On Feeding the Hungry

I just had a fairly serious post yesterday, and I’m following it up now with something even more broody. Apologies in advance. I’ll try to return to fluff pieces and movie reviews next week, but this blog is fairly stream-of-consciousness, and this is where my stream is flowing right now. It all comes down to two articles I read the past few days. The first is a fantastic piece in Bloomberg, focusing on how somehow Utah is keeping the American Dream alive when it’s faltering in other states. It talks about how the Mormon church plays a big role in that equation, and it’s fantastic reading for everyone. It felt like a high note for my religion. We Mormons can and do have plenty of problems, but we also do some things right, and it was very nice to be reminded of that by an unbiased source.

But then I came across this bit of news the next day: video of a town meeting in Draper, Utah to discuss the possibility of a homeless shelter being built there. The crowd was very upset, booing a homeless man who had come to speak in favor of the project, yelling at the mayor who had volunteered the town to be considered, and from the video, things got pretty ugly. From reading the article, it appears that they weren’t simply angry that a homeless shelter might be built in their city, but rather that they were also upset the mayor might have potentially had ulterior motives for it. Still quotes like “Another resident proposed buying for homeless residents one-way tickets to another city” don’t really give you warm fuzzies.

It’s important to note as well that the Draper meeting wasn’t just for Mormons or anything like that. Yet as the Bloomberg piece points out, it’s very hard in Utah to remove the Mormon element from any part of Utah life. It’s everywhere, for good and bad.

So which is it? Are Mormons doing a great job helping their neighbor out, or are they reluctant to actually hear the plight of the homeless? My gut says, “Both.”

I have a hard time finding fault with the people in the Draper meeting. (Well, let me rephrase that. The way they responded was totally out of line and unproductive. There’s certainly plenty of fault to be found in any group resorting to the kind of mob mentality shown in that video.) What I mean is that I’ve been to the downtown Salt Lake homeless shelter. By accident, as I was trying to find my way to public transportation, I walked through the area, and honestly it was one of the scarier areas of any city I’ve ever walked through. It was the middle of the day, and people were literally shooting up drugs right there on the sidewalk. From the looks I got and the attitude in the area, I didn’t feel safe at all. (Granted, I was also walking through in a suit jacket. Because I was lost, and I also didn’t think Salt Lake had any areas to be worried about downtown. So some of the feeling is on me. But still.)

If my town was wanting to bring in a homeless shelter, and I knew the result of a homeless shelter might be anything like that area in downtown Salt Lake I walked through, I’d be totally against the idea. I’d be concerned for the safety of my children and my neighborhood. Flat out. End of story. (Though I’d still like to think I wouldn’t start booing the homeless advocates who are just trying to solve a very real problem.)

So what is the answer? In some ways, the problem has been caused by the solution. From conversations I’ve had with residents and community workers in Salt Lake, my understanding is that word of Salt Lake’s success with helping the homeless got out, and more and more homeless were attracted to the area. This overwhelmed the success they’d had, causing the system to spiral out of control, resulting in the area of Salt Lake I walked through. I’d like to think the answer is to dig down and keep trying to do what was working before. That it will eventually all even out in the end. But I’m not in the area anymore, and I realize having outsiders point out solutions is often not very helpful at all.

A friend posted the following quote from The Book of Mormon, which certainly seems to apply: Mosiah 4: 16-22

16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—

18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?

20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.

21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.

22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.

Words like that really hit home with me, and not in a “So glad I already do that” sort of way. More in a “do I need to change my ways” vein. I don’t pay panhandlers money, as a rule. I am personally skeptical that they really need the help. I’ve personally seen panhandlers willfully deceive, and so I decided not to give to them, choosing instead to donate money and food to organizations that are set up to help people in need.

As I think about it, some of it comes down to what constitutes a real petition? A sign on the sidewalk and an unwashed face? I’m not sure, especially when we live in a country that has support systems in place. Perhaps my “no panhandlers” policy is misguided. I still need to come to grips with it in my head, and I’d welcome input on it.

But let’s extend it farther. Because there are people in this world who need help, who have not helped themselves. I’m talking on a local, personal level. I might see someone in a jam that is almost 100% of their own making. And my typical response to this is to not pitch in and help unless it’s absolutely necessary, emergency-level stuff. “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part” is a quote I often think to myself to justify my actions.

Am I wrong?

Sometimes, almost definitely yes. Sometimes, almost definitely no. There are certainly people who need to learn the consequences of their choices. There are certainly people who need to be protected from them. The quote from The Book of Mormon reminds me that I am often in bad circumstances, spiritually, through no one’s fault but my own. Sometimes, God lets me suffer through the consequences. Sometimes, it feels like He steps in and shields me. But He’s always there for me, to offer me comfort and support.

Perhaps that’s what I need to focus on. Being there for people when they need help. Not with a checkbook all the time, but with a listening ear and a willingness to help people help themselves out of the jams they’re in. And maybe that’s why I felt so proud of the first article (Look! My religion! Helping others!) and so disappointed with the second, where the people were basically not willing to listen at all. (Though fear will do that to you, I know.)

In any case, this is an issue that I know I need to work on. As Easter approaches, it feels like now’s as good a time as any to think about how we approach these situations and how we can become better at it in the future. And that’s all I have to say about that.

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