And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. (4 Nephi 1:3)
It seems that we always have the poor with us. They are our unanticipated and periodic opportunity to practice mercy, charity, and goodness.
Nancy and I were walking in downtown Provo when we spotted Douglas coming toward us. Several times we had sat with Douglas on his bus bench with all his worldly possessions in a few plastic bags at his feet. From time to time we had sought him out and tried to be helpful. Many times we had driven past him and wondered how to be helpful. Running into him face to face on the sidewalk gave us no luxury to sidestep our Christian duty.
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish (Mosiah 4:16).
“Hi, Douglas. It’s good to see you. Would you like to come and join us for dinner?” Douglas lightened. “Sure.” We helped him carry his bags as we walked the three blocks to our home. While we prepared dinner we tried to engage him in conversation. He spoke reluctantly and quietly. It took a real effort to keep the conversation going.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just (Mosiah 4:17).
On one occasion, months before, I had called the LDS employment office and asked them if I brought Douglas by if they would help him find work. They agreed to try. I went and found Douglas and asked if he might want to go talk with some people who could help him find work. He said that, if it was all right, he would rather have a ride to Shoney’s so he could get some breakfast. I was tempted to wonder if we could help anyone who would not help himself.
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:18).
I took him to breakfast that morning. And even as we sat at dinner in our home I wondered if we shouldn’t make a room for Douglas downstairs. But there was no bathroom nearby. And the women in the house might be uncomfortable. It just seemed so complicated. Unfortunately, when I don’t know what to do, I do nothing, assuming that sometime in the future I will know what to do.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:19)
As we finished dinner I offered to take Douglas to Allen’s to get him a few groceries. He accepted. I encouraged him to fill a shopping cart. In retrospect it was a silly recommendation since he had no place to store any groceries that we bought. “I only want a box of Lucky Charms.” I reacted: “Certainly you can use a few other things.” “No. Thank you. I only want a box of Lucky Charms.” We made the purchase and I returned Douglas to his accustomed bench. My conscience ached for a better solution.
And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy (Mosiah 4:20).
Here, only a stone’s throw from luxury apartments and upscale shopping, Douglas is the twinge in our collective Mormon conscience. Might some of the landowners in Provo dedicate 1% or 2% or even 10% of their properties to people like Douglas? Some communities have homeless shelters. They have limits on the number of nights a person can stay. And they are disconnected from personal service.
And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another (Mosiah 4:21).
I remember some struggling married students telling me that they had taken Douglas into their apartment for a week. But they were worried about the landlord and neighbors. After the week, Douglas returned to his humble bench. And every day a thousand millionaires drive past him.
And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done (Mosiah 4:22).
I remember talking with a wealthy and influential friend in Provo about my concern. I hoped he could help me find some way to unite our efforts. “How can we help Douglas and all those like him? Can’t we work together to provide housing and clothes and food?” My dear friend seemed as perplexed and helpless as I. He stared at me and shook his head, “I am going to hell for ignoring those people.”
And now my beloved brethren, I say unto you, can ye withstand these sayings; yea, can ye lay aside these things, and trample the Holy One under your feet; yea, can ye be puffed up in the pride of your hearts; yea, will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel and setting your hearts upon the vain things of the world, upon your riches? Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another . . . Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them? (Alma 5: 53–55).
Nancy told me that our son, Andy, who attends BYU, walked from campus to Douglas’ bench and took him for a Whopper and fries. I am pleased that our children are so thoughtful. Maybe they will find the solutions we have sought.
And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself (D&C 105:5).
When Nancy and I moved from Provo I grieved that we had not found any enduring way to help Douglas. When we return to Provo for visits we sit with Douglas on his bench and we buy him lunch. But, while we add central air conditioning to our home, he still chills in the winter and bakes in the summer sun.
And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants (Mosiah 4:26).
I am aware that my spiritual well-being depends upon my willingness to minister to God’s children, especially those who are poor. I find myself worrying about Douglas and wishing we could move back to Provo. Then my dear wife interrupts my brooding. “Wally, a friend told me about some neighbors who have been without work for years. I was just wondering if . . .” I am grateful that God will entrust me with new opportunities to learn to serve His children.
“Respecting how much a man of property shall give annually we have no special instructions to give; he is to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to provide for the widow, to dry up the tear of the orphan, to comfort the afflicted, whether in this church, or in any other, or in no church at all, wherever he finds them” (Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons, vol. 3, p. 732).
“And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).