Why Mormons Make Good Neighbors
According to this study, nearly 94 percent of all Mormon households gave an average of $4,016 annually, representing 6.24 percent of their yearly income—the highest of all the groups surveyed and five times the amount of those with no religious affiliation.
Much of this charitable giving goes toward supporting the Church's extensive welfare and humanitarian aid programs. Church welfare represents a source of help primarily for Latter-day Saints. Writing in the Wall Street Journal about this welfare program, Naomi Schaefer Riley observed that it provides "the kind of safety net that government can never hope to create."
She further noted that the Church's system "lets almost no one fall through the cracks while at the same time ensuring that its beneficiaries don't become lifelong dependents." Latter-day Saints who require assistance to meet the basic needs of life go to their bishop and ask for aid. The bishop assesses their needs and then provides food and clothing, as well as cash for housing and other necessities. The bishop seeks to help these individuals work for what they receive and to find ways of getting them back on their feet. That may include coaching from the Church's employment centers or counseling from its social services centers. Typically, people depend on the food assistance for an average of three to six months before they are back to being self-sufficient.
While the welfare program helps members who are struggling to meet their needs, the Church's humanitarian aid program focuses mostly on people who are not Mormons. Over the years it has relieved the suffering, hunger, thirst, and poverty of millions of people around the world to the tune of one and a half billion dollars.
The Church has joined in more than 200 major disaster assistance efforts, including the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Chile earthquake, the 2010 Pakistan flooding, the 2009 Samoa tsunami, the 2009 Philippines typhoon, the 2009 Indonesia earthquake, the 2008 Ethiopia famine, and many others. Naturally, the Church undertakes these projects without regard to the nationality or religion of the recipients.
All of these efforts are made possible by the generous donations of Latter-day Saints and many other charitable individuals. One hundred percent of the donations given to the Church's Humanitarian Services go directly to those in need; the Church absorbs all of its own overhead and administrative costs.
Within hours of a disaster, Latter-day Saints work with local government officials to determine what supplies and food are needed. Materials are then immediately shipped. After urgent needs are met, the Church looks for additional ways to aid in long-term efforts. Our approach is always to help people become self-reliant by teaching skills and providing resources for a self-sustained life.
While the Church's emergency response draws more media attention, Latter-day Saints engage in many other less visible initiatives. In addition to the Church's education programs, it sponsors ongoing global efforts including neonatal resuscitation training, clean water projects, wheelchair distribution, vision treatment, and measles vaccinations.
The Church also sponsors the Mormon Helping Hands program, which brings together members of the Church and their neighbors to provide community service all around the world. In recognizable yellow shirts, these volunteers help people whose lives have been affected by disasters or other emergencies. Volunteers also partner with government and nonprofit organizations to support and improve the communities where they live; they clean parks, restore public structures, and perform various other community services. Mormon Helping Hands reflects the desire of Latter-day Saints to follow the example set by Jesus Christ to serve one another. Originally started in South America, the program has since spread to nearly every corner of the earth. Today, Latter-day Saints and other volunteers of this program have donated millions of hours of service to their communities.
Latter-day Saints also spread good will and the good news of Christ's gospel as volunteer missionaries. A significant percentage of young adults, as well as an increasing number of senior Church members, serve proselytizing, humanitarian, and service missions around the globe. Within the Church, missions are considered more of an obligation for young men, whereas young women serve if they wish. Almost always the mission experience becomes a time of great learning.
The young people leave behind the accoutrements of adolescent life and seek to help others. Many swap scholarships for suits; romantic relationships for two years without dating; and educational and employment opportunities for the chance to learn from foreign cultures and serve for no monetary reward and are expected to pay their own way. Often missionaries become fluent in a new language. Some leave an area of affluence and serve in a place of poverty, while others have the opposite experience. All face a demanding schedule of study and work. The mission typically lasts two years.
While studying at Harvard as a young man, I approached the dean of freshman students, Dean F. Skiddy von Stade, to discuss the possibility of leaving the university for two years to serve a Mormon mission. He told me that he knew other students who had left to serve missions for the Church. In every case, he said, they became better students and better members of the university community. In fact, he continued, "They had a better sense for who they were and what they wanted in life; we wish everyone would do something like that during their college years." I went on to serve a mission in Brazil, and it was a life-changing experience.
Most others who serve missions feel similarly. The Pew Center's survey reported that 80 percent of those who served missions said it was very valuable in preparing them for job or career success, and 92 percent said it helped them grow in their own faith. Though many missionaries develop strong religious convictions, they are not closed minded; fully 98 percent of members surveyed said that a good person not of their faith can go to heaven. According to the authors of American Grace, this was the highest percentage of any religious group surveyed.
Conclusion: The Mormon Next Door
Approaching 15 million members with some 28,660 congregations in 185 nations, countries and territories, the Church is steadily growing. In fact, from 2000 to 2010 the Church's membership grew 18 percent in the United States alone. Furthermore, our internal statistics show that there are more actively practicing Latter-day Saints at church services today than ever before in our history. Considering the rigorous demands of the Mormon faith amidst our culture of increasingly easy salvation, this growth is impressive. Of course, with growth come many new challenges. For example, aside from language and cultural challenges, there is the need to train and supply local leaders in countries where we have an emerging presence; the Church also needs to provide adequate worship facilities and materials such as Bibles, hymnals, and copies of the Book of Mormon.
Additionally, like other faiths, we have people who for one reason or another become indifferent or even hostile. We can do a better job of fostering mutual understanding with these people, no matter their beliefs. Naturally, the Church and its members experience real struggles and difficulties; nonetheless, we continually seek to be better and more Christlike.
Though Latter-day Saints strive for a high standard, we're obviously not perfect. But, as Roosevelt suggested, we do indeed make good citizens and good neighbors. Newsweek in 2005 described us as a "21st century covenant of caring." We hope so. We want to contribute as followers of Christ to our communities and nations, wherever we may live. As fellow neighbors come to understand us, and vice versa, misperceptions and prejudices invariably diminish. In turn, meaningful bonds of community will solidify, helping make each of us better friends, citizens, neighbors and, most assuredly, better children of God.
Elder Larry Y. Wilson currently serves as a General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a graduate of both Harvard and Stanford Universities. For the most part, the statistics cited in this article are based on independent research about practicing Latter-day Saints.