A friend of mine serving in a remote area of the world came upon a group of villagers who were threatening to kill a woman. They explained to him that she had violated their law. Two roads led into the village, one was used by the men, the other, by the women. Her offense — the offense worthy of death — was that she had entered the village from the wrong road.
My friend, in an attempt to save the woman's life, asked if he could pay a fine in order to redeem the woman. The men talked it over and agreed upon a price. The amount my friend paid to save this woman from death was the equivalent of 75 cents.
This experience symbolizes for me the tremendous — sometimes lifesaving — difference we can make in people's lives for seemingly insignificant efforts. Every day, both at home as well as in the far reaches of the world, lives are being changed for the better as a result of the Church's humanitarian effort.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, "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." Since the earliest days of the Church, charity and compassion have been foundation principles. Joseph Smith instituted the law of the fast and taught the principle of using fast offerings to care for those in need.
During their journey to the West, pioneers planted crops that those who followed would harvest. Bishops, from the Kirtland period to now, were charged with seeking out the poor and administering to their needs and wants.
The dawn of the modern welfare program emerged during the gloom and distress of the Great Depression. In response to the severe want and unemployment of those times, the First Presidency announced a program that would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide a way for those who received assistance to provide service in recompense for what they received. As a result, plows cut into furrows, seeds sprouted in fertile soil, boxes, pouches and cans of food appeared on shelves, were gathered into storehouses and distributed to those in distress.
But this charity extended beyond the membership of the Church. The Church sent food and clothing to relieve those who suffered as a result of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and to those in need after both world wars.
These early humanitarian efforts served as an overture to the rising symphony of compassionate service that has blossomed over the last decades. Since 1985, the Church has provided more than half a billion dollars in material assistance to those in need in more than 150 countries throughout the world. An estimated 45,000 tons of food, 58,000 tons of clothing, and 10,000 tons of educational and medical supplies have been shipped to six continents, benefitting millions of people throughout the world. In a short period, the Church has become known as one of the most trustworthy and effective charitable agencies.
An executive director of one of the most respected relief agencies in the world praised the Church for its efforts. "Wherever we respond in the world," he said, "the Mormons will be there and usually before we are."
During the recent famine in Ethiopia, many children were dying even when food became available because their digestive systems couldn't digest the food they were given. The only thing these children could keep down was a weak porridge. Welfare Services learned that the Ethiopians had an ancient recipe for such a porridge that they called Atmit. So a recipe was developed. This Atmit has been used to save tens of thousands of lives not only in Ethiopia but in other famine-ravaged areas of the world as well.
I have witnessed firsthand the appreciation of mothers holding their hungry children while feeding them this life-saving porridge called Atmit.
The Church flies to the relief of those in distress in many different ways. In Africa, 1 million children die of measles each year. In cooperation with the International Red Cross, the Church will provide measles vaccinations for more than 3 million children. Additionally, Church members and missionaries will assist in organizing and publicizing the immunizations.
During the fall of this year, four hurricanes smashed into the southeastern United States and the Caribbean causing billions of dollars of damage. After each storm, members of the Church organized together to come to the relief of the many thousands affected by the storms. As each storm approached, emergency supplies were deployed. Soon after the storm hit, members of the Church swarmed into the areas helping people of every faith or of no faith at all. Trees were cleared, food distributed and LDS Family Services sent trained counselors who provided needed therapy.
As needed emergency supplies became scarce, local and federal officials grew concerned. Much of the reserve supplies had been exhausted after Hurricane Charley hit, and now, three hurricanes later, they were worried that there would be sufficient food, water, manpower, and tools to help those in need. During one of these meetings, word came that the Florida National Guard was escorting another convoy of trucks from the Church carrying needed supplies. They also knew that on the weekend, more than 3,000 members of the Church would once again be descending from as far away as Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to help those whose lives had been devastated.
When the news was reported, these seasoned officials stood and applauded the effort of the Church and its members.
During recent years, Church Humanitarian Services has focused on four major initiatives: clean water, neonatal resuscitation training, vision treatment and training, and distributing wheelchairs. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world have better lives as a result of these initiatives and, in many cases, men, women, and children, who faced severe hunger and possible death, have received a new opportunity for life.
All of this and more is possible through the generosity of those who donate fast offerings and money to the Humanitarian Aid Fund, and who give of their time to help in many ways. In the April 2004 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke of the reach and influence of Church Humanitarian Services. In conclusion, he said, "We shall go on in this work. There will always be a need. Hunger and want and catastrophes will ever be with us. And there will always be those whose hearts have been touched by the light of the gospel who will be willing to serve and work and lift the needy of the earth."