WASHINGTON, D.C. For decades, President Thomas S. Monson's name and life have been linked with humanitarian service and with efforts to help those who are helpless, nourish those who are weak and lift those who suffer various afflictions.
Twenty-five years ago, then-Elder Monson came to the U.S. capital as a member of a Presidential Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. During his latest visit to Washington, on April 21, he once again spoke of serving others.
In the Georgetown University Conference Hotel Grand Ballroom, President Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, addressed the Washington D.C. Chapter of the BYU Management Society, reminding its members and guests at a dinner meeting that helping others is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As part of the event a special reception was held to which were invited ambassadors to the United States, many of whom President Monson had the privilege of meeting in behalf of the BYU Management Society. Many of the ambassadors were from countries to which the Church has sent humanitarian aid.
"As Latter-day Saints, we take most seriously the admonition from the Lord found in the New Testament in Matthew, chapter 25: 'For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me....Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'
"Each time we watch the news on television or pick up a newspaper, we learn of terrible human suffering as a result of tornadoes, floods, fires, drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, conflicts of war. Today, even our schools are not always safe, as evidenced by such tragedies as the shootings which took place at Virginia Tech this past week, snuffing out the lives of 33 individuals.
"Human suffering surrounds us. I ask the question: 'Do we have a responsibility to do something about it?"'
A similar question, he said, was posed when Cain asked the Lord, "Am I my brother's keeper?"
President Monson said, "The answer to that vital question is: 'Yes, we are our brothers' keepers."'
He spoke of the countless lives worldwide blessed by fast offering contributions. One example he gave was of the food, clothing and supplies provided "when World War II came to a close and Europe lay devastated, hunger stalked the streets, infectious diseases were everywhere to be found, and the people had given up hope." President George Albert Smith, then president of the Church, went to see U.S. President Harry S. Truman and received permission to send aid to people who were starving in Europe. Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve delivered the supplies on behalf of the Church.
President Monson explained that the term "humanitarian aid" is a designation for help extended beyond the Church's basic welfare program. One of numerous examples of humanitarian aid, he said, can be seen in the Church's response after the tsunami that hit southern Asia in 2004. The Church sent many tons of supplies to aid the survivors. "The Church is continuing to provide long-term assistance, focusing on vital needs and helping people to help themselves," he said. "We have under construction in the area of the tsunami 503 homes, 11 schools and three medical centers. We're rebuilding water systems in 20 villages to provide sanitary water to families."
He spoke of the relief work provided by humanitarian service missionaries, as well as members. He said that the day after the tsunami hit, Elder Subandriyo, an Area Seventy living in Indonesia, called upon several members, among whom was the district Young Women president, Bertha Suranto. He asked her to purchase the materials for 3,000 hygiene kits. Then he asked her to help make arrangements to unload a cargo plane.
"A few days later, Sister Suranto volunteered to travel to the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. She arrived in the northern Sumatra city of Medan where she immediately began purchasing building materials, tents, food, clothing, kitchen stoves, school uniforms, and materials for thousands of additional hygiene kits....Sister Suranto joined other members of the Church who worked from early morning until late at night filling over 40 trucks, each 40 feet long, with tens of thousands of needed items. As each truck was filled, Bertha phoned ahead to her husband who was with another group of saints in Banda Aceh, one of the hardest-hit areas. He received the trucks his wife had filled and helped to distribute the items among those in need 99 percent of whom were Muslim."
Each time Sister Suranto and other Church volunteers met with village leaders, they asked, "What is it you most need?" President Monson noted, "One village chief said that more than anything else, his village needed copies of the Koran because theirs had been swept away in the tsunami. A few days later, the Church presented the village with 700 copies of the Koran."
President Monson said that there are far too many examples to list of welfare and humanitarian aid the Church has distributed.
"Hunger knows no ecclesiastical boundary," he declared. "We can provide hope, we can preserve life."
He noted that between 1985 and 2006, the Church has participated in more than 15,000 humanitarian projects worldwide. "We have served 163 countries. We have assisted often being the first on the scene in 179 major disasters. We currently have 460 welfare services missionaries in 68 countries, usually retired couples, whose assignment it is to help others help themselves by teaching them needed skills and providing needed assistance.
"In the world today, 1.1 billion people do not have access to a sanitary water supply. From 2002 through 2006 the Church has provided clean water for more than 3 1/2 million people in 2,615 communities."
President Monson reflected on being appointed 25 years ago to President Ronald Reagan's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. "He knew much concerning our welfare program," President Monson said of the former U.S. President who had visited a Church welfare cannery on a trip to Utah. "On one occasion when we were meeting together in the White House for breakfast, he said to others, pointing to me, 'In Elder Monson's church, the members frequently donate their time to can tomatoes and put up corn and other produce for the needy. Wouldn't it be great if all of us did that?"'
Concluding his address to the BYU Management Society chapter, President Monson said, "When we can work together cooperatively to lift the level of life for so many people, we can accomplish anything. When we do so, we eliminate the weakness of one person standing alone and substitute the strength of many serving together. While we may not be able to do everything, we can and must do something." Gerry Avant