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Like many faiths, Mormonism has explicit scriptural mandates to turn belief into action.
Members “should be anxiously engaged in a good cause,” says one uniquely Latter-day Saint verse, “and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness.”
They need not wait for their leaders to instruct them, the scriptures say, for “it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant.”
And hundreds, if not thousands, of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have taken to heart these calls, leading activist efforts on their own.
It makes sense for so many to be motivated by their faith, says Elizabeth Ostler, editor-in-chief of the LDS Women Project, highlighting individual members across the globe. Altruism is born and bred into them.
Latter-day Saint congregations “are structured in a manner that invites us to practice lightening others’ burdens and allowing them to lighten ours,” says Ostler, who lives in New York. “Monthly we are asked to fast and to donate the funds that would have been used for food for the benefit of others. Often this time is also dedicated to praying for the well-being of others. LDS doctrine teaches the importance of personal revelation which empowers every individual to call upon the divine for guidance on how they can be an agent of change within their sphere of influence.”
Modern Latter-day Saint women “also inherited a spirit of activism from our LDS ancestors, who advocated for religious freedom,” Ostler says. “We have LDS foremothers who were suffragettes and education and health care advocates.”
Warner Woodworth, professor emeritus of global social entrepreneurship at church-owned Brigham Young University, has dedicated more than four decades to helping individual Latter-day Saints learn how they personally can become change agents to reduce human suffering.
More than 5,000 of Woodworth’s students have helped launch and maintain 41 nongovernmental organizations in 62 countries, he says. Next month, his new book, “Radiant Mormonism,” will bring many of those experiences together and underscore the relationship between “faith, hope and charity,” and “gospel-based social innovations” that can have a lasting impact.
“My life’s philosophy began as I read the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspiring words when I was confronted with suffering and extreme poverty on my mission to Brazil years ago,” says Woodworth.
“A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone,” he quotes the church founder as saying, “but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”
That has been “the core principle and motivation,” Woodworth says, “driving my life, family, career and church leadership service ever since.”
These same principles have mobilized many other Latter-day Saint believers, including these five idealists.
Brad Walker, Bountiful Children’s Foundation
On a return trip in 1983 to Ecuador, where Walker had served his church mission, he saw a woman he had baptized coughing up blood. Her tuberculosis could be cured with a $200 treatment, but she couldn’t afford it. Walker, who had spent four times that much on his airfare, considered giving her the money, but didn’t. Three years later, she died.
That was a crushing realization for Walker.
By 2004, he was a physician in Las Vegas and determined to help improve the health of members in developing nations. With the aid of more than 30 LDS stake (regional) presidents and other leaders in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, Walker spent years collecting data on the health problems, particularly malnutrition, of Latter-day Saint children in Latin America.
From the data, he concluded that hundreds of thousands of “faithful and active Latter-day Saints” lived in “dire poverty,” including thousands of children who have annual cases of severe, preventable disability, and 900 annual preventable deaths.
Walker established the Liahona Children’s Foundation to provide a “caloric and vitamin supplement” to those suffering from malnutrition.
It began small but now his nonprofit — which changed its name two years ago to Bountiful Children’s Foundation — is actively serving “nearly 20,000 children and many of their mothers in 16 countries,” according to its website. “In 2019, the foundation provided more than 1.8 million supplements to recipients across 200 communities.”
Walker’s church mission and prayer played a big role in what motivated him.
One night in 2004, he was discouraged by some responses to his malnutrition project, which seemed overwhelming to launch without more help.
As he slept, a figure came to him in a dream and said, “Don’t give up.”
He woke up two more times that night, Walker recalls now, and each time the same figure told him not to forsake the project.
That was almost 20 years ago, and now his malnutrition effort is stronger than ever.
That, he says, is faith.
Alexandria Scott, Ditto Kids Magazine
Scott, an African American Latter-day Saint mother who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, wanted to teach her children about diversity, inclusion and anti-racism. But she couldn’t find any resources to help her own kids.
So she created one: Ditto Kids Magazine.
“I decided to put it in magazine form with plenty of images, stories and activities as a simpler and more engaging way to help kids connect with the magazine,” Scott tells the LDS Women Project. “I felt like there were so many resources out there for parents or teachers to educate themselves and then to teach kids, but nothing that was expressly for kids.”
What does the name mean?
“We want kids to learn that when they meet people who they might not think they have much in common with,” she says in the interview, “to remember that actually, ‘ditto,’ they do.” To Scott, who graduated from BYU and served an LDS mission to Taipei, Taiwan, this project definitely is built on experience with her faith.
“In my view, the central guiding principles of our religion are to love God and to love our brothers and sisters,” she writes in an email. “Once we quiet some of the noise and demands for our attention both in our church community and in ourselves, maybe the centrality of those principles come further into focus.”
Then comes “the real work,” she says, “figuring out how to actually act on it.”
Anti-racism and peace building, like anything else, make up “a tree with many branches,” Scott says. “Stories that have been told complement or conflict with others. Roots that have dug deep into the earth are watered by our own experiences and biases.”
Motivated by the Book of Mormon passage that says, “all are alike unto God,” the Black believer says such change requires “commitment and a willingness to lead by listening to prepare ourselves to bear each other’s burdens, to say nothing of teaching our kids.”
Craig Christensen, Conserve Utah Valley
For decades, Christensen coached top executives in face-to-face meetings. When COVID-19 hit, his business dried up.
So, the Provo consultant thought to himself: This might be time for him to climb “a second mountain,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks urged.
“I have spent most of my life helping the rich get richer,” Christensen says. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to help the poor get richer?’”
So he began to explore nonprofits.
He had never been an activist, he says, but he cared about conservation and that spread to the idea of environmental stewardship.
During summer this year, Christensen started to learn about Utah Lake and became more and more convinced, he says, that it was a “sacred stewardship” and agreed to serve as executive director of Conserve Utah Valley.
His definition of stewardship used to be “so narrow,” and mostly meant making enough money to provide for his family.
Now he takes a broader, “more mature” view, as he sees it.
“We are all in the same nuclear family,” Christensen says. “We are all children of God.”
Latter-day Saints should embrace their stewardship, not just for the earth and the environment, he adds, but also for all people and creatures, and not wait for the church to do it.
Becky Douglas, Rising Star Outreach
After Douglas’ oldest daughter took her life in 2001 due to a struggle with bipolar disorder, the Latter-day Saint mother of 10 discovered that the young woman had been contributing to an orphanage in India. At the funeral, then, the parents asked attendees to donate to this place and many did.
So Douglas and her husband took the money in person to India, and the orphanage asked her to be on its board of directors. During their stay, the two were confronted by people with “gaping wounds, no eyes and missing fingers,” asking for money.
They had leprosy.
Every time the couple stopped in traffic, Douglas says, these panhandlers would approach the car to ask for help.
“I had never seen anything like it,” the Atlanta mother says. “For a lot of my life, I would look at beggars as if they were worthless people.”
She always thought she would “be like Jesus, but India has a way of revealing you to yourself,” Douglas says. “I’m telling you they had pus running down their arms and maggots crawling through them, and the smell is indescribable. I didn’t want to touch them. I just wanted to get away.”
Though such sights were deeply distressing, Douglas returned to the U.S. with a desire to help in some way.
“I was so unnerved, but I prayed, asking if there was anything I could do.” She got what to her was a surprising answer: “You can at least look at them.”
That’s all it took.
Douglas soon called four friends — “three housewives and a secretary,” as she jokingly calls them — none of whom had ever run a nonprofit organization.
Now Rising Star Outreach is a multimillion-dollar foundation with 35 board members in the U.S. and India who come from multiple religions. During COVID-19, the group fed some 112,000 people in 10 states of India, she says, and provided nearly 40,000 medical treatments.
“All of us are driven by our faith, even though our faiths are different,” Douglas says. “God is very aware of the suffering of his children, no matter what faith.”
Yvonne Nsabimana-Baraketse, Ngoma y’Africa Cultural Center
Yvonne Nsabimana-Baraketse was a young teen on April 6, 1994, when her father was in a plane with the Rwandan president that was shot down from the sky — an act that triggered the genocide that would rob her of many friends and relatives.
Her family first fled to Belgium, where she met her husband, who also was a Rwandan refugee and a Latter-day Saint.
When they started dating in 1999, she asked him, “Hey, how come you’re not crazy?...Where do you go to church? Because I want to know why you are strong like that — mentally, spiritually — knowing all you’ve been through.”
This was “during the moment that I was searching,” feeling abandoned by God, Nsabimana-Baraketse recalls in an interview with the LDS Women Project.
Her future husband took her to a little branch in Brussels and she immediately “felt the Spirit.”
Two years later, she joined the Utah-based faith — “I had to go through forgiveness, forgiving myself for being really too hard on myself, and also forgiving those who killed my father and my extended family, and really wiping away the hatred and all the darkness that was in me” — and the couple ultimately moved to the Beehive State.
Through it all, dance and movement were a constant in her life and a way to connect with her roots in Rwanda (which she still remembers as the “Singapore of Africa”) and her faith.
Four years ago, she founded Ngoma y’Africa Cultural Center in Provo. And, in 2018, she choreographed dance numbers for the “Be One” gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the LDS Church’s ban on Black males holding the priesthood and entering its temples.
The dance, she says, “is our way of praising God.”
Editor’s note • This article mentions suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.