Try to imagine 20 million pounds of food such as beans, pasta, cheese, potatoes — all packed onto gargantuan pallets.
It’s hard to picture something so vast, even for a person like me who spent a career in food distribution. But there it all was in warehouses, storage facilities and trucks, being mobilized to help people during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As needs continued, so, too, did the global response of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spanning across 155 countries and eventually becoming the largest single humanitarian effort in the church’s history. All told, the church has distributed more than 150 million pounds of food and commodities to people in need during the pandemic.
At the core of true religion is a charge to care for others, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry and to heal the sick. But for people of faith the response must not stop there.
Noted New York Times columnist David Brooks recently documented a number of concerning trends in the United States: automobile accidents are spiking due to irresponsible driving; reports of altercations on airplanes, in cities and even in schools are climbing; drug overdoses and substance abuse are increasing. According to Brooks, all this is happening as charitable giving and participation in civic and religious organizations continues to decline.
He concludes: “There must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this.” It’s vitally important to help communities prepare for crises and to lend temporal assistance when disasters strike. But people of faith also understand that we cannot live on bread alone, and, in times of need, we need spiritual as well as temporal sustenance.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey took the lives of 107 people and caused an estimated $125 billion in property damage. Water levels rose so high in certain areas that boats were necessary to rescue residents. With emergency lines jammed, a group of Latter-day Saints and neighbors gathered at a nearby chapel with their boats to begin picking up distressed residents around Houston. By day two of the efforts, some 57 boats and over 800 volunteers were working out of the makeshift dispatch.
But that was only the beginning of the work.
When I arrived with other church leaders, water levels had subsided and cleanup efforts were underway. Before cleanup began on a Sunday morning, we worshipped together in the same chapel that had served as the impromptu boat dispatch. The chapel was full. And so, too, were dozens of chapels across Texas and Louisiana. A total of some 16,000 Latter-day Saint volunteers converged on the region to participate in mucking and gutting properties to prevent mold and even greater damage. Flooded homes had to have everything wet removed, including carpeting, appliances, drywall and insulation. Estimates at the time for this kind of muck-and-gut work were as much as $20,000 per home.
We were all eager to get working on behalf of the residents who had already lost so much. But on that Sunday morning, we first prayed, sang hymns and worshipped. Then, after the last “amen,” we went out and got to work. In total, these volunteers were able to muck and gut more than 16,000 homes, providing an estimated $320 million worth of labor.
What happened in Houston and its environs reminded me of the spiritual and temporal response after another devastating flood that occurred a little over 45 years ago when a defect in Idaho’s Teton Dam caused a collapse. Two-thirds of the citizens living in Rexburg were suddenly left homeless from the ensuing flood. Ricks College — now Brigham Young University-Idaho — ended up supplying 400,000 meals with the assistance of the church. Thankfully, the school was not in session at the time, and college dorm rooms were converted into temporary living quarters for displaced families.
Soon after the disaster, the people of Rexburg began holding religious worship services again, even though they couldn’t congregate in houses of worship that had been flooded. When the governor of Idaho visited Rexburg, he told the citizens, “We have in the state of Idaho survived a massive disaster. And survival has been brought about, in my opinion, by the spiritual strength of the people of this valley.”
In moments of emergency, both big and small, food and shelter are critical, but so, too, is the sustaining power that comes from faith in God.
We continue to face the effects of a global pandemic. Sustaining health, life and livelihoods is rightly our focus. But we also need to recognize, as Brooks suggests, the role faith plays in achieving those goals. Researchers have consistently found that trust in God and religious or spiritual practices tends to improve medical patient outcomes in a variety of contexts.
There are, thankfully, encouraging signs that faith is increasing for some during this pandemic. A study from Pew Research Center published last year found that nearly 3 in 10 Americans (28%) say their own faith was strengthened during the pandemic, and only 4% say it is now weaker. Renewed spiritual strength is necessary to rebuilding lives, families and communities long after temporal assistance efforts subside.
As the world was still recovering from one of the worst economic depressions in modern history, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the role of spiritual vitality in rebuilding the nation: “No greater thing could come to our land today than a revival of the spirit of religion — a revival that would sweep through the homes of the nation and stir the hearts of men and women of all faiths to a reassertion of their belief in God and their dedication to his will for themselves and for their world.”
He concluded with a truth that remains as relevant amid a pandemic as it was during the troubled times of Roosevelt’s day: “I doubt if there is any problem — social, political or economic — that would not melt away before the fire of such a spiritual awakening.”
Millions of pounds of food fed hungry people. And there still remains much more to be provided in terms of food and supplies to meet the needs of a suffering world. But scriptures also teach us about a spiritual “bread of life,” of which we all yearn to taste. For people of faith, fighting the impacts of a pandemic will also mean providing the best of this bread to help heal a world in need.
Gérald Caussé is the presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.