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Mormons’ JustServe helps helpers find places to, well, help

First Published      Last Updated Apr 01 2017 07:24 pm

Religion » Program started as a tool for LDS missionaries to find service opportunities; now it’s enlisting a volunteer army — with no proselytizing.

Not long ago, Suzanne Miller had a self-described crazy Christian idea.

What if her Ogden church hosted a fresh-cooked weekly meal for the homeless, one in which Styrofoam cups, plastic utensils and paper plates were out and china, silver, glassware and wrinkle-free napkins were in?

The down-and-out would be treated to a restaurant-style dinner at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd without paying a cent, she proposed, and servers from the community would get a chance to break down stereotypes and barriers.

Miller persuaded a friend to join her in the enterprise, gathered her grandma's recipes, sought volunteers and stepped into an unknown future.

The first luncheon, in January 2016, attracted four diners. Within a month, more than three-dozen showed up. A half-year later, 150 were regulars.

Now many of the hungry homeless look forward to this Wednesday feast, Miller says. "They can relax. They feel safe because we treat them with respect."

Organizers never know how many guests to expect, she says. "It's like feeding the 5,000 every week. A miracle."

And the magic keeps happening, thanks partly to an LDS Church website that supplies a steady stream of volunteers. Like Tinder for would-be lovers, JustServe.org matches organizations with idealists eager for ways to give.

Though originally meant simply to list ways for Mormon missionaries to fulfill their four-hours-a-week service requirements, the site has been expanded across religious and geographical lines, reaching from coast to coast and engaging participants of all faiths and no faith.

Despite JustServe being assembled and maintained by Latter-day Saints, neither the website nor Mormon participants — including those name-tag wearing "elders" and "sisters" — are about promoting a particular faith.

In fact, proselytizing is forbidden.

"JustServe has truly helped us to make this not just two Episcopal women," Miller says. "This is a community effort."

That fits precisely with how Mormon authorities envisioned it.

Hatching a plan • JustServe was born at high-level meetings of the LDS Church's Missionary Committee based on conversations between Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard and fellow general authority Richard J. Maynes.

Ballard says the two wanted to guarantee that every missionary had "a great experience serving the Lord." But past routines no longer played in the present.

Few Americans are now home during the day, and fewer still want anyone knocking on their door. During those down times, why not encourage the young evangelizers to turn from convert-courting to charity-helping?

The rules were clear: This was not part of pitching the Mormon gospel. If a person working with them asked questions about their faith, missionaries could answer, but they were not to start the conversation.

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