Fast for Ethiopia accelerated work

Church marks 25th anniversary of 1985 event that raised $6 million

The feeding camp in Makalle, Ethiopia, housed 120,000 people in tents.

But it was the 30,000 people outside the camp — those who had arrived at the gate after traveling hundreds of miles to find relief from starvation, only to learn there was a waiting list to get in — who captured the hearts of two visiting officials from Salt Lake City.

Elder M. Russell Ballard, then of the Presidency of the Seventy and now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder Glenn L. Pace, then managing director of the Church's Welfare Department and now of the First Quorum of the Seventy, were in Ethiopia to determine how best to use $6 million raised by Latter-day Saints in a special fast, Jan. 27, 1985.

For Elder Ballard and Elder Pace, the scene was like walking "out into a sea of dingy, dirty, starving, diseased and desperate men, women and children." The victims stared with sunken eyes. Flies covered their faces.

Some approached the men from Salt Lake City. "Doctor, doctor!" they called out.

"It was a life-changing experience," recalled Elder Ballard. "The poverty, the sickness, the desperate circumstances that occurred there — it was just overwhelming."

Twenty-five years after the special fast, the men still remember the tiniest details of the event — a key date in the history of the Church's humanitarian efforts throughout the world.

The Church had been dedicated to helping the poor and needy since the time of Joseph Smith, Elder Ballard said. But this effort, during which Church members in the United States and Canada donated $6 million in a special fast to help the starving Ethiopians and others in need, accelerated the work.

"While the Church has always responded to the suffering caused by various disasters, the Ethiopian famine triggered a more methodical and organized effort than had been experienced before," Elder Pace said.

Church leaders held sacred the funds raised in the fast, as well as a second fast held in November 1985 that raised an additional $5 million. To expedite its Church's humanitarian endeavors, the Church began to form relationships with humanitarian organizations to help those in need.

Elder Pace remembers sitting in a welfare meeting where Church leaders discussed the great outpouring that "exceeded all expectations." President Gordon B. Hinckley, then second counselor in the First Presidency, spoke with emotion of the money sent by members. "The Saints have placed a great trust in us," he said. "We cannot let them down."

In the 25 years since that fast, the Church has sent $1.1 billion in assistance to 167 nations. That includes 61,308 tons of food, 12,829 tons of medical supplies, 84,681 tons of clothing and 8.6 million hygiene, newborn and school kits.

And each year the Church's ability to assist others increases as other humanitarian organizations (many with which the Church now partners) have become acquainted with the Church, said Presiding Bishop H. David Burton. "They know our integrity. They know that when we commit, we follow through. I think we have earned a place among the very best of the non-governmental organizations around the world."

Frank Carlin, now retired as deputy executive director of Catholic Relief Services, first met Elder Ballard and Elder Pace in Ethiopia in 1985.

They were different from others visiting the country, he recalled. They didn't ask for any recognition or photo opportunities. Instead they simply asked what the needs were. "They were serious. They were professionals."

Mr. Carlin said he never forgot the impression they left with him: "This was a Church and these were people that were living what they believed."

Bishop Burton said the Church couldn't accomplish so much good without the generosity of Latter-day Saints, "both in terms of money, but also in terms of goods and supplies and their own muscle and labor. The institution of the Church is just the catalyst to bring all that together," he said.

Elder Ballard said the Latter-day Saints reach out because "the principle of helping one another is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

"There is terrible suffering around the world," he said. "The Lord has prospered His Saints; we ought to take every opportunity we have to help those in difficulty and trouble. We ought to do what we can do. We can't do everything. It's too big; it's beyond the membership of the Church. But we ought to do what we can do. We have done that in the floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis."

With only a few major exceptions — fasts for Ethiopian hunger relief in 1985 and the Churchwide fast for Southeast Asia tsunami victims in 2005 — fast offering donations are generally used for assisting members of the Church with welfare needs, said Dennis Lifferth, managing director of Church Welfare Services. Humanitarian assistance, on the other hand, is for people of all faiths and is generally funded by humanitarian donations.

The 1985 fast marked the first time the Church collected large funds exclusively for humanitarian work.

But after that event, people across the globe continued to trust the Church with their humanitarian dollars. As a result, the First Presidency suggested in December 1991 that members wanting to specifically give to humanitarian work performed by the Church could designate it on the "other" line of their donation slip.

Five years later, in 1996, the slip was modified to include a specific line for humanitarian donations.

Today, in addition to the slip, members may provide support for humanitarian work by donating online, donating through LDS Philanthropies, by giving items to the Deseret Industries or by serving at some of the hundreds of established Church welfare facilities located around the world.

The Church guarantees that every penny donated to the humanitarian fund is used for the care of the poor and the needy, said Brother Lifferth.

Helping the work move forward was the formation of Latter-day Saint Charities in 1996 and the 2003 approval of four major initiatives that focused Church humanitarian activities. Those initiatives include:

The list of Church humanitarian projects is detailed and lengthy. It ranges from responses to natural disasters such as floods, fires and hurricanes to war relief efforts.

The Church sent funds after Hurricane Andrew caused some $26.5 billion in damage in Florida in 1992. More important, Church members came out en masse to help people in the storm's wake. That scenario was repeated during flooding in the Midwest in 1997, and after Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States in 2005. Volunteers cleaning up after Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi donated 17,400 days of service and completed 7,100 work orders, for example.

"The Church is uniquely positioned to respond to emergencies because of the gospel teachings that emphasize preparation, then the wonderful Welfare Services system/resources that make it possible for us to mobilize and move quicker than anyone else," said Garry Flake, who worked for Welfare Services until he retired last year. "We have gained a real niche, particularly where we have been able to have Church volunteers involved."

Latter-day Saint volunteers also made all the difference during measles vaccination initiatives in nations across Africa. During a 2006 campaign in Nigeria, for example, the Church mustered 10,000 volunteers to help make the program a success, said Isaac Ferguson, a former Welfare Services employee who oversaw the Church's efforts in Africa for many years.

Many of those who have been involved in the legions of Church humanitarian efforts during the past quarter of a century, remember the work in the faces of a few.

For Brother Ferguson, it's the elderly Kenyan woman who walked five miles a day for more than 40 years to get water.

A Church project in the late 1980s changed her plight. As part of the project, snowmelt from Mount Kenya was piped to more than 20 villages in the country.

"The lady said, 'I can't believe it. I can't believe it.' It was one of those moments that you don't forget because of what it meant to her," Brother Ferguson said.

For Brother Flake, the image is a child wrapped in a warm blanket. After a 2005 earthquake devastated a portion of Pakistan, victims there faced a long, cold winter. Other organizations had not seen the need, so the Church sent 200,000 blankets, 5,000 tents and other supplies.

And for Elder Pace, it was an old man who stumbled into an Ethiopian camp in 1985 with a baby. The man had carried the baby 50 to 75 miles after finding him on a roadside near a dead woman he assumed was the child's mother.

"As he arrived thirsty, hungry and delirious, the first words he uttered were, 'What can be done for this baby?' " recalled Elder Pace. "Can anyone doubt the love the Savior felt for this man? I have never loved a stranger more."

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