This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

On Saturday and Sunday, President Russell M. Nelson issued a call to a global general conference audience of millions for people everywhere to fast, pray and care for everyone who is distressed, hurt, struggling and suffering, including those impacted by the fighting in Ukraine.

He spoke directly to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he said, “Every person who has made covenants with God has promised to care about others and serve those in need.”

Only a few hundred people were watching the next day, when two key figures in the church’s humanitarian response in Ukraine provided authoritative context and insights into what the church is doing.

The most compelling vehicle the church can offer to help Ukraine refugees or others is baked into every Latter-day Saint congregation, said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who oversees the church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Department, and Latter-day Saint Charities President Sharon Eubank.

“If you think of every ward as a humanitarian organization, that is powerful,” Bishop Caussé said Monday at the annual International Society conference at BYU. “The strength of the church is found in the individual members and in that ward organization. That is a magnificent organization.”

Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé speaks to the annual conference of the International Society at BYU’s Hinckley Center.
Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to the annual conference of the International Society at BYU’s Hinckley Center on Monday, April 4, 2022. In the background is a painting depicting the priest granting sanctuary to Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.” | Tad Walch, Deseret News

“We have the resources, in every small congregation that we are participating in, to be able to do something powerful and good,” Sister Eubank said. “That’s what an Elders’ Quorum is about. That’s what a Relief Society is about.”

Both leaders made the statements I am sharing in this week’s newsletter during question-and-answer sessions after their presentations, when each was asked about the church and Ukraine. This is the first time their statements have been reported.

While the church as an institution, President Nelson said, “is doing all we can” — including providing at least $8 million in aid to multiple organizations — “most of the work that is happening right now with our members is really conducted by local leaders,” Bishop Caussé said.

“That gives me an opportunity to make a point that I think is very important,” he said. “The church as an institution is doing a lot of things, but the most important is not the institution. I remember many years ago, we were in a meeting with the First Presidency and we were discussing a natural disaster that had just occurred in the Philippines in Tacloban. There were thousands of members of the church that had lost their homes and we had a plan to help them and so forth. And at the end of our presentation, a member of the First Presidency simply said, ‘Nothing really happens until the local bishops have turned their keys.’”

The reference was to each Latter-day Saint bishop’s priesthood keys, or authority, to lead a ward council to respond to the temporal needs of the congregation and local community.

“Meaning,” Bishop Caussé continued, “the core of the Welfare and Self-Reliance program of the church is found in every local branch and ward, under the keys of a bishop, with a Relief Society presidency and all the ministering brothers and sisters, Elders’ Quorum president and so forth. This is the core. This is where most of it is happening.”

Sister Eubank said the church and ward priesthood organization is critical.

“The great organizing power of the priesthood is what brings people together in order,” she said. “It establishes a border on top of chaos, so that good things can happen exponentially.”

Bishop Caussé said wards across Europe are being given the opportunity to welcome refugees, and Sister Eubank said ward and stake councils are responding with transportation, shelter, food, medicine, other supplies and more.

She tied work being done by 31,000 congregations across the world to this week’s “Come, Follow Me” curriculum about God telling Moses to lead the Exodus out of Egypt. He planned to take the Israelites to the mountain of God to make covenants and make them “a nation of priests,” she said.

“Now for various reasons, they had to live a lower law,” she said, “but this is the time that Moses saw, because when Moses comes back to Kirtland and he gives Joseph Smith those keys. Be a nation of priests — we’re living that. We’re the nation of priests. We’ve been to the temples, we’ve been anointed and clothed to do what? To save people ... Nothing energizes me more than that. And so to be standing here, sitting here shoulder to shoulder with a group of 100 people here and millions of people around the world who are dedicated to this idea, that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank the International Society for everything you do in furthering the idea that Zion actually can be built. It can be built out of the pure in heart.”

Bishop Caussé likened Latter-day Saint wards and branches to the home of the kind priest in “Les Misérables.” When no one would help the disgraced Jean Valjean, the priest opened his home to him.

“This is not my house,” the priest explained. “It is the house of Jesus Christ.”

“That moment is the beginning of Jean Valjean’s transformation,” Bishop Caussé said.

“Imagine the transformation that would occur in the world,” he said, “if every ward and community of which we are a part were made to feel like ‘the house of Jesus Christ’ — a place where our natural environments are preserved, a place where mutual love and service prevail, a place of unity and peace, a place where all can find acceptance and protection, and a place where our differences are overshadowed by our common values.

“Who besides the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — those who take upon themselves the Lord’s name, who covenant to build up Zion — are more uniquely prepared to strengthen and bless both our local and international communities?”

My recent stories

Latter-day Saint aid to Ukraine refugees models two-pronged service ideal, say Bishop Caussé, Sister Eubank (April 4)

Latter-day Saint membership increased this much in 2021, according to new church statistical report (April 3)

Conference ends with a call to remove a personal conflict in your life by Easter (Sunday general conference overview, April 3)

A call for peace and an end to contention highlight a day of Christ-centered messages (Saturday general conference overview, April 2)

I sent two special general conference editions of my newsletter over the weekend. Read them here if you missed them the first time:

A surprising fact about President Nelson’s list of new temples

How conference was different (and also the same) from years past

About the church

President Nelson announces 17 new temples.

New Relief Society and Primary general presidencies called.

6 new General Authority Seventies called.

Church leaders called 45 new Area Seventies.

Elder Uchtdorf recounts his refugee experience in WWII.

What I’m reading

Most young adults believe it’s best to delay marriage past your 20s and to live together first. New research challenges both assumptions.

I’ll never forget how kindly the Rev. Andrew Teal treated me at a dinner he hosted after he and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke together in 2018 at the 1,000-year-old University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, England. He placed me next to Savannah Stevenson, who played Mary in the church’s Bible videos, and her husband, who were based in England. We had a delightful evening.

Last fall I wrote about the injury the Rev. Teal sustained last fall while he was a visiting scholar at the Maxwell Institute. During that time, he delivered a BYU devotional.

Now, my long-time colleague, mentor and friend, Lois Collins, has caught up with Rev. Teal again for a Q&A in Deseret Magazine.