Try to imagine 20 million pounds of food like beans, pasta, cheese, potatoes, all packed onto gargantuan pallets.
It’s hard to imagine something so vast, even for someone like me who has made a career out of food distribution. But it was all there in warehouses, storage facilities and trucks, mobilized to help people during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the needs continued, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ global response expanded to 155 countries and eventually became the largest humanitarian effort in the history of the Church. ‘Church. In total, the church has distributed more than 150 million pounds of food and basic necessities to people in need during the pandemic.
At the heart of true religion is the responsibility to care for others, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick. But for believers, the answer doesn’t have to stop there.
Renowned New York Times columnist David Brooks recently documented a number of worrying trends in the United States: road accidents are increasing due to irresponsible driving; reports of altercations on planes, in cities and even in schools are increasing; drug overdoses and addiction are on the rise. According to Brooks, all of this is happening as charitable giving and participation in civic and religious organizations continue to decline.
He concludes, “There must also be some spiritual or moral issue at the heart of it all.” It is vitally important to help communities prepare for crises and to provide temporal assistance in the event of a disaster. But believers also understand that we cannot live on bread alone and, in times of need, we need spiritual as well as temporal sustenance.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey claimed the lives of 107 people and caused approximately $125 billion in property damage. Water levels rose so high in some areas that boats were needed to rescue residents. With emergency lines blocked, a group of Latter-day Saints and neighbors gathered at a nearby chapel with their boats to begin picking up stricken residents around Houston. By day two of the effort, some 57 boats and more than 800 volunteers were working from the makeshift expedition.
But that was only the beginning of the work.
When I arrived with other church leaders, water levels had dropped and cleanup efforts were underway. Before the cleanup began one Sunday morning, we worshiped together in the same chapel that had served as the impromptu ship send-off. The chapel was full. And so did dozens of chapels across Texas and Louisiana. A total of some 16,000 Latter-day Saint volunteers converged on the area to help clear and gut properties to prevent mold and further damage. Flooded homes had to remove everything that was wet, including carpeting, appliances, drywall and insulation. Estimates at the time for this kind of mud and gut work were $20,000 per house.
We were all eager to work on behalf of the residents who had already lost so much. But this Sunday morning, we first prayed, sang hymns and worshipped. Then, after the last “amen”, we went out and got to work. In total, these volunteers were able to clean and empty more than 16,000 homes, providing an estimated labor force of $320 million.
What happened in and around Houston reminded me of the spiritual and temporal response after another devastating flood that occurred just over 45 years ago when a fault in the Teton Dam of the Idaho caused a collapse. Two-thirds of the citizens living in Rexburg were suddenly left homeless due to the ensuing flood. Ricks College – now Brigham Young University-Idaho – ended up providing 400,000 meals with help from the church. Fortunately, the school was not open at that time and the university dormitories were converted into temporary accommodation for the displaced families.
Shortly after the disaster, residents of Rexburg began to hold religious services again, even though they could not congregate in flooded places of worship. When the governor of Idaho visited Rexburg, he told the citizens, “In the state of Idaho, we have survived a huge disaster. And survival was made possible, in my opinion, by the spiritual strength of the inhabitants of this valley.
In times of emergency, large and small, food and shelter are essential, but so is the sustaining strength that comes from faith in God.
We continue to deal with the effects of a global pandemic. Maintaining health, life and livelihoods is rightly our priority. But we also need to recognize, as Brooks suggests, the role that faith plays in achieving these goals. Researchers have consistently found that trust in God and religious or spiritual practices tend to improve patient medical outcomes in a variety of settings.
Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that faith is growing for some during this pandemic. A Pew Research Center study released last year found that nearly 3 in 10 Americans (28%) say their own faith has been strengthened during the pandemic, and only 4% say it is now weaker. Renewed spiritual strength is needed to rebuild lives, families, and communities long after temporal assistance efforts have ended.
As the world was still recovering from one of the worst economic depressions in modern history, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the role of spiritual vitality in rebuilding the nation: “Nothing greater could come to our land today that a revival of the spirit of religion – a revival that would sweep the homes of the nation and awaken the hearts of men and women of all faiths to a reaffirmation of their belief in God and their devotion to his will for themselves and for their world.
He concluded with a truth that remains as relevant in the midst of a pandemic as it was during the troubled times of the Roosevelt era: “I doubt there is a problem — social, political, or economic. — which would not dissipate before the fire of such a spiritual movement. awakening.”
Millions of pounds of food fed starving people. And much remains to be provided in terms of food and supplies to meet the needs of a suffering world. But the scriptures also teach us a spiritual “bread of life,” which we all yearn to taste. For believers, battling the impacts of a pandemic will also mean providing the best of that bread to help heal a world in need.
Gérald Caussé is the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This story appears in the March issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.