“Thirteen Wards,” Ensign, Feb. 1979, 5
It was 9:30 Christmas morning, 1977. When Milton B. Thacker, bishop of the Casper Second Ward, Casper Wyoming Stake, picked up his ringing phone, he heard muffled sobs, then a woman’s desperate voice: “Bishop, it’s terrible, it’s terrible. Can you come quickly?”
His throat tightened. “Who is it?”
“It’s Sharon Forakis. Can you come?”
Bishop Thacker prayed the whole ten miles. Irey Forakis, a former member of the ward bishopric, had been paralyzed from the waist down for three years, the result of a devastating accident. From two miles away the bishop saw smoke billowing out of their home and prayed that both of them were safe. They were outside when he slammed his car to a halt. “You’ll never know the relief I felt,” he remembers.
The day after Christmas Bishop Thacker called a special welfare services committee meeting, and Brother Richard Baird was asked to guide the rebuilding. The Forakis home had been completely destroyed, and their insurance would barely cover the cost of new materials. But it was enough. In June 1978 the ward celebrated at the housewarming of a new home, built largely by the donated labor of ward members.
This is a classic case of Church welfare in action; but Church welfare extends beyond rebuilding a home. It also rebuilds lives and self-respect, encourages self-sufficiency, and strengthens spirituality. Many of the most desperate needs can never be discussed since bishops preserve the confidentiality of their ward members.
But from London to Perth, Australia, every bishop wrestles with the same questions: How can he determine what his members need? How can he involve the other ward members? How can he help spiritually as well as temporally? And the most difficult question of all—how can he prevent improper use of Church welfare assistance?
Casper is the booming energy center of Wyoming. In four years Bishop Thacker’s membership has zoomed from 390 to 720 people, including nine former bishops, all three members of the stake presidency, and four high councilors. He estimates that ward members fill about fifty percent of the stake positions as well. Most of his members are well off economically and so the welfare committee is free to cope with prevention as well as emergencies. “We’re saving ourselves problems later,” says Bishop Thacker.
For instance, the elders quorum president, Robert Kemper, has time to handshape temple preparation seminars for six ward couples.
And an LDS Social Services worker from Denver comes about once a month to assist in helping some members who need special counseling and to conduct special training to help parents avoid problems normally encountered in raising a family. Repainting a sister’s home is important.
Bishop Thomas Preston Smith, at the age of thirty-one, presides over one of the smaller wards in the church—Miami Second. Its 270 members are distributed among 151 families. Many of them are converts; many young people are the only members of the Church in their families.
In an area just developing its regional storehouse and cannery, Miami operates from its welfare budget funds and fast offerings. Bishop Smith is particularly sensitive to the spiritual dimension of welfare. “The dole would meet only their physical needs,” he says. “Church welfare serves their temporal and spiritual needs. People need to feel they’re doing worthwhile things.”
When one sister lost her job, the elders quorum president found her another which actually paid better. When a mother of two was left with no income or marketable skills, Bishop Smith worked with her to find a part-time job and helped her rent out part of her home as well. Welfare commodities make up the difference.
All recipients of Church welfare work for the aid in some way; this includes addressing envelopes, custodial work, and participating in ward welfare projects.
Bishop David C. Moore of Jersey City Ward has lived in the crowded industrial area all of his life. Like nearly all members of his ward, he is a convert—a result of the New York World’s Fair. His ward welcomed about seventy converts in 1977–78. Most of his ward speaks Spanish, but members come from twenty-nine different countries; and in twelve months they had 327 changes in membership—new converts coming in and others moving out. “We consider ourselves a training ward,” he says. “We help our members learn English, get better jobs, and go out to become great members of other wards.”
One of those training areas is in welfare principles. Operating from fast offering funds, he solves a lot of rent and grocery problems, but ties welfare tightly to working. He gives receipts for the hours worked. Special ward projects as well as chapel maintenance on a fifty-year-old building provide ample opportunities for work.
The ward welfare services committee also spends a lot of time making connections between members and community resources. Local training courses in English and vocational skills have proven valuable. Two brothers with drinking problems were signed up with the local Alcoholics Anonymous. And the bishop spends a lot of time counseling. “In an average month, I probably counsel with thirty or forty people,” he said. There are family problems, financial problems, work and educational problems.
Bishop Dale M. Holyoak of Wichita First Ward also has a high percentage of converts—about 70 percent. Since most members are salaried or hourly workers in industry or self-employed in small thriving businesses, he wouldn’t call anybody in his ward “poor.” Thus, welfare problems take longer to develop and are correspondingly more difficult to resolve.
Lack of money management skills underlies many problems, so the elders’ quorum conducts financial management classes for the whole ward. A struggling businessman even received private tutoring on taxes and growth income. One member, backed against the wall financially, borrowed money from a disreputable source and then, unable to pay it back, went through a two-month “collection” nightmare: he was mugged, his wife and children were threatened, and someone threw bricks through his windshield. After it seemed every possibility for relief had been exhausted, the Lord answered continuing fervent prayer when a family member was able to borrow the sum from another source.
Bishop Holyoak relies heavily on the home teachers, visiting teachers, and the ward welfare services committee. The Relief Society president is of great help to sisters in need since “she has boundless energy and a fine rapport with women of the ward.” The bishop’s main problem is time. “When you’ve got two or three situations that need almost daily care, you know you’re neglecting other members. And these things are hard on you. I’ve come to understand what I think Paul meant about suffering with Christ. [See Rom. 8:17]. A bishop, at times, suffers with his people.”
Bishop David A. Whetten corroborates Bishop Holyoak’s feelings about time pressures.
His solution is to reserve counseling cases of transgression and the dispersing of funds for himself, but to draw on ward experts for almost everything else.
The bishop indicates that divorce “tends to dominate our welfare problems.” In some cases, his Champaign, Illinois First Ward has provided temporary foster care for the children of single mothers buckling under the burden. Bishop Whetten delegated the former bishop of the ward, an understanding and compassionate man, to counsel with a teenage son and mother trapped in conflict.
He also believes in stopping problems before they start and in the past two years has organized one-day clinics to educate ward members in money management, nutrition, buying a home, gardening, and community resources.
Bishop Dick Chappell, serving as bishop in Odessa for the second time, spends a lot of time on emergencies. Odessa is an oil town with a population on the move. The ward frequently helps a new family receive medical, electrical, and telephone services. The high-risk jobs bring accidents and subsequent welfare needs in their wake. Many find themselves living from paycheck to paycheck.
Bishop Chappell, an educator by training, considers one of his roles that of “welfare educator.” About seventy percent of the ward members are converts. He teaches them to go to their home teachers when they have needs. As agent bishop for the area, he also handles emergency cases of people passing through; he takes time to teach welfare principles to travelers asking for help, and checks with their home ward bishops, if possible. Those in need are helped and work for what they get. “It’s amazing how many of them discover that they don’t really need help when I explain to them that they’ll be expected to pull a few weeds first,” he says ruefully.
When a nonmember father was reluctant to accept medical help for his eight-year-old son, Bishop Chappell explained correct principles and the father agreed to have the surgery performed at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. “We consider that a double success story,” says Bishop Chappell. “Not only was the eye surgery successful, but that father became much more friendly and supportive of his family’s church activity.”
Bishop James D. Fife is also a two-time bishop in his Norman, Oklahoma area. He presides over a young ward, with only a handful of people above sixty-five.
In an area now developing its bishops’ storehouse resource system, they operate on a cash basis. The ward has “a very high per capita fast offering” and rarely uses all of it. Bishop Fife cannot recollect anyone being on “permanent” welfare, but he does meet some unique situations.
One of them occurred recently when a couple from another state relinquished their seven children for adoption, as long as it was by Mormon families. Anxious to maintain as much communication as possible among the children, LDS Social Services asked if they could all be placed in the Norman Ward. Now five ward families have a new member and one has twins. Bishop Fife’s family, already with seven children, took the oldest son themselves.
He recalls another case, a “nice trade” of services. One of the sisters in the ward needed welfare assistance for a couple of weeks. For her work assignment, they asked her to teach a widow how to drive a car. Now both women are more self-sufficient than they’ve been before.
The elders’ quorum president spotted a problem in the quorum: a young father was working eighty hours a week at unskilled jobs to make ends meet. His counsel helped the young man decide to take a part-time job and move into a rent-free, family-owned house. This move enabled him to attend vocational school, and learn a skilled trade.
“I’m a hard worker and I’m pretty independent,” confesses Bishop Fife. “But over the years I’ve come to recognize that we’re all interdependent. I still remember spending three days in the Texas Panhandle a few years ago with a broken-down car and our seven children. We were pretty strapped financially, and I called a bishop in Amarillo. He assigned a good brother to drive our family to a campground where we could stay, and then to run me back and forth getting auto parts. I couldn’t have helped myself at the time. That’s welfare.”
In the Denbigh Ward, Newport News Virginia Stake, Bishop James M. Russell III also has an enlarged vision: “Before I became bishop, I understood that welfare wasn’t a dole—but I never felt that I could accept assistance if I needed it. Now I know that I could.”
He describes himself as a “stickler for helping people solve their own problems.” He involves both the Relief Society president and the elders’ quorum president in analyzing needs and marshaling resources to assist those who may need help. He made up his own version of the family information analysis before he knew of its formal existence—and stresses the importance of work.
He especially involves his young people. In addition to “keeping track” of each other, they paid repeated visits to a single sister after she returned home from a long stay in the hospital. After she was home, she was given a work opportunity to assist the Relief Society by telephoning ward members. She could do this from bed while the young people cleaned house and cheered her up.
Possibly as a result of this experience, the Mutual asked the bishop for permission to visit a young man whose emotional problems became so severe that he had to be hospitalized. “Their visits did wonders for him. He came out of the hospital and is now active, healthy, and functioning.”
“I’m very proud of these young people,” says their bishop in his soft Virginia drawl. “They have a vision of what it’s all about—love.”
Bishop Keith C. Terry, a teacher-writer and father of nine, has his own testimony. “Welfare services have built the spiritual lives of at least a hundred people in the Fullerton Second Ward since I’ve been bishop. People have been able to put their financial lives in order so that they are not consumed with the things of this world and can concentrate on their spiritual, educational, and social growth.”
In some ways, his whole ward has learned that lesson. Fullerton Stake is divided, by design, into chunks so that each ward will cut across sharp economic boundaries. Homes in Fullerton Second Ward range from expensive $200,000 houses in the foothills to government-subsidized apartments. One of Bishop Terry’s counselors is of Chinese descent and one is of Mexican descent.
“I don’t know of any family since I’ve been bishop that I’ve given total subsistence to,” he says soberly. That’s because he goes the extra mile in involving the extended family and in finding some kind of work for everyone. He never recommends full-time employment if a mother has preschoolers, “but some of them have earned up to two-thirds of their income by cleaning homes where they can take their children along.”
The elders’ quorum, through home teachers, works closely with those in need, helping them to budget wisely and project their expenses for the next thirty days. One young couple was in debt so far that they didn’t see how they could escape for years. Home teachers and the elders’ quorum president helped inventory the family assets and liabilities, including the husband’s heavy medical expenses. The wife began teaching piano lessons. The husband found a job he could do despite health problems. He also authored a little book on music. They watched each penny. In fourteen months they had paid off their debts. In sixteen months they had made a down payment on a small home.
Bishop Terry is one of those bishops who delegates. “I have the greatest confidence in the ability of the high priest group leader, the seventies group leader, and the elders’ quorum president,” he says. “They’re devoted, dedicated men who really know the families in their charge. When people relate their troubles to me—unless it’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t be delegated—I always tell them to talk to their priesthood leader. Sometimes they’re a little shocked, but they do it.”
One home teacher became aware of a couple on the verge of splitting up, partially because of the wife’s smoking. After a consultation in the welfare services committee, the following plan was implemented: Under the bishop’s instructions, the Relief Society president called a woman to be the wife’s visiting teacher, a woman who had been a heavy smoker herself until her conversion. She worked “day and night” with that sister—“and now she’s stopped smoking. It’s because we involved a sister who really understood her needs.”
Not all problems are delegated and not all problems are aired in welfare committee meeting. One active and wealthy family was devastated when their priest-aged son became involved with drugs. Careful, delicate analysis came up with a recommendation: the boy had too much money and too much time. He needed a job. When his allowance was reduced, the boy rebelled and started stealing family items for resale. But the priesthood leadership stayed close to the parents while the son tested their limits. When another job was made available, the boy accepted it. “It’s not a success story,” added Bishop Terry, “but the situation isn’t as desperate as it was.”
He has unstinted praise for the help of the home teachers. “We have high statistics, but more important is their high involvement. They’re dedicated and resourceful and they keep in touch with their priesthood leaders.”
“When I became bishop,” he remembers, “welfare was my greatest burden. But now I’ve completely changed. I’ve seen it lift whole families into self-sufficiency—spiritual as well as temporal.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Dale L. Kober in Phoenix Twentieth Ward, Phoenix Arizona North Stake, was independently making similar discoveries. High turnover of ward membership complicates his problems. In 1977, 180 families moved in or out of the ward boundaries. The first year he was bishop, he had six ward clerks.
He is deeply concerned about the single mothers in his ward—young mothers with young children and no husbands. He found that the best way to handle that problem was to let the elders’ quorum president fulfill his stewardship. “That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in the welfare program,” he said, “the way priesthood quorum leaders take it upon themselves to seek out people who need help and bring me recommendations. My work is greatly reduced.”
A typical case: One sister with a daughter found her resources depleted by illness. Then her car broke down. She’s being assisted with welfare commodities; an elder is repairing her car, while other ward members are helping with transportation to and from her job. “In a few weeks, she’ll be on her feet again.”
One Sunday he heard that a divorced woman in the ward needed help moving—the elders’ quorum had already taken care of it. The elders’ quorum also coordinates efforts to help a blind sister do things she can’t do for herself: the home teacher balances her checkbook every month; the elders’ quorum president sprayed the bottom of her trailer-home for spiders; and the Laurels and Mia Maids drop by every few days to read to her.
Bishop Kober is a great believer in expecting the best of people. As a nonmember with a Mormon wife, he joined the Church when it became obvious that his six sons expected it. Before he was a member, he was invited by his bishop to be building fund chairman and was encouraged to do the best possible job. This lesson in doing one’s best was a great learning experience. “I’ve tried to give the priesthood leaders this same feeling of responsibility,” he says.
Bishop Donald W. Hemingway’s Twenty-fifth Ward is in Salt Lake Pioneer Stake—Welfare Square is within the stake boundaries. Fifteen or twenty orders are approved weekly for supplies from the bishops’ storehouse. Of those who receive assistance, about half are working regularly in the storehouse or on the stake farm. All who are able regularly attend church. The high priests’ quorum often prepares sacrament in the homes of the homebound.
“With those who are seeking assistance for the first time the initial interview with the bishop is most important,” says Bishop Hemingway. “Often the one desiring help will call on the phone asking for a few groceries. It is not uncommon for him to be inactive in the Church. At the time of the phone call a time is set for the interview, and both husband and wife are expected to attend. Except in unusual circumstances, the interview is held at the chapel after sacrament meeting, which they will be expected to attend. The goal of this interview is to set up a program wherein they can be helped spiritually.
“It’s easy to give people food,” he says. “But it’s more difficult to help them move spiritually to another plane.”
One family had a working father who just wasn’t earning enough money to make ends meet. “We helped them with their electric bill and the father said he’d come to church—but didn’t—and said he’d work at Welfare Square—but didn’t. This man understands his physical needs, but how do I get him to understand his spiritual needs? He needs priesthood fellowship. He needs principles of priesthood leadership in his home. But he rejects kind offers of the priesthood brethren, saying he is not ready yet. The wife, however, attends occasionally now with her two little children, and assists in the nursery in Primary.”
“We have a construction worker who builds up as much reserve as he can during the summer but occasionally needs some help in the winter. His willingness to work on the welfare farm, whether he’s actually receiving assistance or not, reflects total dedication. He’s active in his priesthood quorum; his wife fulfills an assignment in Relief Society. You feel good about helping people like this.”
He summarizes simply, “Welfare has opened the horizons of understanding human needs in a way I’ve never sensed before. I’ve sensed the growth in myself of sensitivity, understanding, and compassion. It’s also made the scriptures more meaningful. In 1 Nephi 17, Nephi describes how many of the children of Israel died rather than simply lift their eyes to look at the brazen serpent fashioned by Moses. [1 Ne. 17] Coming to sacrament meeting is a very simple thing to me, but it’s an immense hurdle for some others. As a bishop I wrestle with the question, what should I do? What kind of help would be best for them?”
He has an effective way of sharing his feelings: “Sometimes when previously inactive welfare recipients ask only for money, I ask them where they think it comes from. They nearly always say ‘tithing.’” Then I tell them, “No, there are ninety widows in this ward who go without food one day a month to provide that money by paying their fast offerings. The only way you can thank them is to join them in Church services and assist somewhere in the program so that all may benefit through cooperative effort.”
Bishop Byron L. Smith of Canby Ward, Oregon City Oregon Stake, has a different kind of educating to do. Canby is a rural area with a fairly low income. However, the bishop seldom finds more than one family a month in need of help, and then only for a short time. “I have most of my problems with priesthood holders,” he says. “I guess they feel it’s an insult to their manhood not to be able to provide all the time. I can sympathize with this. Just in the last little while I’ve had to call two different men in and chastize them for letting pride make their families go without.”
In contrast to Canby Ward, where welfare problems are rare, Arbor Ward, Salt Lake Temple View Stake, is a vital testimony of how welfare services works in the Church. Over one hundred of the ward’s 171 families are fatherless and many need assistance with rent and commodities, bills and medical expenses. Presiding over this ward with indomitable cheerfulness is Bishop Clifton E. Hedgepeth, a stocky and vigorous fifty-year-old who retired from the Army Reserve to come back to the family manufacturing business.
His philosophy of welfare is simple: “It’s not the Church that’s being tested, and it’s not the welfare recipients. It’s me.” When Elder Thomas S. Monson ordained him a bishop, he said, “Take care of your poor. If you err, be generous with the Lord’s resources.” (Elder Monson grew up in Temple View Stake. He also served as one of its bishops and later in its stake presidency.) Bishop Hedgepeth has taken that counsel to heart.
Among those being helped is a woman who has had eleven cancer operations and who is assisted with her medical bills. One woman is completely immobilized with muscular dystrophy. Her husband takes care of her full time, and the ward helps. A mother of four children has just joined the Church and is waiting for her husband to be released from jail. He’s taking the discussions from stake missionaries. A printer between jobs needed temporary assistance for about three weeks. In return, “with a lot of frustration, a lot of prayer, and a cranky old press” he produces the ward bulletin. A young married couple barely out of high school asked him to help them place their baby for adoption because they couldn’t afford it. Bishop Hedgepeth remembers, “The stake president only wanted to know one thing: ‘Do they want the baby?’” Fast offerings paid the hospital costs, the husband is working now, they have a modest apartment “and are to every meeting we hold and a few we don’t.”
“These people come up and hug me at Church,” says their bishop, “most with tears in their eyes. Other ward members observe this and understand. It’s something that brings us all closer together.”
“They’re proud people,” says Bishop Hedgepeth. “They don’t lean on each other, but they support each other. One of our home teachers has identified problems we could help with in four of the five homes he visits—from painting a front porch to putting in a new kitchen.” His grin flashes, “In some wards, I’d have to stand in line to be called to home teach. Here, I’m needed.”
Welfare services. People who need to receive. People who need to give.
When we visualize the typical welfare recipient, we may imagine an elderly widow, not quite managing on social security, who regularly receives food and other commodities. But Church Welfare Services statistics paint a different picture.
Most of those who receive welfare aid need help because of temporary unemployment. The typical recipients are a young family with two children receiving two months’ worth of help, averaging a little over three hundred dollars. While this information is not a guide for rendering assistance (priesthood leaders administer welfare under the guidance of the Spirit), it will clearly show the value of work in welfare activities.
Bishop Ray H. Moore, assistant coordinator of Welfare Square’s multi-regional storehouse for the past four and a half years, explains:
“There’s a difference between those who need real rehabilitation and those who are short of money. The people who need immediate financial assistance can be helped right away with commodities and money to meet their bills, so that they are soon back on their feet. Those with emotional or physical concerns need another kind of long-term assistance in the Lord’s way.”
Clea Hickman, office manager for bishops’ orders, Granger storehouse, talks about her job this way: “I’ve worked here for six years, ever since my husband had his back injured in an accident. I felt very hesitant to ask for help because I thought it was charity. It’s so hard to confess dependence! When new people come in, shy and afraid and sometimes in tears, it’s a real pleasure for me to say, ‘I think I know exactly how you feel. I’m in the same position myself.’ As far as I’m concerned, the welfare program means my life. We couldn’t have survived with our seven children and my own health problems if it hadn’t been for welfare. And I’m earning what we receive.”