The grim reality of life portrayed in the movie The Blind Side caught me off guard when I recently watched it with my wife on our weekly date night. The movie is essentially a happy movie about one person who was saved from a life doomed to poverty (and perhaps premature death) by a family who cared. But underlying it is the harsh reality that in our own country, and all over the world to an even larger and more severe extent, there are people just like “Big Mike” who suffer in poverty, homelessness and the resulting drastic reduction in opportunities that those conditions bring with them. The movie, which was a tear-jerker for me personally, left me wondering what more I, personally, could do to help people.
For me, the most poignant scene was when Leigh Anne Tuohy makes a bedroom for Michael in her beautiful Memphis home. Surveying the room in all of his gentle giantness, Michael says, “I’ve never had one of these before.” She says, “What, a room?” “No, a bed,” he says. She looks at him, obviously straining to maintain a poker face, nods quickly and exits the room, enters the bathroom and locks the door for what we can only assume is an (for her) uncharacteristic moment of emotional release. What moved me to the point of tears at that point in the movie was the touching and ironic combination of the greatness of which humanity is capable (Tuohy’s ability to extend beyond the comfortable and invite Michael into her home as well as Michael’s ability to rise above his background when presented with the opportunity to do so) coupled with the tragic and dire circumstances in which much of humanity currently finds itself (Michael’s past and the current reality for most of his family, millions of Americans, and billions of people worldwide).
It was eye-opening to me the extent to which poverty, family instability and, let’s face it, outright racism, really do/can limit future opportunity for so many people across the world. Children don’t deserve to grow up that way, and as God’s children, humanity in general is entitled to more dignity and opportunities to rise up to their full potential. It must make the devil gleeful as he sees how poverty and fractured families conspire to limit the potential of so many billions of people. But occasionally some break free from these chains, often with the assistance of others who care, as was the case in this movie.
And that made me wonder whether I, PERSONALLY, am doing enough to help those who live on the fringes of our society to have the opportunity to better themselves; and whether we as members of the LDS Church (through the service organizations of Relief Society and Elders’ Quorum/High Priests on a local level) are. I think both come up short and could do so much better.
On a personal level, I consider myself a service-friendly and helpful guy. I am always the first to volunteer to help people move into our ward with the Elders’ Quorum and many other service projects put on by the LDS Church’s local units. I went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and assisted there with other volunteers from my LDS Stake. I donate money each month to the LDS church via tithes and “fast offerings,” the latter I am told is used to benefit local members in my ward unit who have fallen on hard financial times. My donations are thus used to help pay their rent, utilities, groceries or other sundry things that are necessary to live comfortably. I have donated many Saturdays to service projects sponsored by my local ward or stake unit, many of which benefit the ward or stake directly (by serving its members), but some of which do benefit the greater community. I have previously lulled myself into a deafening comfort by convincing myself that all this makes me a good and service-minded person. But after watching this movie, I wonder how much I have actually helped enable someone who is literally on the fringes of our society.
Local Church Service
The ward also offers many “service” opportunities, but all too often these service activities turn out to be more self-serving, albeit in what I believe to be an inadvertent and innocent kind of way. As ward and stake leaders, we value service and know that we need to render it, so we seek service opportunities. In the seeking of these opportunities, however, we sometimes forget who the people are that may desperately need our service just to live. Let me share an example of this honorable, but sometimes misplaced, focus:
A few years ago, we were pleasantly surprised by a gaggle of young women who showed up on the doorstep of our comfortable, roomy, luxurious (pool, spa, large yard, the works!) and generally clean home in a middle upper class neighborhood in what is recognized to be one of the wealthiest counties in the United States based on per capita income. They had come, unannounced, to do “service” by cleaning our house, etc. They had separated into groups and were visiting several families who were similarly situated to us. We certainly appreciated the gesture, and we were happy that the young women’s leaders were seeking through this activity to instill in those girls a desire to serve others. But to this day I wonder if their efforts, while well-intentioned and received, were not misplaced on us. We were not rich by any means, but we lived in a nice home, and we even had a housekeeper on hire who came and cleaned our home regularly.
Doesn’t it seem like, with a little more “homework,” the YW leaders (or the youth leaders themselves, the actual girls in charge of their respective beehive group, etc.) could have found a family who actually needed that service on a basic level just to keep their sanity and survive another day? We were touched by their service, don’t get me wrong, but something about the idea of that activity bothers me to this day. That said, I have led similar young men’s activities and “planned” and participated in similar Elders’ Quorum activities, so I share liberally in the guilt of what I lovingly refer to as “self-serving service.”
What Can We Do?
One of my favorite talks by President Hinckley recounts the selfless service rendered by Latter-day Saints in pioneer Utah when they left their homes at Brigham Young’s request one cold October in 1856 to go out and save the stranded Martin and Willey handcart companies (of which my own ancestor, Elizabeth Funnel, was a part), and then compares the dire circumstances in which those handcart companies found themselves and the efforts of the early Utahn’s to save them to us today:
Now, I am grateful that today none of our people are stranded on the Wyoming highlands. But I know that all about us there are many who are in need of help and who are deserving of rescue. Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving. There are the homeless, the hungry, the destitute. Their condition is obvious. We have done much. We can do more to help those who live on the edge of survival.
We can reach out to strengthen those who wallow in the mire of pornography, gross immorality, and drugs. Many have become so addicted that they have lost power to control their own destinies. They are miserable and broken. They can be salvaged and saved.
There are wives who are abandoned and children who weep in homes where there is abuse. There are fathers who can be rescued from evil and corrosive practices that destroy and bring only heartbreak.
It is not with those on the high plains of Wyoming that we need be concerned today. It is with many immediately around us, in our families, in our wards and stakes, in our neighborhoods and communities.
“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18.)
If we are to build that Zion of which the prophets have spoken and of which the Lord has given mighty promise, we must set aside our consuming selfishness. We must rise above our love for comfort and ease, and in the very process of effort and struggle, even in our extremity, we shall become better acquainted with our God.
Let us never forget that we have a marvelous heritage received from great and courageous people who endured unimaginable suffering and demonstrated unbelievable courage for the cause they loved. You and I know what we should do. God help us to do it when it needs to be done.
“Our Mission of Saving,” Gordon B. Hinckley, General Conference, October 1991. Politics aside, it seems that I and we as local church units could and should be doing so much more! While there are some LDS Church units who seem to be able to accomplish President Hinckley’s challenge on a regular basis, my suspicion is that a majority often miss significant opportunities to serve those on the fringes of our society and bring them in to a place from which they can work to achieve their potential as sons and daughters of God in the same way that the Tuohy’s “rescued” and enabled Michael. BUT HOW?!?
I think that I personally and we as local LDS Church units often fail in this regard simply because of the lack of information. I have sat in many ward council and welfare committee meetings where everyone looks at each other and asks “so who needs help?” “I dunno…” I dunno…” “I heard so-and-so is moving…”, etc., etc. While I do think that much of the service rendered by the relief society (meals provided, etc.) and elders quorum (helping with moves, etc.) is necessary and appreciated, I think we need to have more of a focus on those who stand on the fringes of society, but I think we often lack resources to obtain the information we need to serve significantly in the way I am thinking.
On a personal level, I think about the Smart family who would regularly help homeless people by paying them to do odd jobs at the Smart home, only to have one of those people kidnap and do unspeakable things to their daughter.
So here is the question – WHERE can we find out how to help people “on the fringes?” And how can we do so in a way that does not endanger our families? What things have you done that help to enable God’s children in some significant way? I would love to generate a list of ideas of things I can do personally and with my family and local LDS unit to more significantly serve God’s children on the fringes and enable them to reach their potential in a way that exceeds their current limitations imposed by their poverty or family situations. What works to better effectuate the saving mission that we, according to President Hinckley, should be working among God’s children today?
Obviously, we can’t all adopt a Michael and turn him into a pro football player. But I do know that I personally can do more than what I do, if only I knew where to look.