A Caring Community: Goodness in Action

“A Caring Community: Goodness in Action,” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 13

Community Service

A Caring Community:

Goodness in Action

From an address to the Utah League of Cities and Towns on 21 January 1998.

How our world would be transformed if the vast reservoir of goodness in individuals could somehow be focused and harnessed for the uplift and betterment of society as a whole. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Somehow the world is hungry for goodness and recognizes it when it sees it. … There’s something in all of us that hungers after the good and true” (quoted in Parade magazine, 11 Jan. 1998). I agree: goodness is the attribute most needed and longed for not only in our individual lives but also in families, communities, states, and nations.

If we are to effectively foster and utilize the great goodness of the people around us, we must strengthen both our families and our communities. The family is without question the God-given primary vehicle for the development and expression of personal goodness. But we also live in communities. One dictionary defines community as “a body of people having common organizations or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations.” People are by nature social beings whose lives and feelings are eternally connected and intertwined with those of others. Almost invariably, individuals reach their full potential only in association and in community with others.

I am grateful to have lived in good communities in Canada, England, and the United States. As Elder Erastus Snow, an Apostle and an early pioneer, said: “What man, however good be his desires, can control himself and his family in their habits and manners of life and fashions, without the aid of the surrounding community? What sensible man can hold me or my brethren responsible, in all respects, either for ourselves or our households, unaided by the community, and while the community are all working against us? But when the community learn to work together, and are agreed in a common purpose, what is it that they cannot accomplish? Union is strength” (Deseret News Semi-Weekly, 12 May 1874, 1).

This concept of mutual interdependence is well-illustrated by the following words, which John Winthrop, later the first governor of the colony of Massachusetts, read to fellow Puritans aboard the Arbella on their voyage to what has evolved into the United States of America: “We must be knit together in this work as one. … We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together … as members of the same body” (“A Model of Christian Charity,” in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 2nd ed. [1986], 14). That remains our task and our destiny today.

At the same time, however, each person must retain his or her own autonomy. The distinctiveness—indeed, uniqueness—and independence of “the one” are essential for the health of the community. The reverse is also true: healthy communities are required for the full health of individuals. Communities which do not recognize the sanctity of the individual, which treat people only as a means to further some supposedly greater good and subsume all into the lowest common denominator, destroy individuality, and quickly become tyrannical and coercive. As there is strength in a society with common purpose, so too there is strength in diversity. This lesson must not be lost on those charged with responsibility to make and administer public policy.

As families nurture and strengthen individuals, so also communities nurture families, providing a setting within which they can become and stay strong. Families are both protected and assisted by strong communities. Strong community organizations, including schools, churches, councils, service clubs, and so on, supplement and complement the efforts of parents, not only making their work easier but often making the difference between success and failure. Without denying in any way the paramount importance of the family, the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child has much truth in it.

If experience shows that it is much easier to raise and maintain strong families if the community is strong, the reverse also is true. It is much more difficult for families to succeed if the community is divided, uncaring, run-down, crime-ridden, and unsafe. If adults do not care about children, if children are exposed daily to sights and sounds which frighten, threaten, and intimidate them, and if young people have constantly before them flagrant examples of evil and wrongdoing, their lives will eventually be twisted and blighted. How difficult it is for a child in many settings in this and every other state to grow up physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually healthy, regardless of what his or her family struggles to accomplish. The wickedness of the streets is a potent teacher of the young.

Of course there are exceptions to the general rule that strong communities are needed if we are to have strong families. Just as some individuals somehow overcome the limitations of severely dysfunctional families, so too some families do reasonably well even in severely dysfunctional communities. But the odds are much against such happening.

Volunteerism—freely-given service to others—is a powerful aid in our struggle to forge and maintain strong communities. It is important to note that each community has its own set of problems, which often can best be dealt with by local people applying local solutions. In saying this we recognize, of course, that there are circumstances when problems are best dealt with on a regional or even national basis.

Why is service to others such a powerful part of bringing the efforts of individuals to bear on the problems of our communities and of society in general? The answer, I believe, is found in this simple truth: service drives out selfishness, which is the eternal enemy of good. The great religious leaders of history, and many secular leaders as well, have recognized that fact and taught it to their listeners.

We live in a society drenched with selfishness, a society which promotes and rewards excessive materialism, a society which increasingly mocks and derides moral principles, a society which worships secularism. Once the light of goodness is dimmed, individuals and society lose both their ability to distinguish between right and wrong and the will to act on what is right. Many are left to grope in the darkness, knowing not where to turn, stumbling, losing their way, forever falling back. Against that somber and darkening background these words of John Adams, the second president of the United States, ring with special force: “Our Constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other” (Reply to the Massachusetts Militia, 11 Oct. 1789).

Some there are, and shrill their voices, who proclaim that ideas of morality and goodness have no place in the formulation and execution of public policy. I remind those of that view that the founders of this nation knew otherwise. They understood that private morality is the fount from whence sound public policy springs. Replying to George Washington’s first inaugural address, the Senate stated: “We feel, sir, the force and acknowledge the justness of the observation that the foundations of our national policy should be laid in private morality. If individuals be not influenced by moral principles, it is in vain to look for public virtue” (quoted in The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, ed. Charles R. Kesler [1987], 67).

In his address of 19 September 1796, given as he prepared to leave office, President Washington spoke about the importance of morality to the country’s well-being: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. … And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. … Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?” (quoted in William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues [1993], 794–95). Washington doubtless knew well these words by the writer of the Old Testament book of Psalms: “Except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it” (Ps. 127:1).

Despite our unprecedented national economic prosperity, there remains, I believe, a pessimistic and anxious mood abroad. The ethos of many nations—their moral, spiritual, and aesthetic character and habits—is ill and in serious need of treatment. We see this illness in the increased coarseness, vulgarity, stress, and cynicism evident in contemporary society. A growing percentage have lost confidence in the capacity—or even the will—of governments, industry, unions, and churches to provide fair and equitable solutions to society’s problems. Too many are cynical about the motives and actions of governments at all levels; the cynicism increases the further government is removed from those whose lives it affects. The phrase “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you,” evokes only derisive laughter from many. Bickering and mean-spirited quarreling within government bodies only enhances the lack of confidence in elected leaders felt by many members of the public.

Too much of today’s public discourse is characterized by name calling, character assassination, and gratuitous insults directed to those who disagree with the views of the speaker. Many in the media, of course, love a good fight, but the quality of public policy suffers. Is it any wonder that increasing numbers of good people are unwilling to put up with a constant barrage of ad hominem attacks and refuse to have anything to do with public service?

Those who are most valiant, however, will not succumb to such temptations but will follow the well-known admonition of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat” (quoted in Clifton Fadiman, ed., The American Treasury, 1455–1955, [1955], 689).

There are, perhaps, nearly as many diagnosticians of what is wrong in society as there are chroniclers of the progressive unraveling of the moral fabric. I believe that the real reason for the crisis of our time is spiritual malaise, an exhaustion of the soul. This spiritual apathy is described by the word acedia, a word which comes from the Greek a (“not”) plus kedos (“care”)—hence, not caring, boredom, or apathy. In its modern usage acedia refers to sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins enumerated by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae.

But acedia signifies more than just spiritual laziness or even indifference. It connotes misplaced priorities, a darkening of the soul, a hatred of the good, a death of the heart. It leads to spiritual paralysis, leaving its victims “past feeling” (1 Ne. 17:45).

Acedia manifests itself in the querulous assertion that only secular arguments should be entertained on questions for which there is a morally right and a wrong answer. It is seen in the mean-spirited shouting down in a public forum of those who use arguments based on moral beliefs to object to activities they consider immoral. It is part and parcel of the erroneous view that moral positions have no place in public debate. I was saddened recently to read comments attributed to a political activist who was concerned because those who opposed her views were, she felt, doing so for what she called “moral” reasons. I thought to myself, Have we descended so far into the darkness that those who hold moral views must withhold them or conceal them by translating them into politically correct dialogue, lest they be termed bigots?

Those who accept such a view deny the existence of moral absolutes and believe that right and wrong is merely a matter of personal choice or expediency and thus open to debate. They deny any place for religious views in the public square. In other words, it’s acceptable to believe religious principles as long as those beliefs don’t have any impact on the making or the execution of public policy!

To those of that persuasion, I submit that the constitutionally guaranteed separation of church and state in America was never intended to exclude religiously grounded values from debate on public policy. These words of Richard John Neuhaus are relevant: “In a democracy that is free and robust, an opinion is no more disqualified for being ‘religious’ than for being atheistic, or psychoanalytic, or Marxist, or just plain dumb. There is no legal or constitutional question about the admission of religion to the public square; there is only a question about the free and equal participation of citizens in our public business. … Religion in public is but the public opinion of those citizens who are religious” (“A New Order of Religious Freedom,” First Things, Feb. 1992, 13).

If we are to build strong communities, we must therefore take into full and appropriate account all opinions, including those which are religiously based. Churches and church leaders, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has said, “should be able to participate in public policy debates on the same basis as other persons and organizations” (“Religious Values in Public Policy,” Ensign, Oct. 1992, 64). All opinions should be considered and judged solely on their merits. This celebrated maxim of Thomas Jefferson applies: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it” (quoted in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 16th ed. [1995], 344).

As we strive to strengthen our communities, we must encourage and indeed embrace diversity of ideas, including those which are religiously based. Let all ideas, all proposals, be judged by all citizens on the basis of their merit. And even when we agree to disagree, let us respect each other and act civilly and temperately toward each other. Let us avoid the name-calling and character assassination so common in public debate today. As John Adams wrote to his son John Quincy Adams, “Treat the world with modesty, decency, and respect” (quoted in Our Sacred Honor, ed. William J. Bennett [1997], 146).

The Brethren urge a deepened and strengthened commitment to voluntary service to our communities. As people work together in a common cause, for the common good, we find that whatever our background, convictions, or experience, there is much more which unites us than which draws us apart. No group in society has a monopoly on goodness, wisdom, talent, or energy. All are needed, all must act together as members of one body. Only then can we truly become caring communities.

What, then, are the characteristics of a caring community? They include the following:

  • Adults truly care for and are concerned about the children in their community—all children, not just their own. They get involved with the schools attended by their own and other children and are active in parent and teacher associations, neighborhood associations, community councils, and so forth. They insist on high standards in their schools, both scholastically and socially.

    These words of John Adams to his wife, Abigail, ring true: “It should be your care … to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives” (quoted in Our Sacred Honor, 240).

  • All community members are concerned about cleanliness and orderliness in the community. They do not participate in or tolerate vandalism or minor crimes. They support law-enforcement officials. They keep a watchful and protective eye on public places, take pride in belonging to their community, and have a solid sense of attachment to it. Their homes and gardens are neat and attractive.

  • All members of the community offer charity and hope to each other, in good times and bad, making certain that the most vulnerable members of society are given special care. They form close attachments with others regardless of their ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural differences. They see others not as “strangers and foreigners” but as “fellowcitizens” (Eph. 2:19).

  • Community members make their views known on matters of public policy and vote for men and women who reflect those values, recognizing that we are not likely to get that which we do not speak up for.

  • Community members join common causes with other men and women of goodwill and anxious heart who share their concern about the present and future, reflecting in their actions these words of Edmund Burke: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle” (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3rd. ed. [1987], 108).

  • Many community members, young and old, provide voluntary service to others on a continuing basis, recognizing that the true meaning and measure of life lies not in material possessions but in giving and sharing.

How do Latter-day Saints stack up to these ideals? Surprisingly well, I think. We can take justifiable pride in what has been accomplished. There is a deep reservoir of goodness among our people throughout the world. But much remains to be done. Let’s get at it!

Background photos © Photodisc

Top left: Families brave the cold to plant trees and beautify the grounds of Frazier Mountain High School south of Bakersfield, California. (Photo by Pam Kovacevich.) Above: Volunteers pull trash from Idaho’s Snake River as part of a cleanup effort. Lower left: With a colorful mural in the background, Carlos Garcia explains a scholarship program to students in his east Los Angeles community. (Photo by Jerry Garns.)

Top: Members help maintain grounds and buildings at the Las Familias Center for Child Sexual Abuse Treatment in Tucson, Arizona. Center: Steve La Fond is a volunteer chaplain for the Garden Grove police in the Los Angeles area. (Photo by Jerry Garns.) Below: Members of the Orlando Florida Stake put up “no dumping” signs to protect water.

Right: Julia McGowan arranges clothing on racks at Emergency Infant Services, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Center: The Arapahoe Colorado Stake Relief Society made and donated 120 quilts to local agencies. Below: Jacqueline Rome (right) regularly helps disabled people exercise in Central Park, New York City (photo by Kah Leong Poon).

Top: Youth from Greenfield, Ohio, clear foliage from a bicycle trail. Right: A young helper weeds at the Las Familias Center in Tucson, Arizona. Bottom: A Connecticut family volunteers to raise puppies till they are old enough to be trained as guide dogs.