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New Mormon program brings surge in refugee aid in Utah (video)

First Published      Last Updated Mar 30 2016 05:09 pm


‘I Was a Stranger’ » LDS faithful are directed to the program website for information on how to get involved.

Utah-based aid groups are seeing a huge outpouring of interest from Mormon women after a weekend call from top LDS leaders that urged them to help refugees.

The "I Was a Stranger" relief effort, announced Saturday night, has been buttressed by a new website highlighting the program and a formal invitation from the faith's governing First Presidency, rallying women "of all ages to join together to help refugees in their local communities."

Members are being directed to iwasastranger.lds.org for ideas and information on how to get involved.

The site points to refugee needs in learning English; building new friendships; understanding new customs and practices; and finding employment, adequate medical care, transportation and educational services for their children. It encourages involvement through government agencies, schools, churches and faith-affiliated groups, low-income health clinics, nonprofit organizations and community centers.



"We each have the invitation as women and young women to open our eyes and our hearts to see those among us who may feel alone, afraid, or uncertain so that we are no longer strangers," the site says. "... This is not a program; it is who we are."

Deb Coffey, executive director of the Utah Refugee Center, said Tuesday that her group has seen a flood of offers and donations from individual Mormons and LDS groups, as well as families, corporations, bloggers and a variety of auxiliary organizations.

"Oh my goodness," Coffey said. "It is a heartwarming and amazing response to the messages sent over the weekend."

While her organization appreciates community support, Coffey said, the new initiative also promises to raise vital awareness of the often-dire experiences of refugees, at least 45,000 of whom have resettled in Utah since 1988 — 70 percent of them women and children.

"Our needs are ongoing," she said. "It's really important for folks to understand that everything they can do matters."

Gleaned from biblical verses that urge charity toward the impoverished, the "I Was a Stranger" effort also evokes times when Mormons themselves were refugees, including when they fled Missouri in 1839 and were helped by residents of Quincy, Ill.

Announced Saturday by LDS women's leaders as part of the twice-yearly General Conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the program also builds on prior statements from top Mormon authorities encouraging members worldwide to assist refugees.

The new initiative "gives sisters a way to serve as individuals, in families, and in organizations and to offer friendship, mentoring, and other Christlike service to the refugees in our midst," LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors, Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, wrote in the First Presidency letter.

The letter reminds Mormons that a fundamental tenet of their faith is to "impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath ... administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants."

In another letter, the female leaders of three church auxiliaries encouraged "women, young women and girls" to find "trusted local community and civic organizations to support" as they pursue ways to "lift and bless those in need."

Such service, the letter said, might be performed individually, as part of a family effort, with a church group or as part of a separate neighborhood or community organization.

"We hope that all will realize the eternal blessings of Christlike service," said the letter signed by Relief Society General President Linda K. Burton, Young Women General President Bonnie L. Oscarson and Primary General President Rosemary M. Wixom.

Mormon feminist and writer Neylan McBaine said the refugee-assistance program was gratifying and in keeping with the all-female Relief Society's role as a central church vehicle for addressing problems among the downtrodden.

McBaine said the Mormon women's involvement in the refugee effort could herald "the beginning of the unfolding of a remarkable vision of what Relief Society and women's authority can truly be."

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