NEW YORK CITY — An LDS Church leader reaffirmed the faith’s commitment to working with religious groups and other agencies to provide humanitarian aid and help refugees around the world in a meeting at the United Nations Thursday.
Sister Jean B. Bingham, the church’s new Relief Society general president, said faith-based organizations need to build bridges, understand each other’s work and cooperate more.
"While beliefs may vary, we are united with other faiths in our commitment to a higher cause that transcends our personal interests and motivates us to give of our substance, our time and our energies on behalf of our fellow men and women,” she said during a panel discussion.
LDS Charities organized the event that brought together Islamic Relief USA, Episcopal Migration Ministries, UNICEF, the State Department and a resettled Afghani refugee as part of the U.N.'s Focus on Faith series. The discussion centered on the role of religious organizations in refugee assistance and resettlement. About 700 people attended.
Left on its own, Sister Bingham said, LDS Charities, the worldwide humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would have limited impact.
“When we reach out to other faith-based organizations, there is a certain affinity — a shared language, a common motivation — that allows our resources to complement each other. Our common purpose lends power to our work,” she said.
Anwar Khan, CEO of Islamic Relief USA, said people are surprised to learn that LDS Charities was his organization's first interfaith partner.
"It’s not what people expect. That's cool. We get to change the way that people think," he said.
The cooperation between the Muslim and Mormon relief groups started when they worked together to aid Somali refugees fleeing to Kenya in 2011.
"They don’t need to work with us. They can do it themselves. But we together can do it better," said Khan, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in England.
The U.N. Department of Public Information started the Focus on Faith series in 2008 as part of its weekly briefings for nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs. It explores how faith traditions, faith-based organizations and cultural groups around the world tie into the U.N. mission.
LDS Charities, which is officially recognized as an NGO, works with several global U.N. programs that aid refugees and provide food, medicine, clothing and supplies to people in poverty. In the U.S., it has assisted the nine federally authorized refugee resettlement agencies, six of which are based in a religion.
Sister Bingham traveled to Uganda with UNICEF representatives six weeks ago to observe a multipartner effort to address the needs of refugees arriving from South Sudan and neighboring countries. In addition to meeting immediate needs, LDS Charities and UNICEF are providing immunizations and educational services for children in the settlement centers.
"In meeting the newly arriving refugees, I could see the relief wash over them as they exited the crowded buses to find a friendly welcome and a hot meal," said Sister Bingham, who became the church’s Relief Society president on April 1.
Moderator Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, posed a question to the panelists about those who disagree and criticize efforts to help the world's 23 million refugees.
Khan said some organizations from conservative backgrounds have a hard time because they're perceived as siding with more politically progressive groups.
"I would say, 'What would Jesus do?' Again, I'm a Muslim," he said. "What would Jesus do?"
Khan said faiths have good things and bad things in their histories. And for those who refuse to donate because the funds might be used to help someone of a different religion, he said he tells them, "You need the money more than we do."
Sister Bingham, who taught English as a second language to elementary students at a private school as well as to immigrants and for other nonprofit organizations, said people should see themselves in refugees' shoes.
"What if their story were my story? When you look at it that way there is so much reason to reach out," she said.
In March 2016, her predecessor, Sister Linda K. Burton, used those words to invite Mormons to find ways to serve refugees living in their neighborhoods and communities.
"As we consider the pressing calls of those who need our help, let’s ask ourselves, ‘What if their story were my story?’” Sister Burton said during the women’s session of the church’s general conference last year. “May we then seek inspiration, act on impressions we receive and reach out in unity to help those in need as we are able and inspired to do so."
The LDS Church as recently as January spoke out on the plight of displaced people amid controversy over President Donald Trump's executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim countries.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God's children across the earth, with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution. The church urges all people and governments to cooperate fully in seeking the best solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering,” according to a statement.
The Rev. Canon Mark Stevenson, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, said he received hate emails just Thursday morning over helping refugees, and gets them often.
"What we try to do is invite people into a relationship with those who are immigrating here, who are coming here as refugees," he said. "If you're buying the public narrative that we're getting off the 24-hour news cycle, take a step back from that and go spend time in a community, a congregation that is working amongst refugees."
Abdul Saboor, a resettled refugee from Afghanistan, said people stopped by his house to offer help and take him to appointments when he first landed confused and marginalized in upstate New York.
"I didn't know what congregation they belonged to or identified themselves with. I didn't know which faith they were coming from, and at that point that was not the No. 1 concern on my list," he said. "But what I did learn by meeting this passionate group of people was that the community is willing to help people in need, and now I take pride in calling them my friends."
Saboor, a Syracuse University student, said that drove him to volunteer at Interfaith Works to help refugees resettle.
"If you begin to see yourself in them and you learn that we're all refugees in this world, then you're whole world will change," he said.