Feed My Lambs


[Image courtesy of the Liahona Children's Foundation]

“The Church may or may not be true,” quipped my father-in-law, who was at the time serving as a stake president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “But it is organized.”

Born of the theological basis of hierarchical priesthood authority and of the practical exigencies of running a worldwide church with mostly volunteer labor, Mormon organization is indeed a force to be reckoned with. When the Church organizational machinery rumbles into motion, it mobilizes labor and resources with incredible efficiency, such as in responses to Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

With great organization comes great power.

As the Church has expanded rapidly throughout the developing world in the past decade, its organizational structures have been tested by challenges of astounding magnitude.

According to the Liahona Children’s Foundation, an estimated 120,000 Mormon children around the world currently suffer from malnutrition.[1] These are children who actively attend church and sing songs in the Primary meeting each Sunday. Close to 1,000 of these Primary kids die every year. Even children who are not in mortal danger will have stunted physical and intellectual development that will affect their capacity to thrive and contribute to society as future members and leaders within the Church.

When I first heard this, I was shocked. My gut reaction was: I thought children were starving in Africa, not Zion?

Mormons see themselves as a “peculiar people,” a modern Israel called by God to be a light to the world. Mormonism’s strong internal mechanisms for community-building sometimes lead people to accuse Mormons of being elitist and clannish. There is some truth in this. And yet, as my friends in interfaith circles have often remarked admiringly, Mormon communities are uncommonly strong, bound together by both the charisma of common covenants and the gravity of prodigious organizational exertion.

When a family in a Mormon ward or branch has a baby, within a few hours people are competing for slots in the sign-up sheet to bring a meal. When a child is hospitalized, the Relief Society arranges meals, childcare for the siblings, cards, toys, and so on. When parents go through a rough spell in their relationship with their teenager, local youth leaders often step up their game, making time for one-on-one chats or taking extra care to make that teenager feel loved and accepted. This is one of the best and most inspired things about the Church, in my opinion: the extent and intimacy of its organization. Many hands make light work, and working closely together in a variety of settings generates a wonderful esprit de corps.

This is why I was so shocked to hear that thousands of Mormon kids around the world were slowly dying of malnutrition. If a child in my Primary class were threatened by malnutrition, I feel, I would take notice and I would also do something about it. The home teachers, visiting teachers, and bishopric would take notice and do something about it. Within any of the LDS wards and branches in which I have served, to allow a Primary child to continue on in a state of life-threatening malnutrition would be absolutely unthinkable. Casseroles would be delivered. Childcare would be provided. Medical advice, legal advice, employment advice, and domestic labor would be donated.

Beyond individual efforts, the organization of the Church has measures in place for hungry people. There is the Church Welfare System. There are humanitarian programs. There is a lot of money from tithes and offerings. How can Primary kids be malnourished when, according to the estimates of one Liahona Children’s Foundation volunteer, it would take only about 7 million USD per year to provide nutritional supplements for everyone? How can this be happening?

I put these questions to Dr. Robert Rees, vice-president and co-founder of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, during his visit to Hong Kong last week. Dr. Rees was en route to New Zealand after finishing many rounds of malnutrition screenings in the Philippines, where he and other volunteers had found 60-70% malnutrition rates among LDS children in certain areas.

According to Dr. Rees, one of the major problems is this: You can’t necessarily tell that children are malnourished just by looking at them. A child who looks like a healthy three year-old may actually be five. A child who looks well-fed may be eating a mostly corn-based diet with little protein. Furthermore, in a country like Cambodia where a high percentage of children are malnourished, a malnourished child simply looks “normal.” Another problem is that parents and church leaders sometimes lack knowledge about proper nutrition and also lack awareness of resources that might be available to them.

The Liahona Children’s Foundation is responding to the immediate need by providing screenings and nutritional supplements for malnourished children in countries such as Peru and the Philippines.* One of the Foundation’s major long-term goals is to develop a partnership with the Church so that malnourished children all around the world can receive more systematic aid through the Church’s organized welfare programs. For every LDS child the Foundation screens, it also screens one non-LDS child and provides supplements to all. Donations of time, talent, and money are urgently needed.

To return to my first reaction (I thought children were starving in Africa, not Zion?), I think that this and similar reactions capture a new challenge for Mormonism and Mormons as a people in the twenty-first century. I used to view the world’s large-scale, intractable problems like poverty, disease, corruption, and war from a considerable distance. The overwhelming need was numbing. What difference could I make? I used to think. How sad that children are starving in Africa.

And yet once again, Mormonism’s penchant for organization proves to be both a blessing and a challenge. Because of the institutional organization and religious culture of global Mormonism, I now know exactly who is starving in Africa: CTR 8s, Sunbeams, eighteen month-olds being jiggled to keep quiet as the sacrament is passed. Because I know who these children are and how they would fit into my church community were I in Peru or were they in Hong Kong, I can no longer ignore what they’re experiencing.

With great organization comes great responsibility.

Twenty-first century Mormons live not just in America and Canada but also in Ecuador and Paraguay. Church members in North America, myself included, must begin to fully absorb what this global membership means. Certainly images of Latter-day Saints in other countries can inspire feelings of unity and validation, like the “I Am a Child of God” video that was broadcast during the General Women’s Meeting in April. As I sat at my kitchen table in Hong Kong and watched the seamless musical montage of Mormon children, young women, and grown women, I wept as I felt the Spirit testify of the powerful bond of sisterhood that reaches across languages, cultures, and ideological views. And yet being a global Church means more than just having cheerleading outposts in other countries. It means that all Mormons, no matter where they live, now own a share of the world’s most difficult, most intractable problems.

The good news is that this problem of Primary children’s malnutrition can be entirely eliminated if members of the Church worldwide pitch in (consider this the global equivalent of setting up and putting away folding chairs).

Some might question why I am writing about malnourished Mormon children when there are malnourished children of all religious sensibilities everywhere. Why only focus on “one’s own” people? My response to this is that I can’t wrap my mind around how to eliminate child malnutrition across the world, but I can think of specific ideas on how to address the problem within the structure of Mormon communities, institutional structures, and global networks. Familiar turf is a good place to find the first foothold in a wide-ranging journey.

In Doctrine & Covenants 58:27, God admonishes people not to wait to be told what to do, but to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” and to “do many things of their own free will.” So what can we do? The most fundamental step is awareness. If every member of the Church knew about this problem, it would quickly cease to be a problem.

I am not a social media or mass marketing genius, but here’s a video, “I Am a Child of God,” from the Liahona Children’s Foundation website. If this clip were shared with 120,000 Latter-day Saints on social media, and each of those people donated just one dollar, it would raise $120,000—enough to provide a year’s worth of nutritional supplements to Primary children in 20,000 stakes.

Beyond the matter of donations, if you are looking for a purpose to focus your fast this Fast Sunday, June 1st, please remember thousands of Primary children in our global wards and branches who experience hunger not monthly, but daily.

In The Pearl of Great Price, the book of Moses (chapter 7, verse 18) defines the Lord’s people: “And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”

I am not so naïve as to expect that a few million Mormons can singlehandedly eliminate the world’s great problems, like hunger or malaria, simply by flexing their organizational muscles. I’m not calling for a massive social engineering project to globally redistribute wealth. However, I know who we are and who were are trying to be. If we truly desire to establish Zion, then we must first seek out the poor among us. In today’s global church, being “one” is both more daunting and more possible than ever before.

[1] This estimate of 120,000 malnourished LDS children is a current figure given by Dr. Robert Rees of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, who spoke about the Foundation’s work in Hong Kong on May 21, 2014.

* In an earlier version of this post, I erroneously mentioned Nigeria as a place where the Liahona Children’s Foundation was working. It does not currently have any operations in Nigeria, however.

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  • Guest

    It is hard to be critical of an article advocating increased assistance for the poor. However, in order to correctly assess the extent of any problem and address it properly, it is important to think critically of assessments and proffered solutions.

    In particular, the basis for the Liahona Children Foundation’s estimate that 120,000 children in the Church are malnourished has apparently never been published or subject to critical review. Dr. Rees gave this estimate in a speech and, at the same time, mentioned that 50% of the children he had screened in Cambodia and Guatemala were malnourished. Exactly who he was screening (was the screening conducted primarily in poor areas and were only the poor of the area showing up?) and how he extrapolated this data for the entire Church (did he simply use the screening data and extrapolate it out for Church members in all third world countries?) is unclear. His definition of malnourished is also unclear; there are differing degrees of malnourishment.

    What if only 60,000 are malnourished? What if 240,000 are malnourished? What if the majority of those malnourished are in only a few countries and only in certain areas of those countries? What if the malnourished children are primarily in families of people who have converted within the previous couple of years and in areas where Church organizational structures are still in development? Answers to questions like these are important to properly diagnosing the problem.

    Separately, there is a question of whether this is a resource issue or an organizational issue. The Church likely already has enough resources to help malnourished member children, but needs more organizational support. Perhaps the solution is more about getting additional senior missionaries out into the field to help new converts in rural areas than providing more funds.

    Dr. Rees’s efforts to help malnourished children should be applauded and supported. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think critically of his estimates regarding and diagnosis of the problem. Maybe his estimates are accurate. Maybe it is just well-intentioned alarmism meant to jolt the apathetic (at the cost of painting the Church and its leaders in a bad light).

    • davedd233

      zhoushuaige ,

      I recommend you take a look at the comment by Brad Walker, listed above. He co-founded the Liahona Children’s Foundation and currently serves as its president.

    • estevanwalker

      Hmmm….this is an interesting point. I’m not much of a social media person being an old doctor (never used FaceBook), but in the few times I’ve fooled around with blogs/social media, it tends to be hijacked by folks with axes to grind–not only LDS stuff, it’s the same with non-LDS stuff, perhaps worse–think political stuff. So I’m thinking no matter what we do (our website has good contextual info on it related to global malnutrition), it’s probably hopeless to stop folks from presenting info in an incomplete and attacking manner. I remember when the SLTribune published a blog article on our work back in Oct 2013; the comments had nothing to do with our work and were pretty inflammatory. I’ll ask Dave Dixon who’s on our board to watch this–perhaps some polite F/U sometimes would help when comments are posted somwhere. Unless someone tells me I’ll have no idea when something’s posted someone, and we only have so much time to chase down other people’s blogs.

  • RaymondSwenson

    At the end of World War II, the Church sent Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to Europe to assess the needs of the surviving members in Europe who had been on both sides of the war. Before the war, Germany had the largest population of LDS outside the USA. President George Albert Smith approached US President Truman about transportation channels for food and clothing that the Church could provide, that would aid both Mormons and their neighbors.in recipient countries. Truman was surprised that the materials were already assembled and ready to be shipped.

    Similarly, one theme of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s epistles was aid that was collected from the new branches of the Church to help the Saints in Jerusalem.

    This is what the Saints of God always do. We comfort those who stand in need of comfort, for we know that when we are serving our fellow beings, we are serving God our Father. This is what we are organized for.

  • estevanwalker

    This is Brad Walker, MD, MPH, Diplomat, American Board of Preventive Medicine, and President of the Liahona Children’s Foundation. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to this posting, which was done by a wonderful sister with interest in our Foundation’s work (although not a board member of same). I’ll try to contribute with a few thoughts:
    (1) As a Foundation, we believe both statements of our Church leaders and our scriptures compel us to reach out and eliminate malnutrition/starvation in Church children around the globe. In no way do we feel such advocacy constitutes a criticism of Church leaders or the Church itself, which accomplishes so much good in the world for which we are grateful via its welfare and humanitarian arms. That does not mean that as members we should not get involved in an area where the welfare or humanitarian arms are not presently functioning.
    (2) We have internally among our board members the ability to critically estimate the # of malnourished LDS children around the globe (see http://www.liahonachildren.org Board Members). The details would probably put tears to most people’s eye’s, but I’d be glad to discuss with someone who’s interested in the mathematical details–email liahonachildren@gmail.com. The estimate is based on WHO malnutrition data along with membership/activity statistics from a variety of sources. Having screened nearly 60 stakes for malnutrition and identified around 4000 malnourished LDS children among 9000 children screened, it’s pretty clear there’s a significant problem–the estimate most likely would have CI of +/- 25% or so, not the 100% proposed by the below brother. I’d think at this point further studies to get a more precise estimate would be inadvisable–it’s much better to increase the number of malnourished receiving assistance than to study a problem, literally, “to death”.
    (3) They organizational key to ending hunger/illiteracy in LDS children is calling local sisters to be the advocates for the children and get them the help they need. We have never gone to a stake or district where wonderful sisters have not been willing to give of themselves to make sure the kids get the opportunity to live and thrive in life. Senior and sister missionaries can also be very valuable in the work (and elders for screening the kids initially) but they come and go so quickly–it’s much better to train people locally. Think of the seminary and institute system, but call it “LDS Children’s Humanitarian Services” instead, but with a similar organization.

    • Guest

      Thanks for your post and your work. There can be no question
      that this is a serious problem, about the great value of your work or about your desire to help the church and its members.

      A simple internet search of your foundation’s name and the 120,000
      estimate shows that this estimate has been cited mostly to attack the church. The line of criticism is that the church is spending billions of dollars annually on meetinghouses, temples and developments while many of its child members starve. Of course the truth is more complex than that (for reasons you probably understand as much as anyone) but this criticism evidences the limitations of describing the problem with a single data point.

      If your intention is to inform rather than merely raising alarm, more important than publishing calculation methodology and definitions on the foundation’s website to back up the figure’s accuracy, you may consider publishing contextual information, such as comparative data with general populations, information regarding the relevance to membership, as well as further descriptions of the problems, causes and solutions.

  • David1945

    Message for Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye
    Dear Ms. Inouye,
    You possess an all encompassing humanitarian vision of the world that is both impressive and refreshing.
    In a world in which the challenges can often appear daunting, if not totally impossible to solve or even just ameliorate, you appear to have managed to find an inner Peace with respect to such facts and what one can do.
    I am doing research on the late brilliant Scientist, Dr. Vilma Hunt who recently passed away in Dec. 2013. It must have been an immense source of comfort for Dr. Hunt to spend time with you in her final months as clearly you and she were closely tied Kindred Spirits. Assisting Dr. Hunt with her Life’s work must surely have been exceedingly helpful to that great scholar and selfless woman whilst simultaneously providing you with much personal satisfaction and pleasure to be working so closely with such a phenomenal and incomparable human being.
    I would be deeply grateful if you would email me privately, regarding some of the research on which Dr. Hunt was engaged around the time you were assisting her.
    I can be contacted at david (underline) pakter (at) msn (dot) com
    Many thanks Ms. Inouye for contacting me at your convenience.
    Kind regards, David Pakter, M.A., M.F.A.