While I sat in a business meeting yesterday in downtown Provo, I watched the construction of the new LDS temple (the former Provo tabernacle). Diggers and dump trucks were busy moving and hauling away dirt – my boys would have loved it! The construction workers were directing the trucks and doing all the other things you would expect on a construction site (minus the catcalls). I knew the outcome of all of this work would be a beautiful edifice that thousands of faithful Mormons would visit year round to do work for their own ancestors and/or complete strangers’ ancestors.
I never thought about the amount of money spent on temples until my mission in Rosario, Argentina. An investigator asked me how we, as a church, could spend so much money on our temples when there were so many people in need. I thought it was a valid question because I saw that need every day in Argentina. Every day. So like a good missionary, I went back to my apartment and studied in an effort to give her the best possible answer. I found nothing of substance. I used King David’s temple as an example of getting the finest things to construct his temple as an offering to the Lord, but that is all I could pull out of my missionary hat. “Only the best for the Lord” was my conclusion. But I just couldn’t make it work for me mentally because of the endless poverty I saw and smelled. My heart ached every day for those poor people living in unthinkable conditions.
Money, in regards to the LDS church, has become a sore spot for me particularly this past year when the church completed the highly controversial City Creek Center. An estimated 1.5 billion dollars (yes, that’s billion with a “b”) was spent to complete this mammoth project – the only shopping center being built in all of America at the time due to the poor economy. (Deseret News) Ever since the mall’s completion I have found myself questioning where the church spends its money and why. So as I watched all of the trucks and diggers at work on the new temple, I couldn’t help but wonder what the final price tag would be.
Let’s look at some numbers. The Washington DC temple is estimated to have cost 15 million dollars, back in 1974. (Wikipedia) Now, while it is one of the larger temples, it still gives you an idea of how much a temple costs. There are now 140 temples in operation, 12 under construction, and around 10 more scheduled for construction. The future Philadelphia Temple is said to cost an estimated 70 million to construct. (The Philadelphia Inquirer) In addition to building costs, the church also spends money on the production and distribution of temple clothes and garments. The Church recently signed a 5 year deal with Ancestry.com that will set them back just a mere 60 million dollars. The plan is for the two entities to work together to dig into the deep genealogical vaults of the Mormon church to digitize and index up to 1 billion new records.(KSL)
Not only do we spend a lot of money on temples, we also spend a lot of time doing temple work. Temple work includes indexing names, going to the family history library, and going through the temple to do the work for our ancestors and/or other people’s ancestors. Volunteers are responsible for making sure the temples run smoothly. Volunteers also assist patrons in the library. Additionally, volunteers on the ward level also help members with family history work. Hours and hours of time are spent on temple work. In the 1950s the church’s computer planning committee concluded that given the estimated 70 billion people who had been born on the earth, all LDS adults working in temples for eight hours a day, seven days a week, would not be able to keep up with world population growth, much less complete ordinance work for deceased ancestors. In other words, there is no way we can do the work to keep up with current deaths let alone go back and play catch up with those who have passed. New estimates of people that have lived on the earth are now at 100 -115 billion. Also you will see in the near future that the Church wants members to focus on doing work just for their relatives. This new program is called “Engage Effort”. Which means back in the day when I did baptisms for the dead as a youth I was baptized at least 30 times for complete strangers. This will not be the case soon as patrons of the temple will have to bring their own names and therefore less and less work will be done.
All of the money and time being spent on temples and temple work lead to the conclusion that the temple is the most important thing in the world for members of the church. I’m sure we can agree on that. Temple attendance is the goal we all work toward. It is the pinnacle of Mormondom. I can completely appreciate our faith connecting us to our ancestors. And I can appreciate how our faith has a back-up plan for those that didn’t hear the gospel during their lives here on earth. I can also appreciate knowing your family history. I can appreciate ritual. Likewise, I can appreciate having a place where one can go to feel peace, a refuge. But I can’t push this question out of my mind: At what cost? Which leads me also to wonder what Jesus would do.
“Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” In this scripture Jesus was talking about “secondary burial,” which is where a family member gathered the bones of a relative who had been dead a year and then put it in an ossuary (a stone box for the bones). It seems what Jesus was saying here was don’t worry about the dead, or any other ritual for the dead, but go and take care of the living.
In 2009 the church created a fourth mission – one that we don’t really talk about. In fact if you search for “4th mission of the church” or “fourth mission of the church” on lds.org in the General Conference talks your results will be ZERO. The fourth mission of the church is Caring for the Poor and Needy. And while we do dedicate a Sunday each month to fasting and then offer the money we would have spent on those missed meals to the poor and needy, I have never been in a ward where this mission was every discussed anywhere.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast last year I remember how touched I was to see all the volunteers in their yellow Helping Hands vests. The church is extremely organized and efficient when a disaster happens and we really focus on a project. But can we do more? I would shout YES! What if we “let the dead bury their dead” and we instead used those resources to take care of the living? Can you imagine the results? You should be able to imagine the results because where we have gone and helped, we, as a church, have done AMAZING things.
The growing inequality of the people on the earth is striking. In the early 1900s, the difference between the poorest and the richest people of the earth was 1:6. Now the ratio is close to 1:76. The stats are shocking from an international perspective.
Studies have shown time and time again that stats are not helpful in creating empathy. Perhaps it would be different if we brought those stats a little closer to home. Brad Walker is a public health physician in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is also a cofounder of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to solve the problem of malnutrition and illiteracy in the LDS community in parts of Ecuador and Guatemala. Dr. Walker is incredibly knowledgeable and I highly encourage you to check out his interview on By Common Consent here. The following are his researched stats:
- 80,000 active LDS kids suffer from chronic malnutrition. Malnutrition is often an issue that does not get enough attention. We often think of starvation as the big killer, but malnutrition often leads to death, and if not death, developmental delays that are passed from generation to generation. Girls who do not have enough iodine (which is very inexpensive) will not only be developmentally delayed themselves but will also pass the effects of their deficiency to their children with disastrous consequences that never seem to resolve but continually worsen.
- 900 active LDS kids die per year from the effects of malnutrition – that is 2.4 LDS children a day. I cannot express how haunting this statistic is to me. Bishops are limited in the funds that they are allowed to get and are required to rotate through families who are able to receive assistance. What are we doing? I can’t comprehend how even one child dies from a lack of adequate food when they belong to a church that has the means and the capacities that we have.
On a global scale, 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day. (breadoftheworld) That is one child every five seconds. A child just died after reading that sentence. If we add deaths related to unclean drinking water, the rates continue to rise. While international issues are complicated and long-term stability is often not under the control of the church, we can do more. We must not only look at the long-term systemic issues but also the immediate consequences of our lack of action.
Now, food insecurity exists in the developed world too – 19% of those suffering are in the developed world. We need to improve the process for helping the poor in our own backyard. The food insecurity in Utah is very close to the national average. (USDA Economic Research Service) I find that shocking since we have welfare square and canneries and bishop’s storehouses. A friend told me a story about her Methodist mother who came to visit for Thanksgiving. They went to Salt Lake City the day before Thanksgiving and when they drove past Pioneer park (in -3 degree weather) they saw a huge line up of families – most with little kids – standing in the bitter cold waiting for food. My friend’s mother turned to my friend and asked, “What is wrong with your church? They can build fancy temples but they cannot feed the poor.” My friend had no answer.
Doctrine and Covenants 18 commands us to consider the worth of every soul. And while it is referencing bringing them to Christ through repentance, how is there anything more uplifting than saving a life? Jesus set an amazing pattern for helping to meet basic physical needs and then teaching the gospel. We must ask ourselves: Is there anything more uplifting than helping others? Is there a holier ground than where service is rendered? Does this scripture apply to us?
So what are possible steps we could take? I have some ideas…
1- We need to begin to discuss the fourth mission of the church.
We need to talk about it in our talks, in our meetings, in our classes, in our homes, and in our prayers. Have you heard about the fourth mission of the church? Did you even know it existed? I have been attending church for 38 years and had never once heard of the fourth mission of the church until I began doing research for this post. When I asked close friends about the mission, they too had never heard of it. On the flip side, I have heard plenty of talks on the importance of temples and family history.
2- We should consider service missions.
When I was on my mission in Argentina, we dedicated a maximum of four hours a week to service. What if we changed that to four days dedicated to service work? This would be an easy adjustment – a simple change in the missionary handbook to increase service hours. There are actually pilot mission programs right now in Northern California, Colorado and Texas that include more service hours. Awesome! Read about it here.
We could even take it a step further and offer missionaries the choice between a service mission and a proselytizing mission. Can you imagine the good that could be done? When we set our minds to it, we really do great things.
3- Balance temple and family history work with relevant and meaningful service for the living.
Temple service has an important place in LDS theology and in personal religiosity. But we need to find a balance in how we are encouraged to spend our time. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” (James 1:27) Caring for the Poor and Needy is religion in its purest form.
4- Tithing funds should be better used.
A lot of members are tapped out moneywise after paying a full tithe. They just can’t afford to give anymore. It truly is a sacrifice. I feel like these sacred funds and the interest these funds gain should be better used toward the fourth mission of the church. Right now, according to Mormon.org, tithing funds are used for:
- Constructing temples, chapels, and other buildings.
- Providing operating funds for the Church.
- Funding the missionary program (This does not include individual missionary expenses.)
- Preparing materials used in Church classes and organizations.
- Temple work, family history, and many other important Church functions.
- Education. (Which includes BYU, BYUI, including offsetting tuition cost)
If we could set aside some money for the fourth mission of the church we could do a lot! Most experts would agree that a dollar a day would provide the means to save a life – including much-needed vaccines and clean water. So let’s say that $365 would sustain one life for a year (let’s also assume that after a year, recipients would be healthy enough to be able to provide for themselves). Now, if we divide, say, 1.5 billion dollars (which just happens to be the amount of money spent on the City Creek mall*) by $365, we get 4,109,589. That is over 4 MILLION lives. The Liahona Children’s Foundation says it cost $50 to meet a child’s nutritional needs and an additional $50 to send them to school. That’s $100 to feed and educate a child. At that rate we could have saved and educated 15 million lives.
(*I know, I know – money for the City Creek Center came from interest gained on members’ tithing as well as other Church business ventures, not from tithing directly. But it is still the church spending money.)
5- The LDS church needs to show their books.
The only way we can hold our leadership accountable for how church funds are used is if we know how they are used! Show us the books! “By common consent” is a phrase used a lot in the Doctrine & Covenants: D&C 20:63 (elders to receive license by vote of Church), D&C 20:65-66 (vote required for ordination in Church), D&C 26:2 (all things to be done by common consent), D&C38:34 (men to be appointed by voice of Church), D&C 41:9 (Edward Partridge to be appointed bishop by voice of Church), D&C 51:4 (transgressors to be accounted unworthy by voice of Church), D&C 104:21 (let all things be done by united consent), D&C124:144 (fill all these offices and approve of those names), and the big one – D&C 104: 71-72 (nothing to be taken from treasury except by voice or common consent of order), etc. All things must be done “by common consent.” In most countries outside of the USA, the church is required to open their books, holding it more accountable to the funds that are spent.
Below is an example of what was reported by the church in New Zealand in 2010. They are required to show their books. Pretty straightforward. (To read more about the numbers in New Zealand click here.)
As I have engrossed myself in this essay, I’ve continually been reminded of the movie Schindler’s List. In the movie, the main character Schindler was able to literally buy Jews to have them work in his factories. By doing this he saved 1,200 lives. Toward the end of the movie when World War II was coming to a close, Schindler was among the 1,200 Jews that he saved from the concentration camps. Here is the dialog:
Schindler and Emilie emerge from his quarters, each carrying a small
suitcase. In the dark, some distance away from his Mercedes, stand all twelve hundred workers. As Schindler and his wife cross the courtyard to the car, Stern and Levartov approach. The rabbi hands him some papers. LEVARTOV We've written a letter trying to explain things. In case you're captured. Every workers has signed it. Schindler sees a list of signatures beginning below the typewritten text and continuing for several pages. He pockets it, this new list of names. SCHINDLER Thank you. Stern steps forward and places a ring in Schindler's hand. It's a gold band, like a wedding ring. Schindler notices an inscription inside it. STERN It's Hebrew. It says, 'Whoever saves one life, saves the world.' Schindler slips the ring onto a finger, admires it a moment, nods his thanks, then seems to withdraw. SCHINDLER (to himself) I could've got more out . Stern isn't sure he heard right. Schindler steps away from him, from his wife, from the car, from the workers. SCHINDLER (to himself) I could've got more . if I'd just . I don't know, if I'd just . I could've got more. STERN Oskar, there are twelve hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them. He can't. SCHINDLER If I'd made more money .I threw away so much money, you have no idea. If I'd just . STERN There will be generations because of what you did. SCHINDLER I didn't do enough. STERN You did so much. Schindler starts to lose it, the tears coming. Stern, too. The look on Schindler's face as his eyes sweep across the faces of the workers is one of apology, begging them to forgive him for not doing more. SCHINDLER This car. Goeth would've bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people, right there, ten more I could've got. (looking around) This pin - He rips the elaborate Hakenkreus, the swastika, from his lapel and holds it out to Stern pathetically. SCHINDLER Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would've given me two for it. At least one. He would've given me one. One more. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. One more. I could've gotten one more person I didn't. He completely breaks down, weeping convulsively, the emotion he's been holding in for years spilling out, the guilt consuming him. SCHINDLER They killed so many people . (Stern, weeping too, embraces him) They killed so many people . From above, from a watchtower, Stern can be seen down below, trying to comfort Schindler. Eventually, they separate, and Schindler and Emilie climb into the Mercedes. It slowly pulls out through the gates of the camp. And drives away.
This was such a powerful part of the movie. After reading the transcript of what Schindler said, I couldn’t help reflecting on a General Conference talk given just this last October called “Temple Standard” (you can read it here). This talk went over how temple construction is extremely meticulous. An example that was given was regarding a window that was just a hair off – “one-eighth of an inch (3 mm) crooked.” Direction was then given to the contractor that the window would need to be replaced because it was not “temple standard.” Mormon 8:37 reads: “For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” This General Conference talk was hard to swallow knowing how that energy and money could have saved a life or many lives. How many lives to replace that crooked window? How many lives for that chandelier? How many lives for that golden Moroni? How many lives? “Whoever saves one life, saves the world” – just imagine if we saved 4 million lives. Let’s do this!
Jesus, once again the master teacher, asked Peter, “do you love me?” The exchange is clearer in Greek. Jesus was asking Peter if he loved him with his whole soul. Peter answered, yes, but in a less committed way. So Jesus kept asking until Peter was grieved and finally understood that Jesus required his whole heart. I feel that is often how we approach serving the poor; we do it with only part of our soul. But Jesus is calling us to feed his sheep – physically, right now! There was a BYU forum a few years ago featuring the president of Walden Media. He said something profound that I will try to paraphrase: If we are striving to follow God, eventually what breaks God’s heart will begin to break our hearts. And in that space, God can plant a seed that will allow us to use our voices, our bodies, and our love to truly change the world. Maybe we as a people can catch the vision of President Grant when he wanted “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.” (The Sanctifying Work of Welfare, H. David Burton)