Whenever I look at the vast and difficult challenges facing the world, I am reminded of a favorite quote attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words." That might be the best description ever given for what we must do in order to heal struggling individuals and families while improving the direction and course of our communities and countries. The heart of the matter for healing people is to touch the hearts of the people — through actions, not just words.
Rhetoric, religious or political, isn’t the answer to alleviating human suffering or elevating the human condition. Our true commitment to making such a difference will be revealed not by what we declare, but by what we actually do. We would be wise to see with our eyes what any rhetoric has wrought by way of results.
Recently, Daniel Burke, CNN religion editor, wrote about what happens when we see someone “preach the gospel” through their actions. He described his experience of watching the appropriately named Pope Francis turn his attention away from adoring priests, nuns and rich donors to race over and minister to the elderly, sick and lame who looked on from a distance. Burke soon found tears streaming down his cheeks. An urge to embrace those around him filled his heart and a deep desire to serve others and be a better person enlarged his soul.
Burke credits Thomas Jefferson for defining “elevation” as the natural response to seeing an act of charity or gratitude. Jefferson had noted in a letter to a friend that “elevation” occurred upon witnessing an act of benevolence or moral beauty and which triggered the chest to dilate, caused an inner motivation to help others emerge and an uplifting or inspiring sensation to arise.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are quickly becoming accustomed to seeing and hearing about such acts of compassion from their new prophet and president, Russell M. Nelson. On Easter Sunday, at the conclusion of a historic meeting, President Nelson could have soaked in the collective goodwill and excitement of the over 21,000 attendees in the church’s vast Conference Center. Instead, he immediately left the rostrum and went down into the crowd directly to where the widow of his longtime colleague sat in a wheelchair. His seeking out and ministering to her sent a rush of emotion through the crowd. It was a more powerful gospel sermon than anything that had been said from the pulpit.
President Nelson understands the heart of the matter when it comes to ministering and declaring the good news of the gospel, without words. He knows it is about touching hearts. And he should know — as a world-renowned surgeon, he literally touched many hearts, which in turn uniquely touched his. Accounts of President Nelson showing up unannounced to meetings, leaving the rostrum to shake hands with a member from Ghana, or standing for hours to greet and express gratitude to those who serve in the church around the world continue to spread.
There is always a natural urge to share such moments of ministry, compassion and even beauty. One of the few remaining positives of the internet is how rapidly videos of kind deeds, surprise reunions and thankful people can virally spread. In the New Testament, Phillip invites Nathaniel to “come and see.” What parent hasn’t followed a young child who has excitedly shouted “come and see!” to discover the wonder of a flower, painting or a mud pie lovingly made just for them?
Burke concluded his CNN article about Pope Francis and the pope’s awareness of the power of simple gestures and ministering moments by writing, “Those moments speak volumes about the moral power of the papacy, but they also say something about us. We are hungry for such moments, even captivated by them; we want to rush off and tell others about what we've seen and, afterward, we want to become better people … edicts and rules may keep us from behaving like devils, but if you want us to be saints, it helps to show us how.”
World religious leaders like Pope Francis and President Nelson don’t have a corner on the “elevation” market — though we should acknowledge, celebrate and share their examples of ministering. We should remember, however, that homes, communities and societies always rise on the tide of good deeds — not words — done by good and decent people every day.