November 2, 2011 by Ron Madson
“The story of the Bible, and the power that it possesses, is a better story than any of the power games that we play in our world. We must tell this story, and let it exercise its power in the world. And that is the task of the whole church.”
Church services are starting in just minutes, so I am once again prodding my fifteen year old son to finish getting ready so we will not be too late. The day before we had a brother in our ward open up his orchard to all comers, free of charge, to pick as many apples as we can use. I am waiting in the garage for my son, and seeing the stack of apples I realized that I was never going to be able to eat all those apples—“for there is enough and to spare.” I asked my son if he wanted to try out a different church today. He was more then anxious for a change, so he immediately got dressed and we took off to Pioneer Park.
I had heard rumors that “Occupation” at Pioneer Park was disintegrating, so I was surprised to see more tents than what was there two weeks earlier. The most prominent part of this Pioneer Park community is the food court where volunteers are constantly cleaning and preparing food for the next meal—food given freely to anyone with no questions asked. The food court is where all donations—monetary and in kind are given. We dropped off the apples.
My son and I began to mingle with the crowd. There is an educational booth that has literature and a few attendants. There is also a “spiritual space” where individual and groups can gather and share spiritual and educational messages. I visited with Aharon Ben-Or and Rob Tautges who are involved in that part of the camp. Aharon explained that during the past two weeks the camp had been a magnet to the homeless who sought not only the food, but also something that they hungered for more then bread—having a community where they could be intellectually and emotionally embraced. Aharon estimated that more then half of the tents were by those who were homeless. With their presence came medical needs—physical and mental, substance abuse and all the raw problems that come with the disenfranchised in a community. And with their presence, many of the original organizers and the attendant middle class departed the park seeking to find a place to concentrate on the Wall Street message and not be occupied with addressing the needs of the lowest “one percent.” But some hardy souls decided that rather then disband, they would stay and see what they could learn and then do for this community of the disenfranchised in Salt Lake City.
I shared with a few organizers that I have posting privileges with the Mormon Worker, which gave me a chance to share with them why I believe that it is because of our Mormon faith/values/doctrine and traditions, the presence of the least in our community should be a magnet rather then a deterrence to our ministering to those in Pioneer Park. I brought my scriptures in anticipation of sharing a Sabbath day message. I quoted a few doctrinal statements from the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. The small group nodded in approval. Then I realized that these were just general statements that were, as a practical matter, sterile platitudes.
As the crowd increased to hear what I had to say, I decided to tell stories from the Book of Mormon. I told of a King that worked with his own hands so as to not tax his people, and was so righteous that an angel visited him and told him that in reality we are all beggars, and that he and his people should use their resources to give to every person in need and not judge those in need, and that is how we take upon ourselves the name of Christ.
I then told the story of a people that through the labor of the common men and women, had built a wonderful and prosperous city. That with the growth of that city’s wealth came monuments dedicated to showcasing a great and powerful church. At their highest spiritual monument (Rameumpton) they would gather frequently and praise God and speak about how wonderful it was that they were prosperous and thanked God because they were “a chosen and holy people” —being spared from the suffering of the many sinners who did not believe as they did. Then when prophets were sent to this city by God, they found that the poor in that city, who had labored with their own hands to build the city, were not welcomed at the churches to worship because of their great poverty. These poor were not sufficiently dressed for success, and they were suffering from the many distasteful aspects associated with their poverty. And yet it was among these people that God’s message was heard:
“…they were cast out of the synagogues because of he coarseness of their apparel…being esteemed as filthiness, therefore they were poor, yea , they were esteemed by their brethren as dross; therefore they were poor as to the things of this world; and also they were poor in heart…for they were despised of all men because of their poverty.” (Alma 32: 2-5)
After sharing this story, one of the organizers yelled out to others and said, “Come here. You must hear this story.” Others came and I was asked to tell the story again. I told it again, adding details (now I was beginning to feel like Elder Cunningham in the Book of Mormon Musical). So I then brought the story home. I said that I believe that Mormons have a rich tradition of serving others, and we have given a great deal to local shelters, and that we have a natural desire to give once we allow ourselves to be among those in real need. However, in my opinion, over time we have lost our way in that we have begun to ignore our own stories and how they should apply in our generation. We have succumbed to a desire to be accepted by the world so much that we have begun to mimic the corporate world more then the Kingdom of God. With the ostensible goal of removing “urban plight” from being near our holy places dedicated to our worship of Jesus, we have begun to spend far more on corporate financial “monuments to our success” then on direct humanitarian relief. We have begun to believe that we have been chosen by God to be rich and prosperous because of our righteousness, and then we spend tens of millions advertising the image of our goodness to the world.
I shared that our church leaders have added a fourth mission of the church—“Provide for the Poor,” and that there is a growing consciousness that we must find ways to fulfill our spiritual destiny so that there will be “no poor among us.” The Mormon community is conditioned to give and give and give. But we have also become conditioned to think that once we give to the Church our tithes and offerings and serve in callings within our wards, that we have done our duty. In our last General Conference one of our top leaders gave an inspirational message that we must find ways to care for those in need in our community, but we should not expect any money for such needs from the tithing funds that we had sent to our church corporate headquarters to address those needs. We were instructed that we must find local solutions. And that is why I and others from the Mormon Worker group have been here to visit you.
For if there is even one person who is homeless, uninsured, has unattended physical or mental illnesses, and/or in abject poverty in our community, then we have failed in our covenant that there be no poor among us. We have an immutable covenant to find a way to collectively alleviate every person that puts up their petition/sign seeking aid for basic necessities.
How easy would it be? Very. Build one less Rameumptom, if necessary. Then quit advertising our goodness—and use a fraction of those funds to minister to those in acute needs. Recently, a Mormon apologist group had this to say in attempting to justify our church spending multi-billions on a downtown shopping mall (the most expensive per square foot in the history of mankind) next to temple square rather then providing direct relief to the poor among us: “Critics also overlook the fact that if money is spent to feed the needy, that money is gone.” Why would we want to invest in temples of flesh that rot and decay when we can invest in temples of granite that last forever and give greater returns? Because that is what Jesus did. He fed the multitudes for He knew that one child of God is of greater value then all the riches and monuments of the world. Our apologist should spend more time reading our stories then seeking to justify every detour we take in pursuit of Mammon and the praise of the world.
Occupy Wall Street, whether in SLC or any city, is part of a larger story that is being told in our nation and throughout the world. How we as a faith relate to that story will define who we are and hope to be. I was asked before I left, “What will it take to have the Mormon community participate in providing relief to those in Pioneer Park?” I said we need to just tell the right stories from our sacred texts that link us to the true vine—- the life, teaching and person of Jesus of Nazareth. And what is the moral of our stories for our day?—
Don’t invest in “great and spacious buildings”; quit spending tens of millions advertising ourselves; and refrain from ascending our Rameumptoms from which to point the finger of scorn at those who have not succeeded in prospering according to the management of the flesh. And if we can repent of our well engrained habit of using our resources to build a financial empire patterned more after Wall Street then the Kingdom of God, we will find that we have more than enough to spare for the needs of every single hungry, sick, uninsured, and poor among us. The invitation to “sell all that one hath and give it to the poor, and come follow me” is no less applicable to churches as it is to individuals—and arguably more applicable if a church desires to be identified as a Christian faith. If we only consecrated a tithe of our church tithes (the Old Testament requires a third) to the poor, there would be more then enough to eliminate poverty in our communities.—and that tenth of our tenth would be a ten times improvement over what our church now spends on direct humanitarian relief. In the words of our previous advertising theme—“Isn’t it about time?”
“Tell someone what to do and you change their life–for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life.” –NT Wright
Ron Madson October 30, 2011