Faith groups are uniquely positioned to help people around them, whether individually or in their communities or on a broader scale, Primary General President Camille N. Johnson said during the Freedom to Serve Symposium at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, April 19, in conjunction with Iowa Religious Freedom Day.
The work of governments and secular nonprofit organizations is needed, many times in cooperation with faith-based groups.
“But religious groups and individuals play an indispensable role in our communities and are uniquely positioned to alleviate suffering and help those on the margins of society,” President Johnson said, speaking on “Freedom To Serve Our Neighbor: The Role of Religious Charities and Volunteers.”
“It will take all of us serving, contributing whatever we have available in time, talents and money to address the suffering we see around us,” she added.
President Johnson — who practiced law for more than 30 years, including at Snow Christensen & Martineau, where she recently served as firm president — was one of four presenters during the afternoon session of the symposium, and each focused on a different aspect of the “Freedom To Serve” theme. The daylong symposium was co-sponsored by the the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines and local stakes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the April 2022 general conference, she was sustained as the new Relief Society general president, to begin service on Aug. 1.
- Steven T. Collis, the founding director of the Bech-Loughin First Amendment Center and the Law and Religion Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, presented on freedom to serve God.
- President Johnson spoke on “freedom to serve our neighbor.”
- Melissa Moschella, an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic University of America, focused on “freedom to serve our families.”
- Kenneth Craycraft, the James J. Gardner chair of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, spoke on freedom to serve the common good.
An evening session included shorter presentations from the afternoon speakers, a panel discussion on Gen Z and organized religion with three University of Texas Law School representatives, and a question-and-answer session.
While in Iowa, President Johnson met with Iowa Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, joined by Elder Jeremiah Morgan, an Area Seventy, and his wife, Sister Rebecca Morgan, and Des Moines Iowa Mount Pisgah Stake President Brian Parks. They discussed about how Latter-day Saints contribute to their local communities through volunteering and serving in other capacities.
President Johnson and the Morgans also visited with Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman and Iowa state Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, who serves as the coordinator of interfaith engagement for the Des Moines Area Religious Council. With Trone Garriot, their visit included discussion of recent natural disasters that affected the state and how Latter-day Saint volunteers helped; she also introduced the group as her guests during the opening of the Senate’s session.
President Johnson also visited the local Red Cross headquarters and had family home evening in Waukee, Iowa, with area families. She met with Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen and visited with students and faculty at the adjacent institute of religion.
During the symposium, President Johnson shared how religious communities are serving and five reasons why religious freedom matters.
How religions serve communities
President Johnson pointed to strengths religious organizations employ in charitable work, as identified by sociologist Christian Smith: spiritual motivation, organizational resources, shared identity, social and geographical positioning, trust and independence.
She pointed to examples of resources in sturdy Church buildings in Tonga being used as shelters after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the country. For social and geographical positioning, she noted how religious organizations can both be local and draw on the resources of an international network, such as how the Church’s efforts to help Ukrainian refugees include using donations to support established international aid agencies and empowering local members in neighboring countries and elsewhere to locally decide where they can help.
“In addition to common faith traditions, religious believers also understand the power of religion in people’s lives, even when those beliefs come from different religious denominations,” she said of the shared identity among faith groups. For example, when people of the Yazidi religious minority were fleeing the Islamic State group and were in refugee camps, they came with little. For the women, traditional white dresses were important to their religious expression. Latter-day Saint Charities, working with its religious partners, worked with a local sewing center to provide the dresses.
“Religious communities recognize that worship and religious expression is also a fundamental need,” President Johnson said.
Faith-based groups and individuals do “an amazing amount of good,” she said, sharing a variety of statistics about organizations, religious schools and hospitals, charitable giving and individuals and their impact.
“One prominent sociologist put the value of religious contributions in American society as $2.6 trillion between services provided and the estimated savings to the state that religious organizations provide in the areas of crime reduction, home and religious schooling, mental health, physical health, charitable contributions, volunteering, unemployment reduction and reduced use of state welfare benefits,” she said.
While religious people aren’t the only ones serving in communities, “the ways religion benefits our communities is overwhelming,” she added.
“Religion motivates sacrifice and service because there is transformative power in religion. Religion is more than just a preference, choice, value or identity, although at times it can be all of those things. Religion connects us with God, and the sacred, in ways that transform individuals, who then bless and lift society.”
Teachings from many religious traditions emphasize the obligation to care for others as brothers and sisters.
“As people of faith, we can use the power God gives us to see needs and meet them,” she said.
Faith unlocks the power of God in our lives. And as we change, we change our communities for the better.”
That faith can help people change, give courage, hope and love, and inspires and motivates, President Johnson said. “Faith unlocks the power of God in our lives. And as we change, we change our communities for the better.”
The interactions people have in religious communities teach people to work together for the benefit of all.
“Faith teaches us values and gives the models and support we need to build strong and resilient families, individuals and communities. Religious experience teaches us to reach outside ourselves, see needs around us and bring others along with us,” President Johnson said.
Religious freedom and the freedom to serve
How religion can help change lives and communities is a “crucial” service that benefits everyone and needs protection, she said.
President Dallin H. Oaks, the first counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, said, “the preservation of religious freedom ultimately depends on public appreciation and support for the related First Amendment freedoms of religious conscience, association and free exercise. In turn, such appreciation and support depends on the value the public attaches to the positive effects of the practices and teachings in churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship.”
President Johnson added: “When we know how much difference religion makes in our lives and in our communities, we realize how much difference religious freedom makes. That alone should be reason to care about religious freedom.”
She shared five reasons she cares about religious freedom.
1. “I care about it because it permits us to live out our core beliefs of loving God and neighbor.”
Each religion has different ways to demonstrate members’ love of God and their faith. “Religious freedom protects them from being forced to violate this important symbol of faith to participate in school activities.”
2. “I care about it as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of our doctrine and history.”
Part of the Church’s doctrine is that freedom to choose and acting on those choices is a key part of God’s plan for His children.
In the Church’s history in Nauvoo, Illinois, leaders adopted a city ordinance specifying religious freedom for all. However, Church members were harassed, attacked and expelled from communities and states in the 1800s due their religious beliefs.
3. “I care about it because I care about my neighbors and their freedom to practice their beliefs.”
Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said at a symposium in Brazil last month: “When we all have a place to live, a space to think and the right to speak, the communities will be better. As long as individuals don’t harm or coerce anyone, our differences can enrich our coexistence.”
4. “I care about it because it builds strong communities and teaches us how to live together in respect and love.”
President Johnson said: “When we love our neighbors, we don’t just seek their rights, but also their interests, concerns and sensitivities. Religious freedom is not just a battle to be fought but is a way to connect and bless those around us, even those with whom we may disagree.”
5. “I care about it because we all need the ‘living hope’ our faith brings.”
“All of us play a part in serving our neighbor,” President Johnson said. “We are our churches, mosques and synagogues.”
In the evening session, President Johnson provided brief remarks about the need for religious cooperation and freedom by drawing on Paul’s teachings on how individual members are all part of the body of Christ: “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (1 Corinthians 12:14-15). She closed her evening remarks with gratitude for religious freedom that allowed her to “close in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
— Susan Sims, Iowa regional communications director, contributed to this report.