McBride: 75 years of helping people help themselves

June 1, 2011 in Guest Blog by Bob McBride

This year marks the 75th anniversary since the formal inception of the Welfare Program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1936, while struggling through the depths of the Great Depression,  Church leaders instituted an extensive system unlike any other – a program that provides temporary relief while at the same time helping people help themselves. Since then, as membership in the Church has grown, so has the program, which now assists people of all faiths.  When Church members follow the counsel of preparedness they not only help themselves, but have been able to go out into the community and help others.

The objective of the program is to care for those in need while teaching principles that will allow needy persons to become self-reliant and retain their self-respect. At the same time, it gives all members of the Church the opportunity to freely serve, heeding the Savior’s counsel: “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 …” (Matthew 25:35, 36)   The  program is run almost entirely by volunteer labor. The Church welfare system includes canneries, farms and factories throughout the United States that provide food and commodities for those in need.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are counseled, as a part of Church practice, to develop independence and self-reliance. “We teach self-reliance as a principle of life, that we ought to provide for ourselves and take care of our own needs,” suggested late Church leader Gordon B. Hinckley. “And so we encourage our people to have something, to plan ahead, keep a little food on hand, to establish a savings account, if possible, against a rainy day. Catastrophes come to people sometimes when least expected:  unemployment, sickness, and things of this kind. The individual, as we teach, ought to do for himself all that he can do for himself.”

Another aspect of these teachings is the need to stock basic foodstuffs in case of any type of emergency. The Church operates more than a hundred regionally located storehouses and home-storage centers to help members gather their food storage. Other plants process specific food items, such as the peanut butter plant in Houston, Texas.  In some locations with high concentrations of Church members, welfare facilities may be substantial. Welfare Square, near Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, is the largest concentration of such facilities. Buildings on the square include a cannery, a milk-processing plant, a bishops’ storehouse, a thrift store, an employment center, and silos where wheat and other grains are stored.

In addition, many Mormons grow and can some of their own food supplies. In Memphis, it is not uncommon for many Latter-day Saints to have garden plots where they grow needed commodities and then can and preserve them for use throughout the winter months. This year many LDS families are utilizing garden plots at Shelby Farms for their personal food production needs. Gordon Moore, a local dentist, has been gardening at Shelby Farms for four years now. Moore, who has planted corn, tomatoes, squash, cantaloupe, onions, peppers, cucumbers, okra and several kinds of beans this spring, states that “gardening is important to me because I get to share the experience with my daughter who also loves gardening and I get to follow the advice of my church leaders.” He describes his experience as “very rewarding because I get to see the fruits of my labor, share produce with neighbors, and get physical activity.” He lives by the old adage “A whole lot of troubles can be buried while digging in the garden.”

Besides paying a tithe on their annual income, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also fast for two meals once a month and donate the value of those meals to the Church for care of the needy. Steven Dorius, president of the Memphis Tennessee Stake of the Church, explains the use of fast offerings:  “Fast offerings are used by bishops to assist those in need after they and their families have done all they can to alleviate their needs.  Assistance is short-term and is focused on basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing, and on helping the individual to once again become self-reliant.”   Bishops’ storehouses have often been compared to supermarkets without cash registers. Food and household items are provided to those who cannot afford them and who bring a written requisition signed by their local bishop. Recipients of commodities are given opportunities to work for what they receive, to the extent of their ability. There are 129 bishops’ storehouses located around the world.

Employment resource service centers are also an integral part of the welfare program. These centers provide a place where people can receive job training, learn to enhance their résumé, and find job opportunities. There are 259 centers around the world, including a small center in Memphis.