I love the principle taught in a story from the missionary labors of President David O, McKay. In 1897, he was a young missionary serving in Scotland, knocking on doors and passing out missionary tracts. One day, a haggard woman, poorly dressed with sunken cheeks and unkempt hair answered the door, took the tract he offered her and spoke six poignant words that he never forgot: “Will this buy me any bread?” He later wrote: “From that moment I had a deeper realization that the Church of Christ should be and is interested in the temporal salvation of man. [That woman was] in no position to receive the message of the gospel. [She was] in need of temporal help.”
In a similar vein, a few decades later, when the world groaned under the weight of the Great Depression, LDS President Heber J. Grant introduced the Church’s program to care for its needy, calling it “a system that would … reach out and take care of the people no matter what the cost.” He said he would even go so far as to “close the seminaries, shut down missionary work for a period of time, or even close the temples, but they would not let the people go hungry.”
Living in a large city in a third-world country, each day I see literally hundreds of people who are going hungry. Along the major roads of Accra there are countless polio-crippled individuals seeking alms, and children leading the elderly blind along the roadside requesting assistance. Like the rest of the senior missionaries here, we keep our car stocked with and freely dispense items like packets of biscuits, water bottles and small denomination bills and currency to help out where we can. Interestingly, many of these same people will often also ask us for pictures of the Savior, Bibles, and copies of the Book of Mormon or information on the Church. It really isn’t a burden to try and help these humble people who ask so little and appreciate it so much.
In addition, each week, I see humble LDS church members attending worship services, when that means walking several miles on dirt roads, regardless of rain or heat. Ghanaian members’ yearning and enthusiasm to follow the Savior is boundless and they come every week seeking and finding spiritual nourishment. At the same time, many of them lack basic living essentials that we take for granted in the United States.
When I see where and how people live here, the meager portions of low-cost starchy foods they have to eat, it’s hard not to do a major eye-roll when I read about well-intentioned individuals back in the states fervently advocating that free, government provided high-speed internet access, healthcare and college education are fundamental, “self-evident” human rights. Fortunately, here in Ghana, I am constantly seeing people on the frontlines, helping to restore human dignity by lifting and blessing others; people who don’t worry so much about the talk, they are too busy walking the walk. They restore my faith in humanity.
Last week, three optometrists from the US flew over here at their own expense, bringing their spouses and adult family members to run a free, four-day eye clinic at the LDS meetinghouse on the site where we work. This clinic, spearheaded by the president of the Ghana Missionary Training Center, and staffed by many missionaries from the Ghana Accra Mission, started with numerous Eagle Scout projects which gathered over 6,000 used eyeglasses, got them cleaned, categorized and shipped to Ghana through fundraisers which paid the baggage fees to cover an extra suitcase carried by about fifteen LDS missionaries coming over here to serve. Each day while the clinic was open, hundreds lined up seeking assistance. Michelle was able to assist with the massive effort to work people through the lines, help the doctors examining to prescribe lenses, and the staff who matched the needed prescriptions with the huge eyeglass inventory. It was incredible to see the wonder and elation on the faces of grown men and women when they put on a pair of glasses and saw the world in a way we take for granted, for the first time in their lives. These first-world “discard” spectacles, blended with professional skill and a spirit of volunteerism brought sight to the nearly blind and opened countless possibilities at a richer, fuller life for about 1,400 local people who had no affordable alternatives.
In addition, Michelle and I serve here in Accra with ten other adult missionary couples, each with a unique, volunteer assignment covering the quarter million Church members in West Africa. Intermingled with the standard legal, medical, public affairs, financial auditing (woot!) and technology specialists, we have a four couples focused strictly on programs designed to improve the quality of everyday living for people across West Africa.
Literacy. One couple and another sister are spearheading development of a new approach to adult literacy, where they draw on an individual’s life experiences and incorporate the learning with gospel topics to streamline the development of general literacy skills. Once completed, this program will start rolling out across the region. In the meantime, the president of the Ghana Accra West Mission has already made adult literacy classes part of the regular Sunday School curriculum. The mission’s literacy efforts and successes were highlighted in last month’s Ensign Magazine.
Education. Another couple works with young adults throughout the area, and manages BYU-Idaho’s Pathway program locally, which allows students to enroll in online coursework, coupled with weekly local meetings to review materials and develop collaboration and teaming skills. After completing preparatory courses, Pathways students can be officially admitted to BYU-Idaho and earn various certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees at a fraction of the cost of normal university programs.
Humanitarian. A third couple is constantly on the road, working to provide neo-natal, polio screening equipment and delivery beds for hospitals, new and repaired wells for clean water in rural communities and supplying vocational schools with equipment to facilitate training for sewing, carpentry and automotive repair. In all instances, the focus is on partnering, with the local recipients contributing what they are able in labor and related support to foster ownership and self-reliance.
Self-Reliance. A final couple teaches 12-week self-reliance training courses, helping local members develop skills in the areas of self-employment, accelerated job searches and learning marketable skills and trades. Recent results across Africa show that those completing the program doubled their savings propensity and had a 38 percent improvement in becoming debt-free. Equally important, as they improve their temporal skills and outlook, they are more inclined toward spiritual matters. The study also showed significant gains in weekly church attendance, paying tithes and qualifying to attend the temple.
The Church is experiencing tremendous growth in the seven countries of West Africa. While West Africa accounts for less than two percent of Church membership, about ten percent of new convert baptisms happen here and almost a third of new congregations formed are in this area. But coupled with these missionary efforts, there is both a huge need for and a willing supply of temporal and spiritual relief being provided. And that combination facilitates “real growth”.