The LDS Church is emerging as a player in international assistance projects after decades of standing aloof from other relief agencies.
Over the past 10 years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has developed a Humanitarian Service program to work with foreign and domestic agencies in shipping food, clothing and cash to the disaster-stricken and downtrodden.The trend is a major departure in policy for a church that has long looked after its own and left the needs of nonmembers to others. And some predict LDS humanitarian assistance will eventually produce an organization akin to Catholic Relief Services.
"In the next 10 years, I think you will see the church do more on its own," said Dr. William Jackson, who heads Deseret International, a group of physicians who volunteer medical training and services in Third World countries.
Jackson, a former LDS mission president in the Philippines, said the church simply can't reverse its humanitarian efforts if it wants a presence in developing nations.
If Jackson is right, the impact on international relief efforts won't go unnoticed. Over 60 years, the church has developed an extensive worldwide welfare system of farms, food production facilities, storehouses, cash reserves and employment services.
"We normally ship (goods that are donated), and they have the capacity to do that themselves," said Don Rogers of Catholic Relief Services. "They are more capable than other donors and they can work in coordination with us."
Rogers said recent LDS shipments of clothes and food to Eastern Europe were highly organized, and he said the church is seeking contacts there to operate relief programs directly.
Launched during the Great Depression, the LDS welfare program has been primarily a safety net for its members.
"(LDS Church members) always had a policy that was deliberately insular, with the thinking that if we take care of our own, we will free the resources of other organizations to serve nonmembers," said Garth Mangum, an economics and management professor at the University of Utah and coauthor of "The Mormons' War on Poverty."
That doesn't mean the LDS Church, while meeting the needs of members, entirely ignored those outside the faith.
In 1907, church members sent a shipment of grain to quake-devastated China. Other disasters have prompted isolated shipments of food and clothing.
Also, LDS Church members independent of their church have launched about a dozen or more private charities, such as Deseret International, that focus on development projects in impoverished countries.
Members of those groups can't pin their church's shift in welfare policy on any single event. And church leaders have said nothing publicly about reasons for the move.
Some see its beginnings in the early 1980s when church leaders allowed missionaries in Southeast Asia to teach refugees how to adapt to Western life.
The church authority behind that effort, Elder Marion D. Hanks, dismisses the notion that he had a role in his church's wholesale shift in direction.
"What I did was a bit of a thorn," said Hanks, now retired from full-time church service. "They (top-level church leaders) have their own speed and we may have pushed that a little."
Mangum points to the church hierarchy's 1978 decision to permit black males to receive the priesthood, which triggered proselyting in poor African countries. An early growth spurt in West Africa prompted community projects aimed at supplying members in Ghana with clean water and improved farm production.
But it was the 1985 famine in Ethiopia that most observers see as the turning point in the thinking of church leaders. Many members wanted to help, but the only charity they knew and trusted was their church, to which they volunteer money and time to maintain the welfare system.
The church had contributed to various relief organizations in Ethiopia the year before, and many rank-and-file members wrote letters seeking direction.
"They wanted to give more. We had calls and letters by the hundreds," said Keith McMullin, the church's managing director of welfare services.
A churchwide fast specifically to raise money for famine relief in Africa brought in more than $6 million. A national day of fasting raised another $3.8 million.
In addition to aid to Africa, the contributions were used to seed what would become an ongoing program of humanitarian assistance to people outside the fold. McMullin said the program evolved because the church's 9 million members demonstrated they could meet needs outside the church as well as within.
The current amount of the Humanitarian Service fund is a secret. Church officials limit disclosure to the amount of aid the fund provides. Last October, they said the total value of humanitarian aid up to then was $72.5 million in 109 countries.
McMullin said the church has so far participated in 1,154 relief assistance projects and 209 so-called self-reliance projects.
An example of a self-reliance project would be start-up capital for a village bank, which could then lend money and teach financial management to small businesses.
LDS assistance isn't always welcomed by countries where the church is not officially recognized, McMullin said. That has forced the church to work through other agencies.
Foreign governments know of the church's aggressive proselyting program, which includes some 50,000 missionaries, and are leery of ulterior motives behind the faith's humanitarian efforts.
But McMullin insists the church's intentions are sincere and rooted in its doctrine.
"It's not our intent to gain notoriety, publicity or favors because of our efforts to care for the poor," he said.
While Rogers said there are indications Mormons are edging toward running relief programs directly, McMullin won't speculate on where the church's Humanitarian Service program is headed.
"As the church's capacity and interests develop, there will probably be a time when we get more directly involved," he said. "I don't know when or how. But I don't see us discontinuing."