend charity and assistance to others that are not members of the Church, we feel that it is our duty to do it. But first look after the members of our own household” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1939, page 308).
I testify to you that in today’s environment there is room for both caring for our own and helping with the problems in the world’s society. Building the kingdom and improving the world are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are compatible and complementary. When asked which of all the commandments was the greatest, the Lord said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
“This is the first and great commandment.
“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:37–39).
The greatest commandment, to love God, was not given priority at the expense or exclusion of the second commandment, to love our neighbor. I do not think a sincere love of the Savior is possible without a sincere love of mankind. Neither do I believe it is possible to have sincere love and concern for Church members to the exclusion of the rest of God’s children. Compassion knows no political or religious boundaries. We cannot do everything, but still we must do everything we can.
Something spiritual happens to a person when he reaches out to help someone else. President Spencer W. Kimball put it this way: “As givers gain control of their desires and properly see other needs in light of their own wants, then the powers of the gospel are released in their lives. They learn that by living the great law of consecration they insure not only temporal salvation but also spiritual sanctification” (Ensign, November 1977, page 77).
If individuals completely abdicate to the Church their responsibility of caring for the poor, this beautiful phenomenon does not occur. This is true whether the help is going to members or nonmembers. I say this because there may be a tendency to pay tithing and fast offerings and feel all has been taken care of. The greatest sanctification takes place with person-to-person help. Hence, the greatest compassionate service each of us can give may be in our own neighborhoods and communities. Wherever we live in the world, there is pain and sorrow all around us. We need to take more initiative as individuals in deciding how we can best be of service.
I am so pleased that the projects which went on throughout the world as part of the Relief Society sesquicentennial celebration in 1992 were local service projects. There was some thought given to having wards in more affluent countries reach out across the ocean and help other wards in impoverished nations. Instead, an inspired determination was that projects would be done on a local basis. If projects had been undertaken 5,000 miles away instead of in the sisters’ own backyard, they would have missed seeing firsthand the joy in the face of a lonely old man or woman in a nursing home, or the thanksgiving expressed by a woman met in a crisis center, or the tears of gratitude expressed by the invalid who had her home spring-cleaned for the first time in 10 years.
We don’t do these things for firsthand credit or to have the person’s profuse gratitude, but something very spiritual happens between the giver and receiver of personal service. Both are edified, and a spiritual bonding takes place. A love comes into the heart which is large enough to encompass not only the person served but all of God’s children.
All people need to give. This is true of both affluent Saints and the poorest of the poor. Poverty is a relative term. It means something much different in one country than in another. There is no common solution or program for every situation.
However, principles are universal. We cannot bring everyone to the same economic level. To do so would violate principles and foster dependence rather than independence. People living in each country have the primary responsibility for solving their own problems. They must sacrifice for each other in order that they can experience the sanctification which comes from giving.
During a trip to South America a few years ago, I spoke with a stake president whose stake had experienced over 50 percent unemployment of members during the previous three years. I knew the stake had received less than 200 dollars in assistance from the area office during that period. I asked him how the members had been able to survive without a large infusion of outside help.
His answer was that the families had helped each other—not just father, mother, sons, and daughters, but uncles, aunts, and cousins. When a cousin got a job, the money earned went to benefit everyone. In addition, ward members looked after each other and shared what they had, however meager. With tears in his eyes, he explained how close his stake members were to each other and to the Lord. Their spirituality had increased manyfold.
We could have poured money into this stake from more affluent areas and felt good about it. However, in so doing we would have robbed them of the opportunity to serve each other and to become sanctified in the process. The solutions to poverty are extremely complex, and the balance between too much aid and not enough is very elusive. Our compassion can lead to failure if we give aid without creating independence and self-reliance in the recipient.
On the other hand, there is a state of human misery below which no Latter-day Saint should descend as long as others are living in abundance. Can some of us be content living affluent life-styles while others cannot afford the chlorine to purify their water? I struggle constantly with this balance. I believe I have learned a divine truth, however. I cannot become sanctified without serving others, and I will be held accountable if I rob another of the opportunity to give service.
We cannot, as individuals, be spectators to the pain and suffering around us and sit idly by and expect sanctification to take place in our lives. There is a limit to how much we should rely on institutional welfare. We cannot allow organizational lines to set up a buffer between a person in pain and ourselves, if we are in a position to help.
Without this perspective, there is danger in setting up an organizational structure that does indeed provide more efficiency but which also becomes an organizational wall between ourselves and people in need. At the first sign of someone in need, we may release ourselves from reaching out because, after all, we are not their bishop or even their home teacher or visiting teacher. Often there is a cry for help that has your name preceding it, and you may be the only one who can hear the cry.
I trust we will continue to see humanitarian aid given by the Church as long as it effectively facilitates our individual desires to reach out to the poor and needy. However, the primary responsibility of the commandment to care for the poor is our own individual responsibility. We should give financial contributions when possible, but this alone is not complete. We must also give of ourselves. We can often give of ourselves when a financial contribution is not possible.
In this respect, I am as touched by what the Savior did on his way to deliver the Sermon on the Mount as by what he said in the sermon. On his way, he healed the sick and preached the gospel (see Matt. 4:23–24).
As I speak about “taking care of the poor,” I am referring to the broad array of affliction the people in the world are experiencing in our day. This includes supporting and comforting those suffering in mind, body, and spirit. Money cannot buy the pure love of Christ. It can be obtained only by sacrifice.
I realize that some of you—with the demands of your families, close friends, and Church callings—have little left with which to save the world. Sanctification comes from service rendered to our own families as well as to strangers. It has not been my objective to make you feel guilty, but to teach some principles of caring for the needy. You and only you know your own unique situation and can determine how you can use these principles at your particular age and circumstances.
My promise is that as you review these infinite needs in relation to your finite resources, you will be able to formulate a plan which will give the appropriate balance. I can also promise you that the things the gospel asks of us are not mutually exclusive but are complementary to each other. Speaking for myself and all of the Brethren, I give you our heartfelt love and gratitude for all you are and all you do.