“Community Service: Reaching beyond Our Circle,” Ensign, Oct. 1986, 45
“Are you a Christian, as well as a Mormon?” The headline for an ad soliciting community service volunteers caught Roger Freeman’s eye. A Sunday School teacher, home teacher, and father of nine, he had never been accused of not serving his fellowman. But still the question stirred him.
Brother Freeman phoned the community service agency that had placed the ad and asked how he could help. He was given names of some elderly people who needed various tasks done around their homes.
Since that day several years ago, Brother Freeman has mowed lawns, repaired furniture, cleaned yards, and done odd jobs in many of the older sections of Salt Lake City—usually taking along a few of his children to help. Every few months, he calls the agency for more names. He has cried a little, seeing people who are poor and lonely. Occasionally, he befriends and then maintains some personal contact. He wishes he could do more.
Where does he find the time to reach beyond his circle of family and church associations? “It doesn’t take much time,” says Brother Freeman. As to inclination, he explains, “It’s mostly a matter of getting outside of myself. Sometimes I think of the Savior walking down the dusty roads he walked. He was aware of people’s needs.”
Serving those around us is not a mere appendage to the gospel. In fact, King Benjamin equated serving each other with serving the Lord. (See Mosiah 2:17.) Brother Lowell Bennion, who runs the community service agency that Brother Freeman called, feels that Saints should go to church not to be satisfied, but to “be fired up to get out and serve our neighbors in need.”
King Benjamin also taught that neighborly helping is a prime responsibility of those who have been converted to Christ’s gospel. To those who had just experienced conversion, he said:
“For the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (Mosiah 4:26.)
We must not limit our helping to those of our own faith, for human need—not church affiliation—defines our responsibility to our neighbors. Rather than agonizing about human need in the abstract, we can do something concrete about those near us. Here are stories of some Latter-day Saints who are doing just that.
When Colleen Evans read about a summer camp for cancer victims in New York state, she began to think about children in her community who were suffering from cancer. She also began to think of ways she could help. About that time, the Young Adult group in her stake—the Richland Washington Stake—was looking for a service project for the year.
Within three months, about fifty young adults had organized Camp Betchacan, the first summer camp for young cancer patients in the Pacific Northwest. The young adults held “dance-athons,” charity dinners, and door-to-door fund drives. They found a campsite and doctors willing to volunteer their services. They themselves served as camp counselors.
By Memorial Day 1982, forty children—twenty cancer victims, along with brothers, sisters, and friends—had enjoyed swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, picnicking, hay riding, hiking, and presenting a talent show. One child’s mother wrote: “The opportunity for Dan to go to camp and be just like everyone else was one of the greatest gifts he could ever receive.”
The blessings of serving are always felt by those who reach, as well as those who are reached for. One young woman was investigating the gospel when she was recruited as a camp counselor. The young Latter-day Saints at camp exemplified a love and respect for Christ she had never encountered. Within a week after the camp ended, she was baptized.
With funding from the American Cancer Society, Camp Betchacan grew over the next two years. In 1985, the society took over operation of the camp and also opened a similar camp in Seattle. What began as one person’s impulse to help has become a community resource that is expanding to bless many children in the northwestern United States.
Spiritual needs may not be as obvious as temporal ones, but they are just as urgent. Brother B. Lloyd Poelman is concerned about a cancer that attacks souls—pornography. An attorney and father of nine, he has served as bishop, mission president, and counselor in the Sunday School General Presidency. He currently teaches Sunday School in his Salt Lake City ward. But, until recently, his community service was limited.
Then, several years ago, he helped form Citizens for Positive Community Values, a group made up of community leaders of all faiths. Their approach to fighting pornography is low-key. Insteading of picketing theaters, they focus on educating the public.
Brother Poelman brings his legal training to the problem. He points out that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees free speech, does not protect obscene material. Indecency can also be regulated, and one of the factors that helps determine if something is illegal is whether it offends community standards. “At present we have a catch-22 situation,” says Brother Poelman. “People aren’t complaining about pornography, so it seems that nobody is offended. And since pornography is not being prosecuted, people assume that it is legal and don’t complain.”
The cycle can be broken when people step forward to express their values. Then literature and entertainment that offends those values can be prohibited. The aim of Brother Poelman’s group is to give people a forum where they can express their values.
At first, Brother Poelman was somewhat uncomfortable stepping into this area of service. But he has proceeded boldly—inviting others to become involved, holding a press conference, and generously giving of his time. He has attended and chaired national conferences on pornography. The group has sponsored luncheons with law-enforcement officials and produced a videotape to be presented to civic and church groups.
Citizens for Positive Community Values is now open for membership to all who wish to add their voices to the call for decency. Once the group becomes stronger, they plan to turn their attention to drug abuse and child abuse.
When Sister Debbie Ball served as activities chairman in the Woden Branch, she took to heart the Lord’s promise that those who lose themselves in his service will actually find their lives. (See Matt. 10:39.) So, rather than focusing on social activities designed to entertain the members, Sister Ball set out to mobilize the members to bless their neighbors.
The Woden Branch is small. Only about thirty families take active part in the branch, whose boundaries include about 90,000 people in the Australian national capital of Canberra. What could this small band of Saints do to bless their neighbors? Plenty, thought Sister Ball.
The branch’s first project was to collect money for the Red Cross. Going door to door in the area near the chapel, the members of the Woden Branch collected $1,700—quite a large sum for such a small area. And, true to the Lord’s promise, the branch began to feel new life—in the form of baptisms and greater unity.
The branch members have also felt an increased desire to serve. They next organized a fund-raising drive for an organization for the handicapped. This time, they worked at a local shopping mall, raising $2,000. In gratitude, the organization presented a plaque to the branch.
Next, the branch held a blood drive for a local hospital. Then they collected money for a special swimming pool for use in physical therapy.
Sister Ball has now moved from Canberra. But the members of the Woden Branch have committed themselves to continue reaching beyond their circle.
A young man tumbles from his sled into a snowdrift. Friends run to offer help. Waving his snow-covered arms and legs, he chortles, “No, no, I like the snow!” He is part of an enthusiastic group of young people in Rexburg, Idaho, who meet together for outdoor activities—snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, ice fishing, scuba diving, and water skiing.
But this is no ordinary group. Most of its number suffer from physical handicaps—spina bifida, cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness. They are part of ROCHA—short for Ricks Outdoor Cooperative Handicapped Association—a program pioneered in 1984 by Steve Anderson.
Steve knows firsthand about meeting the challenges of physical handicaps. Steve himself is a victim of severe cerebral palsy. After earning a master’s degree in educational psychology, he found it impossible to convince an employer to hire him. Finally, he approached two of his former professors from Ricks College. They agreed to supervise him in developing an activities program for handicapped students at Ricks and for handicapped people from the Upper Snake River Valley.
Through ROCHA, people confined to wheelchairs now take part in a bowling league, using a ramp made especially for them. Those with limited use of their legs can ski with “sit-and-ski” sleds.
Accompanying these people on camping trips, river runs, and skiing trips are Ricks College students volunteering as aides. “Both the able-bodied and the handicapped give and receive service, spirit meeting spirit,” says Steve.
Steve loves the Hopi story of a great bird who fell from the heavens, too weak to fly. As time passed, the bird gathered strength, stretched its wings, and one day began to fly. It flew with such beauty and grace that even stones wept with joy.
Steve considers it a miracle that he and his friends have been able to stretch their wings and begin to fly. “Our Father in Heaven has promised to make weak things strong,” says Steve. “In this promise lies our hope.”
In the small community of McGrath, Alberta, Latter-day Saints are in the majority. Despite good intentions on both sides of the denominational fence, some misunderstandings and hard feelings have developed over the years.
A ladies’ choir made up of mostly Latter-day Saint women has begun to heal some of the rifts among neighbors. Several years ago, the choir leaders announced that the group would ask to sing in all the local churches as a spring project. “I felt many in the choir bristle,” recalls choir member Elizabeth Davies. “The choir members who were not LDS had made their feelings against the Church well known.”
The efforts that season were successful, however, and the choir has continued this project for five years now. The results of reaching out in friendship have been gratifying, as mutual appreciation and understanding have increased. “The real change has been in me,” says Sister Davies. “I was raised in this town, but I had never had any reason to visit the other three denominations. I have been overwhelmed with the love each of those congregations has extended to us.”
Occasionally—as in 1985 when we joined in fasting to raise money for African hunger relief—the Church responds to world problems. But many have wondered why the Church, with its human resources, does not do so more often.
For the most part, the Church uses its resources to meet its basic mission. This mission has been defined as threefold: (1) to preach the gospel, (2) to redeem the dead, and (3) to perfect the Saints. With missionaries to train, temples to build, and an ever-increasing number of new converts to teach, the Church has left to us as members the responsibility to solve many problems in our communities. “We believe that to do otherwise would … be to divert the Church from its basic mission,” said President Spencer W. Kimball. (In Regional Representatives’ seminar, 31 Mar. 1978.)
The wisdom in this philosophy is suggested by the Lord’s parable of the good Samaritan: The man left half-dead on the way to Jericho had immediate needs. Could the help he needed be dispensed by a charitable organization or social institution? No; he needed immediate help of the neighborly sort—the kind that could be given only by a single person passing along the same road. The one who saved his life was a lone Samaritan, one who was willing to help without regard for religious differences. (See Luke 10:30–36.) Making the lesson of the parable explicit for his listeners, the Lord said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37.)
Many problems in our world can be best and most effectively solved in a similar way—by neighbor helping neighbor, reaching beyond circles of family and church affiliation. Even great problems can be diminished when those who follow Christ look around them, and—seeing those in need—choose to help.
In September 1968, the First Presidency encouraged Church members to reach out. This has become a classic statement on the subject of community service:
“The growing world-wide responsibilities of the Church make it inadvisable for the Church to seek to respond to all the various and complex issues involved in the mounting problems of the many cities and communities in which members live. But this complexity does not absolve members as individuals from filling their responsibilities as citizens in their own communities.
“We urge our members to do their civic duty and to assume their responsibilities as individual citizens in seeking solutions to the problems which beset our cities and communities.
“With our wide-ranging mission, so far as mankind is concerned, Church members cannot ignore the many practical problems that require solution if our families are to live in an environment conducive to spirituality.
“Where solutions to these practical problems require cooperative action with those not of our faith, members should not be reticent in doing their part in joining and leading in those efforts where they can make an individual contribution to those causes which are consistent with the standards of the Church.
“Individual Church members cannot, of course, represent or commit the Church, but should, nevertheless, be ‘anxiously engaged’ in good causes, using the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ as their constant guide.”
After reading “Community Service: Reaching beyond Our Circle,” you may want to consider the following ideas and questions.
In what ways does the Church reach out to serve both the world community and local communities?
Read Doctrine and Covenants 58:26–29 [D&C 58:26–29]. What do these verses teach about our responsibility to seek ways to serve, rather than wait for an assignment?
How does church attendance help us serve our neighbors in need?
Community service can be offered in a great variety of ways. What talents and resources could you share with your neighbors or community? What could you do as a family to serve your community or help those in need?