In 1990 Revered John Heinemeier gathered with other local ministers to solve the housing crisis in East Brooklyn. Together they developed an innovative housing program to construct 5,000 single-family housing units designed for lower-income buyers. East Brooklyn Churches (or EBC) had a long-term vision of what they needed done but there was much to overcome. These neighborhoods were crumbling, impoverished and drug-ridden. The majority of middle class families had long since fled the area.
The EBC found inspiration for their ambitious endeavor in the story of Nehemiah who had been sent by the King of Babylon in 420 back to Jerusalem to facilitate the rebuiling of the city. “You see the trouble we are in, How Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the walls of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer in disgrace.” So, the Nehemiah Housing Project was begun
Through determined dialogue with each other the ministers of East Brooklyn Churches recognized that only homeownership for the majority could create the stable kind of community that they wanted and so that’s where they began. They met with top political officials, enlisted the media, raised vast amounts of money and were ultimately effective with the housing initiative, completely transforming East Brooklyn.
In 1992 Boston experienced more than 150 homicides–mostly adolescents. When gang members invaded a funeral service in a local church Revered Jeffrey Brown decided to take action. Reverend Brown realized that to help these youth he had to go where they were. He and Reverends Raymond Hammond and Eugene Rivers started walking the streets of Boston at night. They became activist clergy who weren’t afraid to work with the inner-city urban youth on the street-level. They organized the Ten Point Coalition to fight drugs and gang-violence and were personally out there at night doing street-level intervention. They spent time with and developed relationships with these adolescents. They worked with police and parents. By 1997 there was a 60% reduction in firearm incidents and the city had gone for more than two years without a juvenile homicide.
Where are LDS initiatives like these? Why don’t Mormon bishops (or members in general) initiate housing programs for the poor like Reverend Heinemeier or walk the streets of Boston at night like Reverend Brown? There are many Latter-day Saints in large cities like Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Why aren’t Latter-day Saints to be found on the streets fighting crime, drugs,
gang-violence or organizing housing initatives in urban slums? Are we blind or indifferent to these social problems? Certainly there are plenty scriptures in the LDS canon that require social action on our parts.
Perhaps the most obvious reaon for why Mormon bishops don’t walk the streets trying to fight crime is that on the local level, the LDS Church is run by unpaid volunteers. A lay ministry of volunteers means that Latter-day Saints who serve as bishops do so in addition to working full-time in a profession. In other words, Mormon bishops are also realtors, grocers, businessmen, accountants, scientists, mechanics, bankers and doctors at
the same time they hold ecclesiastical office. These men often have large
families as well. On a purely practical level then, it would be difficult for a
Mormon bishop to make time to walk the streets of Boston to fight crime.
Nevertheless, while this practical difficulty needs to be acknowledged, it is
ultimately unsatisfactory as an answer to my original question.
Of course, Latter-day Saints are concerned with responding to need. The LDS Church is well-known for its generous humanitarian donations. 75 million dollars have been given in the last fifteen years for international disaster relief efforts. During this period, the LDS Church distributed 216,000 tons of
materials to assist suffering citizens of 147 countries. However, this seems to
me to be closely related to John Heinemeier’s condemnation of the citizens of
Boston being very charitable in terms of handing out money, but not very
effective at producing systemic change. What do Latter-day Saints do on the
national and local levels to produce social change?
The LDS Church has an organized social service system (now called LDS family services) which is in essence a counseling service with 55 offices internationally. These offices are run by LDS staff, all of whom
hold Master’s degrees at a minimum in psychology or something similar. Topics
they counsel on include issues as wide-ranging as domestic violence, adoption,
eating disorders, pornography, drug abuse, suicide, depression, same-sex
attraction and divorce among others. Besides LDS family services the LDS Church has a large welfare program which includes a number of projects. First, the welfare program sponsors Deseret Industries, a Salvation Army-like chain of
stores which provide second-hand clothing and furniture for those who are
struggling financially. Second, the welfare program includes bishops’
storehouses, which receive and dispense money collected (consecrated offerings) from members of the Church for those in the ward who
are without. Third, the LDS Church has huge land holdings of orchards, cattle
ranches, farms, canneries, granaries and dairies from which food is picked,
packaged and sold at wholesale (sometimes even given) to members who suffer from hunger. Fourth, in recent years the Perpetual Education fund was established to help members of the Church in 17 international areas (particularly Central and South America) gain an education and “rise out of poverty.” The Fund is set up as a loan program instead of a scholarship program to teach sacrifice and self-reliance. In the three years since PEF’s inception more than 10,000 loans have been made. Millions of dollars have been donated by members of the LDS Church for this effort. President Hinckley, said the following about the Perpetual Education Fund, “I believe that the Lord does not wish to see His people condemned to live in poverty. I believe He would have the faithful enjoy the good things of the earth.”
While I am proud of these efforts and accomplishments of the LDS Church on one hand, I am dismayed at the same time. With the exception of the humanitarian aid for disaster relief internationally, these programs are all directed at helping Latter-day Saints in particular, not the larger population. Is it only the “His people” that the Lord doesn’t want condemned to live in poverty? Does God really only want the “faithful to enjoy the good things of the earth”? Although there are many texts within LDS scripture that call for an ethic of social solidarity, particularly with the poor, it is notably lacking in LDS social
practice. Why the lack? Are we hypocrites? Are we blind? Do we try, but fail
because of incompetence on some level?
As I’ve struggled to make sense of this disconnect between LDS theology and LDS behavior, I’ve found what I think is an important consideration for
understanding the ostensible indifference Latter-day Saints have towards the
poor or towards crime. Latter-day Saint effort towards those outside the Church
is first and foremost directed at saving souls. Currently there are 60,000
missionaries all over the world working on this endeavor. Missionaries or their immediate families pay for these missions sometimes at great financial sacrifice. What is the impetus for this kind of sacrifice? Why not put those resources and all that time into fighting inner-city crime? President Benson
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The
world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of the
people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. … Christ changes men,
who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (“Born of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1985, 6).
I don’t disagree that Christ can change human nature, but there is something that disturbs me about the idea that the poor need to take themselves out of the slums.
Still, President Benson seems almost to be talking to me when he wrote,
“Some may ask why we as a people and church quietly and consistently seek to
change individuals while there are such large problems about us. … But decaying
cities are simply a delayed reflection of decaying individuals. … The
commandments of God give emphasis to improvement of the individual as the only real way to bring about the real improvement of society” (A Plea for America , 18).
I understand and agree that if you can help people understand who they really are as children of God, help them to repent through the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and be baptized in His name, covenanting with God to obey God’s commandments that dramatic change will follow. Still, even if the person takes herself out of the slums, don’t the slums still exist? Are we as Latter-day Saints so untouched by the realities of US poverty, drug abuse, gang violence and teenage homicide that these things have become other people’s problems—signs of the times that we are to shun but not help to solve?