Today’s powerful and inspiring Mutual Improvement Associations comes from our guest blogger, Mark.
Let’s begin in typical LDS-sacrament-meeting-talk fashion and define the meaning of some words. Mutual Improvement Association. What does that even mean? It sounds awkward and clunky and a bit old-fashioned. But when we look at the words separately, we can begin to discern some important things. The words ‘mutual’ and ‘association’ signify togetherness and connection. Improvement isn’t something we do all by ourselves, it works better when someone else helps us. Our understanding of the gospel begins with the understanding that we are dependent upon our Savior’s grace.
Joseph Smith’s cosmology takes this sense of mutuality and adds a turbocharger. We are not only dependent upon Jesus, but our theology requires us to save each other. We cannot be saved alone, but only in relationship with one another. At the Kirtland dedication, the prophet asked God to bless not only the latter-day saints, but also “all their connections”. (D&C 109) He was a pre-modern, visionary man, and to him, heaven meant a place where all the offspring of diety would be sealed and bound together in loving bonds “stronger than the cords of death”. (D&C 121) His strong universalist impulse is apparent in his teaching which implies that no one is beyond the reach of saving grace. Mormon heaven is not a place to which one aspires by keeping a list of rules, gritting one’s teeth and hoping to make the cut. It is not an exclusive place where we look for reasons to keep people out, but rather a place of inclusion, where we are bound together by covenant in a promise to save one another. Smith described heaven as a place where “…that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory…” (D&C 130). I take great comfort in believing that heaven will be like a big reunion of all the people I have ever loved, but not a boring one. It will be a knock-down, drag-out PARTY!! which goes on until all hours and spills out of the house and takes over the entire back yard. There will be 20 different loud, animated conversations going on simultaneously, with lots of delicious food, with people setting off fireworks, with the stereo speakers set up on the roof, and with the neighbors threatening to call the cops, except in heaven there will be no grumpy neighbors.
In addition to the social aspect of life, we also understand that salvation doesn’t just happen by itself, but that it requires effort. Once more, we can look to the words of Joseph Smith: “…let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.” (History of the Church 5:517) Again, he was not worried about keeping a list of rules, but instead displayed an assertive, muscular confidence in the ability of the Mormon people to engage with adversity and prevail, and to make conditions better, wherever they happen to be. We sing from our hymnal “Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear.” We sing that we should put our shoulders to the wheel and push along, because “the world has need of helping hands, and hearts that know and feel.” There is a strong, this-worldly feel to Mormonism. We — first person, plural — promise to build Zion, not at some future time, but right here and right now. Obviously we haven’t yet succeeded, and sometimes I marvel at how little we actually do, given our capacity. But sometimes we get it right. When Wallace Stegner described the rescue of the handcart pioneers, he remarked that “this is the sort of thing the Mormons have always done very well.” And when Brigham Young stood in the tabernacle after receiving word of the handcart pioneers’ plight, he dismissed general conference on the spot, dispatched rescue parties, and told them that if he were in the place of the people caught in the snow on the high plains of Wyoming, “…I would give more for a cup of milk, or a baked potato with salt, than I would for all your prayers, were you to stay here in the tabernacle and pray all afternoon.” This is a religion which builds not only chapels and temples, but also canneries and storehouses.
When I was growing up, my father’s calling in the church was welfare specialist. I tagged along as he supervised corn growing projects, green bean growing projects, alfalfa projects, and a pig farm. When I was 13, I wanted to get a job and earn money over the summer, but dad didn’t think I was quite old enough. So he paid me himself, from his own pocket, to pack my lunch and ride my bike on a 9 mile roundtrip every day out to the welfare farm. I spent many happy hours by myself, irrigating crops, digging holes for fenceposts, and cleaning up after pigs. My father helped me understand that the farm was part of a larger enterprise, designed to assist people in need, and that we must do our very best work. I once saw him pray over a sow and her litter of of piglets she had birthed prematurely, and cry a few hours later when some of them died. It was a great day at the end of the summer when several hundred people showed up to harvest the corn, then take it to the cannery where several hundred other people processed it, canned it, and boxed it on pallets, ready for distribution. I have witnessed and loved this aspect of my religion many times over the years.
The word “life-changing” is overused, but I nonetheless think it applies to the following events. Seven years ago, in September, 2005, I experienced this capacity for collective action on a massive scale. After Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the gulf coast, I started working in close connection with LDS Relief Services for several months. On my first Sunday in New Orleans, we met for services at the bishop’s storehouse, since it was the only church building in the area which wasn’t flooded. The latter-day saints, many of whom had been flooded out of their homes and were living with other ward members temporarily, sat on metal folding chairs (well, of course!) arranged between the racks of groceries and supplies and coolers full of vegetables. We sang the opening hymn, accompanied by a cheap portable keyboard, and I was doing OK until we got to the words “There is hope smiling brightly before us.” Then I got something in my eye and and in my throat at the same time. After about a 10 minute service, the stake president, wearing his work clothes, dismissed the meeting and we all got busy, cleaning up the mess left by the storm.
The church leveraged its organizational structure to call for support from congregations hundreds of miles away. People came from as far away as Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas. Every week for many months, on Friday afternoons after work, several hundred people would assemble at their local chapels, bringing with them their own food, sleeping bags, equipment, and tools. They would drive all night in carpools, rotating drivers while the others slept, and arrive in the disaster area early Saturday morning, where they would report in to the designated church building. The cultural hall of the building served as the functional equivalent of NASA’s Houston Control. There was always a long table set up with work orders organized by time period. The rolling chalkboard had a detailed local map hanging on it, with colored pins showing job locations. Around the perimeter of the gym, cases of bottled water and granola bars were stacked against the walls, as well as first aid kits and boxes of work gloves.
The groups were broken down into manageable crews, 10-15 people each, with a designated leader and assistant. The leaders went into a short meeting where work assignments were distributed and instructions were given. By 7:30 a.m., the crews were on the road to a job. The work was difficult and filthy. We helped people move all their soggy belongings – beds, sofas, pianos, cabinets – out to the street for pickup. We removed wet, moldy drywall, sometimes from the entire house, so that the 2X4 studs, plumbing pipes, and electrical conduit were the only things left. We removed trees from rooftops and made temporary repairs in order to keep the rain out of the house. We cut down trees that were leaning and hazardous, and cut the trees into pieces and took the pieces to the pile at the curb. The crews worked like this all day Saturday until it was too dark to see. They then went back to the church and set up tents on the lawn. There were makeshift showers, put together with a wooden frame and opaque plastic, and a garden hose fastened in place which provided only cold water. I will assure you that comfort and privacy were the least of our concerns, it felt so good to get under the cold water and wash off the the sticky, itchy mixture of sawdust and sweat. Early Sunday morning, each group held its own short (15 minute) worship meeting, and then started on a new set of work assignments for the day. I learned that a camp cooler is a perfectly good sacrament table, and that a young man wearing his high school wrestling t-shirt is appropriately dressed to kneel in the dewy grass and say the words which sacralize Wonder bread and water. It was a pleasure to take communion from a 13 y.o. boy wearing a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt, as he solemnly offered me the emblems on a paper plate. I learned that listening to a group of untrained male voices singing “Because I have been given much, I too must give” early in the morning, a capella, can bring tears to your eyes, for more reasons than one. By mid-afternoon on Sunday, the crews would finish up and begin the long drive home, so they could get to their jobs on Monday morning. Thousands of Mormons did this every week, for months.
On the night of October 1, 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley said this in general priesthood meeting:
“Now, as all of us are aware, the Gulf States area of the United States has recently suffered terribly from raging winds and waters. Many have lost all they had. The damage has been astronomical. Literally millions have suffered. Fear and worry have gripped the hearts of many. Lives have been lost.
With all of this, there has been a great outpouring of help. Hearts have been softened. Homes have been opened. Critics love to talk about the failures of Christianity. Any such should take a look at what the churches have done in these circumstances. Those of many denominations have accomplished wonders. And far from the least among these has been our own Church. Great numbers of our men have traveled considerable distances, bringing with them tools and tents and radiant hope.”
I listened to those words via closed circuit transmission while sitting in a chapel in Covington, Louisiana, surrounded by a few hundred strangers still wearing their work clothes. Most of them were sound asleep, snoring like water buffaloes, because they were worn out from working so hard all day. This was the first chance they had to sit down to rest in a darkened, air-conditioned room. I looked around at all those wonderful men — the high priests with the bad backs and gimpy knees, the younger men with young families and challenging careers and student loans and mortgages they probably couldn’t see the end of — and realized how much I loved them, even though I didn’t even know their names. Just as plain white bread and common tap water are made sacred and emblematic of Jesus, these ordinary men also represented the body of Christ. By working together towards a communal goal they had created something sacred, and the whole had become greater than the sum of the parts.
One memory in particular stands out. One day after we had completed our assignments, we drove past a woman trying to saw through a large tree in her yard, using only a handsaw. We stopped and helped. She lived alone, and it turns out that the tree was blocking her car in the garage, and she hadn’t been able to drive anywhere for almost 3 weeks. We fired up the chainsaws and made short work of the log. She had pails in almost every room in her house to catch the rain, so we patched her roof and stopped the leaks. And now that she could drive, we invited her to follow us back to the storehouse. When we arrived, some of the senior service missionaries helped her file an insurance claim, and also apply for aid from the state. Meanwhile, the rest of us used a shopping cart to carry groceries and supplies, and filled up the back seat of her car with things she needed. This precious woman had been wearing the same housedress for at least two weeks, her hair was stringy and greasy, and her face was unwashed. But when she came out of the storehouse, she was beautiful, because she again had hope. And when she saw the food in the back seat of her car, she began to cry, and the tears streaked the dirt on her face. She embraced me and pulled my face down to hers, and kissed me over and over on both cheeks. The reunion in my Mormon heaven will have to include her, because it simply will not be heaven without her.
So yes. Mutual Improvement Associations. We find love and hope in each other’s presence, and we are better able to “succor the weak, lift up the hands that hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81) when we do these sacred things together. This is a Mormonism that is forward-looking, outward-focused, open to the world, and fearless. This is Mormonism at its best, and it is the Mormonism that I love.