This commentary was originally published on 16 October 2012.
A characteristic commonly attributed to Latter-day Saints is that they take care of their own. Though generally accepted as a compliment, this tells only half the story. Mormons look outward as well. The practice of cooperation among the Mormon people is being extended to larger communities and faith groups.
A community that strengthens itself has much more capacity to help other communities.
One example of this outward reach can be found in Monterey, California where during the past three years, Mormon congregations have joined with other Christian congregations to take care of the poor and needy. They feed those who can’t feed themselves and offer comfort during times of need. This interfaith community plans and organizes opportunities for their fellow believers to serve together. Similar efforts are taking place in many locales without much noise or fanfare.
So what’s behind the Mormon ethic of community? In many respects Mormon community life aspires to the model of early Christianity. That community of Saints compared their joint enterprise to “the body of Christ.” As the diverse parts of the body work together compatibly, so each individual contributes to the whole. And so it is with the Latter-day Saints.
It need not be a paradox, as the Los Angeles Times recently maintained, that the Mormon faith is “rooted in both self-reliance and communitarian idealism.” The values of shared responsibility and commitment helped Mormon pioneers build settlements across the deserts of the American West. Individual success does not serve oneself but enables one to build up the greater good. The real story of the Mormons is the success of community.
Elaborating on this practice of solidarity, a writer from The New Republic explained that modern-day Mormonism “constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America.” Another from The New York Times asserted that “there is no population in America that lives out this vision of the good society quite like the Latter-day Saints.”
A foundational premise of Mormon community is that there is no separation between you and your neighbor. Your well-being is tied to your neighbor’s well-being. The Book of Mormon emphasizes that “every man should esteem his neighbor as himself.” And neighbor does not just mean a fellow member of the Church. It includes everyone in our interactions with society. Latter-day Saints believe that we are all part of the same divine family. Our relationships with the people around us have lasting significance. Mormon scripture teaches: “That same sociality which exists among us here [in mortality] will exist among us there [in eternity], only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” Heaven, in essence, is made up of relationships.
When baptized into the faith, Latter-day Saints commit to “bear one another’s burdens” and “mourn with those that mourn.” Engaging in people’s problems does not get in the way of loving them; it makes loving them possible. Newsweek said it right: “No matter where Mormons live, they find themselves part of a network of mutual concern; in Mormon theology everyone is a minister of a kind, everyone is empowered in some way to do good to others, and to have good done unto them: it is a 21st-century covenant of caring.” It is this two-way obligation that makes community possible.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a number of programs that encourage its members to think of their neighbors first. Mormons contribute donations to a welfare program that is operated, administered and implemented by rich and poor members alike. Everyone is invested in the system. And you don’t have to be a Mormon to participate. Whether one has fallen ill, lost a breadwinner or can’t find a job, this network of compassion works hard to put people back on their feet. Bad things happen to everyone, near and far. In addition, when disasters strike in places around the world, Mormon volunteers offer a helping hand. And on an ongoing basis, service missionaries partner with local and international charitable organizations to help alleviate poverty, prevent disease and give relief to the disabled.
Perhaps more important than formal programs is a culture of spontaneous service. Quiet acts of selflessness are common among the Latter-day Saints: a mother and daughter organizing humanitarian kits for hurricane victims, young boys helping their dads shovel snow from a widow’s driveway, a family pitching together to fix up the yard of a sick neighbor. Small act by small act, this is how a community of faith develops habits of character. Religion is a lot of things — doctrine, ritual, commandments and much more. But in the routine course of life God asks us to be “in the service of your fellow beings.”
Building community is not easy. Like any human endeavor, it can be messy and daunting. In addition to the reverence and self-reflection of Mormon worship, one of the first things a Latter-day Saint learns is that religion is a kind of labor. Church is not a place to settle into a comfort zone. You have to get out of yourself. Since the Church is not run by a professional paid clergy, the members direct it themselves, under the guidance of lay leaders. Whether adult, teenager or child, each person offers congregational prayers, gives talks and teaches lessons. Regular moms and dads lead youth organizations and service projects. In these ministries Latter-day Saints come to love the people they serve. It is difficult to seek spirituality while also avoiding people, with all their unique personality quirks. In large part, spirituality is how we treat people.
In countries around the world, Mormons aim to bring their community values and goodwill into the larger society. They are increasingly integrated in local neighborhoods and communities. Church President Thomas S. Monson has stressed the “responsibility to be active in the communities where we live.” You may just as easily find a Mormon in your school’s parent teacher association as in the local food pantry or interfaith group. Latter-day Saints join hands with the countless other good people in the world trying to solve difficult problems facing us all. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church, captures this aspiration: “A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”