Community is only as wide as we imagine it to be. Life experiences provide the foundation, but imagination is the alchemy that allows us to understand ourselves as part of a community that is broader than what our one chance on earth as an individual can teach us. I cherish the qualities of local community as much as anyone, but without a connection to the planet and to the broader human family, community is a shallow value. When I meet people who not only care about but work on behalf of relieving the suffering of people they will likely never meet, I think I see the human imagination doing its finest and most important work.
This past week I had the unique privilege to meet such people. I was invited to join the staff and the President’s Advisory Council of Lutheran World Relief (http://lwr.org) for a meeting held in Salt Lake City. This is a group of Lutherans who work assiduously for the relief of human suffering. They are guided by a comprehensive and global approach according to six objectives: to improve access to clean water, to assist in emergency aid, to increase food security, to prevent or mitigate against the effects of climate change, to improve health care access, and to empower the poor through increased civic participation. Part of my responsibility was to arrange a meeting between the staff of LWR and a similarly devoted group of Mormons, the directors and staff of the Welfare and Humanitarian departments of the LDS Church. As I listened to the stories of success and the challenges that such efforts inevitably confront and as I observed the warm affections that such work instills, I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude that such people exist. Each person with whom I spoke felt called to this work. Everyone had been on a particular journey of awakening to the reality and pervasiveness of human suffering and to a growing awareness that the privileges and opportunities they had in their own lives were not merely intended for their own happiness but rather were given so that they might be in a stronger position to relieve the suffering of others. That such experiences and feelings happen across religious lines is only evidence that the hand of God reaches deeper and wider than we will perhaps ever know.
I learned a few things about what Mormons have to contribute to the world, and I learned a few things from the Lutherans about how to be a better Mormon. I was struck, for example, by how unusual and perhaps even enviable it is for the LDS Church to be able to rely on such extraordinary volunteerism from its members. So much of what the LDS Church is able to accomplish in these areas of service depends on voluntary service by hundreds and thousands of people devoting time, money, and means to others. That isn’t to say such volunteerism doesn’t exist elsewhere. Indeed, I caught a glimpse of just how many organizations and how many good people do this kind of work across the world. But it was nevertheless impressive to see how efficiently and effectively the LDS Church is able to deliver goods and services because of hours and hours of unpaid labor. The financial method of using fast offerings—money saved by fasting once a month as individuals and families— for such aid is also stunning in its simplicity and effectiveness. I also learned that this service relies on certain social behaviors that Mormons happen to excel in but are otherwise in decline elsewhere in this country. The Lutherans I spoke to were intensely curious how Mormons have managed to buck almost every social trend in America today with regard to marriage, family, family planning, and church involvement. Declining rates of marriage and delays in beginning families have been linked to declining rates of participation, giving, and service in religious communities, an issue that was forefront in their minds as they planned and strategized for the future church.
The people at LWR have a few things to teach the Mormons. As evidenced by their objectives, they understand that relief of suffering in emergencies is not enough. We must approach relief in a comprehensive way that includes sustaining the health of the environment, increasing local civic engagement, and improving access to long term and effective health care. There is a tendency among some Mormons to criticize this notion of the “social gospel” because of the way it tends to become political. Personally, I think we would do well to learn that social structures explain protracted poverty as much or more than individual choices. In my mind, self-reliance is only possible in a context of sufficient freedom from the slaveries of need and oppression and from the consequences of environmental degradation and poor public health. I was also impressed that the Lutherans were so devoted to a message of radical inclusiveness. Mormons hold to the same ideals of inclusiveness, but we don’t always manage to make the message clear to ourselves or to others just how inclusive the Gospel really is, for black and white, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor, and so on. At one point during the meeting we heard this marvelous song, performed impromptu by the singer, who also serves on the President’s Advisory Council (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlmauwfxK7c). If the impulse behind this song seems trite, it is only because we have failed to take seriously or literally the mandate to love everyone.
It is a curious paradox of religion that the stronger we wish to adhere to a set of principles, the easier it then becomes to judge others and to withhold our love and compassion from them. Christ’s gospel is a message, however, of perpetual discomfort for the believer, at least in the sense that it makes us unconditionally answerable to the suffering of others. It provides comfort to the sinner, of course, but that comfort is intended to liberate the soul to then begin a life of service. King Benjamin, in the Book of Mormon, taught that forgiveness of sins is only extended to us to the degree that we respond to those in need. But as the tale of the Good Samaritan makes clear, the needs of others are only real to those who can imagine them.