The Windows of Heaven

My first memories of the bishop’s storehouse are from the 1980s. My family was chronically on the verge of financial ruin, a sort of meta-stable poverty shored up by surplus from neighbor’s gardens, government welfare, fast offerings, Relief Society-coordinated sub-for-Santa projects, and my mother’s less-than-subsistence wage as a special education teacher. My mother and the bishop would confer about what we needed, then create a shopping list in triplicate (carbon copies were still important back then), which we carried proudly to a nondescript building in northern Kaysville, Utah. We had lived with poverty in Montana and Utah long enough that we did not feel any shame in relying on the storehouse–in fact, we were ecstatic that, for the first time in memory, we could afford to have our shopping carts filled to the brim in a modern simulation of the mythical horn-of-plenty. After a couple of weeks came our obligation to service, and even though I was an agnostic rebel at the time, I relished the notion that we could be a part of the grand effort that fed us and people like us. We sorted things–onions, frozen meats, packets of barely-fit-for-fish-bait sharp cheddar–moved pallets, and, if memory serves, we even drove a forklift periodically. We would have been fired from a minimum-wage job doing these activities, but we did probably decrease slightly the amount of work that the professionals had to do.

Although I received (gratefully) plentiful need-based financial aid for college and future training and tended to live on the cheap anyway, I never again felt the acuity of poverty that I grew up with. Now, as an adult, I am fortunate to have means sufficient that my family does not worry about mortgage payments or adequate food or being able to buy new clothing (as a teen I felt like a wax figure in a museum of castaway fashion, as essentially all of my clothing was hand-me-down from members of our ward). We are able to donate to the food bank on a regular basis.

Recently, my wife and I responded to a request to serve at the dairy on Welfare Square. We are busy enough with demanding careers that there was a wincing moment of recognizing that we would be losing 4 hours to drudgery labor, but I felt an acute sense of gratitude to a program that kept us fed all those years ago. We had a grand time. The group were a microcosm of Utah Mormonism–old women, an 85-year-old gentle racist, young women with husbands absent on military assignments, a couple of earnest if mostly clueless intellectuals, a wise old fellow from the Tooele Valley, various sincere functionaries, and a 60-something man whose petty misogyny occasionally erupted in embarrassing declamations–doing what Mormons do well–serving, chatting, building community. I was fascinated by the experience. Our task was to pack small bags of gelatin (“Jello is a brand name,” the employee explained with a smile), 48 of them to a box. This took place in a factory floor, with us in hair nets, having washed our hands carefully. I was quickly bored with the tempo of work and started trying to optimize the packing process and do some extra boxes in parallel to the main work. For the first time in memory I think I realized what might motivate industrialists and systems engineers. Applying intellect to conceptual structures in the interest of increasing our capacity to provide goods to those who desire them. And I felt a glimmer of the stress that factory workers on the other side of the power imbalance within industrial capitalism might experience. The Church could have hired people to do this work more efficiently (after about 90 minutes I finally figured out how they were supposed to be packed, and I was actually having fun doing it, but mostly we just stuffed gelatin haphazardly into cardboard boxes) and realistically at a cost less than the time lost by participants. But they don’t, and I think there’s wisdom in that decision. Activities like packing gelatin in cardboard boxes give us an opportunity to disrupt the normal structure of society, a fitting homage to a Messiah whose ministry focused almost incessantly on that theme. Ridiculously over-educated medical researchers and historians should at least occasionally perform difficult or tedious manual labor at which they have little aptitude. We should periodically serve “beneath” our station. It will not maximize efficiency, nor will it minimize costs, but it will, when we allow it, break up the calcified sensibilities about our importance that keep us from growing into Christ’s. While I’d rather be out in an onion field or working with cheese curds, I’m grateful to be packing strawberry gelatin packets into cardboard boxes, 48 at a time.

Comments

  1. Wes Brown says:

    Great story, Sam. This is true religion.

  2. Cynthia L. says:

    “like”

    I everybody in society participated in stuff like this. We might be in better shape.

  3. Thanks, Sam. A lovely devotional for a Sabbath morning.

  4. Amen and amen, brother.

  5. Great post, Sam. I am always in favor of “breaking up calcified sensibilities.”

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Nice post.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Great post, Sam. When I do these kinds of things, I sometimes smile trying to imagine one of my partners at work doing such a task. I think it’s way cool.

  8. Packing Jello at a Mormon Dairy, how fitting. Love it. Love the devotional.

  9. Thanks, Sam.

  10. Ward boundaries (for those living in Utah) don’t generally give us the opportunity to mingle with those of different educational and economic levels than our own. How nice that welfare assignments can give us that experience.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you, Sam. Elder Packer said that, like temples, the storehouses are sacred and essential to our salvation. As I read your words I was reminded of the phrase “Holiness to The Lord”. Interesting detail: I’ve served before at the facility where the gelatin gets put into the little packets. It is a wonderful, messy place, with green, red, and purple powder floating through the air. It’s fun to carpool home with a bunch of Mormons with green and purple hair, to say nothing of nostrils, eyes, and clothing.

  12. I have often felt the spirit far strong when working in the storehouse than I have in the Temple- with only one exception.

  13. At least it wasn’t green!
    Thanks for this. I too benefitted from church welfare and appreciate your thoughts as they are similar to mine.

  14. Stephanie says:

    My childhood was similar (after my dad left). You post reminds me of President Uchtdorf’s talk in the Priesthood session of conference, specifically this part of his talk:

    In 1941 the Gila River overflowed and flooded the Duncan Valley in Arizona. A young stake president by the name of Spencer W. Kimball met with his counselors, assessed the damage, and sent a telegram to Salt Lake City asking for a large sum of money.

    Instead of sending money, President Heber J. Grant sent three men: Henry D. Moyle, Marion G. Romney, and Harold B. Lee. They visited with President Kimball and taught him an important lesson: “This isn’t a program of ‘give me,’” they said. “This is a program of ‘self-help.’”

    Many years later, President Kimball said: “It would have been an easy thing, I think, for the Brethren to have sent us [the money] and it wouldn’t have been too hard to sit in my office and distribute it; but what a lot of good came to us as we had hundreds of [our own] go to Duncan and build fences and haul the hay and level the ground and do all the things that needed doing. That is self-help.”

    By following the Lord’s way, the members of President Kimball’s stake not only had their immediate needs met, but they also developed self-reliance, alleviated suffering, and grew in love and unity as they served each other.

  15. Thank you! We all have needs and abilities. Thanks to a loving Father in Heaven who directs us to give of what we have and are and receive from others that which we lack.

  16. “It will not maximize efficiency, nor will it minimize costs, but it will, when we allow it, break up the calcified sensibilities about our importance that keep us from growing into Christ’s.”

    Perfectly worded, Sam.

    I know your focus was on helping people, but you expressed the main reason I don’t mind cleaning the church whenever our family’s turn arrives. We don’t sacrifice to build our meetinghouses anymore (for which I’m grateful, looking at the big picture), and we don’t live in an area where we can serve at a storehouse or church farm / orchard like during my own childhood, but I want my children to learn, even if only on a very small scale, to see the care for our church buildings as “theirs” – just as the storehouse teaches us that the care of others belongs to us as a sacred duty.

  17. I’ve only helped in the warehouse a couple of times, and I shared at least one of your insights–things could have been done much more easily and quickly if they had someone who actually knew what they were doing, instead of having me help. Still, I wish we all could do more of it. That, more than just about anything else, shows me the Church in action.

    As a side note, it has been years since we’ve needed help, but in a perverse way I looked forward to those times. The Storehouse bread is the best I’ve had that was not home made.

  18. Thank you for sharing this. I think you really captured what Welfare is all about.

    Your experience is similar to one depicted in this video on the Church’s website http://lds.org/media-library/video/75th-welfare-anniversary?lang=eng#2011-05-16-madera-volunteers It is about volunteer grape pickers in California. My favorite quote from the whole thing comes at the 2:10 mark when a Latino man who is guiding traffic says, “You see doctors, engineers, architects, members of the community with high standing, and they come over here and you see them picking grapes like any regular Brown Brothers.” Beautiful!

  19. One of my favorite memories from my undergraduate years is of hoeing sugar beets alongside Dallin Oaks, then the president of BYU. We were in the same ward and both got assigned to hoe. I doubt that he remembers, but I remember quite vividly the lesson in the equality of work that I learned that day. Thanks for reminding me again, Sam.

  20. I appreciate the insight that your post lends, while at the same time refraining from going all crazily unbalanced. Amen!

  21. Andrew, that clip and that quote are awesome.

  22. Beautiful sentiments, Sam, which demonstrate the enormous social and civic, to say nothing of spiritual, value of obliging people to work alongside one another, without much regard to individual interests or lurking class differences, towards a single moral and humanitarian goal, a goal that is “our own”. There used to be many more such opportunities in American life, before wealth and specialization and technology made our common goals so easily subdivided and outsourced; now, aside from soup kitchens and the like, our “calcified sensibilities about our [own] importance” (I agree with Ray; that’s a brilliant line) rarely gets challenged. Thanks for reminding us that one important way to receive that challenge is still available, every time we accept a service assignment.

  23. Yet Another John says:

    Jim F, Provo 9th Ward? We too resided for a time in Elder Oaks’ ward.
    To the subject: it reminds me of working at the church ranch, where carpenters, school teachers, doctors, lawyers, grocers, etc. Would all work side-by-side feeding, branding, dehorning, etc., the cattle. A similar mix would change the water pipes when needed, then cut, bale, and stack the hay.
    For some reason the church thought that a rancher could do a better job and leased the ranch to a local man to run it. He probably dies do better at managing the resource, but when we gather at fathers and sons, there’s a growing group of our ward that have lost that frame of service reference. We have replaced it with cleaning the building but it’s not quite the same.

  24. I have some great memories serving in our local cannery that is now closed. This is great work to do, not because it is the most efficient way, but because it is great work. Thanks for the story.

  25. Sharee Hughes says:

    Whenever our ward announces a welfare assignment, I always try to sign up. After all, isn’t service one of the things this church is all about? And I’m retired, so I can make the time to do it. I have bottled salsa and applesauce, bagged bread (the bread is, indeed, delicious), put together school kits and hygiene kits, dry-packed macaroni, flour and what have you. You go with a group from your ward, but you meet some new people, too. Some of it is hard work, some is pretty easy, but it’s all service. I’d love to go do bread again, just to get a loaf to bring home.

  26. Coffinberry says:

    Two thoughts:

    I work at the other end of those boxes… when they arrive at our stake center, we uncrate them and set them out in orderly rows so that folks in our stake can pick up their food orders. The gelatins are placed at the far right of the third row of tables in the gym, in neat lines of Strawberry, Raspberry, Orange, and Lime, ready to be a treat for someone’s family. I will think of you at our next delivery. Thank you for your service.

    The second thought comes from one of the comments, pointing to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk: “Instead of sending money, President Heber J. Grant sent three men: Henry D. Moyle, Marion G. Romney, and Harold B. Lee.” I want to tell you that my membership in the church is DIRECTLY related to that choice of President Grant’s. The men met at Stake President Kimball’s home. To this meeting, they invited also a young man, a non-member agriculture teacher who was teaching out at the high school in Snowflake; apparently they wanted his insight on agriculture methods. During the meeting, this man was seated beside Elder Lee, and there came to him a powerful testimony that Elder Lee was a man of God; this testimony blossomed into a witness of the restored gospel.

    That young man was my grandfather.

  27. Researcher says:

    Wonderful story, Coffinberry.

    I have only been able to work at the bishop’s storehouse once in my life, back in my teenage years, and I do remember it being an experience unlike any other; a sacred experience.

  28. Our Stake owned a welfare farm back when it was the practice. My Dad arranged for me to work on the farm for the better part of the summer for a dollar a day out in western NJ. It was a formative experience of my life and the most physically challenging work I have ever done. I lived with the hired farmer and his family, a young father from Utah, for the month and a half. I had huge sympathy for the man and the problems dealing with the farm and the Stake. I realize this was a one of a kind experience, but I am eternally grateful for it.

    The church welfare system works. That it works is a miracle in its self. Can you fill boxes more efficiently? Yes, if you are paying someone minimum wage to do it. With free labor you pay with camaraderie and appreciation and other intangibles and continue to be inefficient. Efficiency is a capital intensive word.

  29. We should periodically serve “beneath” our station.

    Great statement, that needs to be taught more often. When I was a really small child, there was an assignment to work at an orchard for the Bishop’s Storehouse of that region. My mother said a number of Ward members wanted to hire outside labor to do the assignment for them. Maybe that was also “beneath” their station in life.

  30. Nice post. I also love the camaraderie of working together with others, and the sense of love, purpose, and friendship that we share as we serve.

  31. I concur with many of the remarks above and I am not in denial of the good that is currently done under the banner of welfare service. I have worked on farms and in the cannery and it is generally a good experience. But we also don’t need to do it the absolutely dumbest way possible to achieve these results.

    My dad was a food production manager most of his life and a plant he ran never lost money over the course of a year. He was old-school strict and hard on people, but hated to fire them and put family providers out if work. After retirement some of his college friends dipped around in one of the cold fusion companies. He was supposed to be the production manager of a plant that would make a hot water heater based on cold fusion that would satisfy all the energy needs of a house hold. He knew it was a ridiculous pipe dream from the start. But he still enjoyed going to work with old friends and messing with the minds of elderly famous Russian physicists imported to Utah after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    His Bishop approached him to consider going on a mission to Hawaii to run the church cannery there. I thought it was the perfect assignment for him. At first he was elated but as he began to gear up for the assignment, calling people and learning more about the details of the plant, he grew disguised at the dilapidated equipment, the dangerous conditions, the dim-witted management already entrenched. Most important the arrogant and totally inept attitude of the church leaders over the welfare system he interacted with who thought that their Priesthood position trumped anything he might know about improving food production there. After a few weeks of consideration, he realized that they didn’t want a kick-ass manager to straighten out their mess and teach people how to work smart and actually be somewhat productive. They wanted a near-senile dullard to trudge along and not make any waves. He decided not to go. He could do more good joking around with cold fusion zealots while being paid millions in ultimately valueless stock options in companies that never produced anything except B.S., than trying to run a church welfare plant where innovation and a job well-done is clearly not welcome.

    I wish there was some middle ground where we could serve on projects that were better organized and executed. We have the talent to do it.

  32. I recalled another better example to illustrate my point. As a teenager our ward had the assignment to haul hay off the steepest field in the valley. The original owners had sold this field to the church when one of their relatives was put into a position of authority and they gladly unloaded the property onto the church at top dollar. After stacking this old hay truck sky high we managed to tip the dang thing over. I will never forget watching those hay bails roll down the hill end-over-end and bounce over the fence and splash into the canal. If we thought it was hard to load the truck the first time, now we had to trudge down the hill and drag the bails (the wet ones increased in weight from about 75 lbs to over a 150 lbs) back up and throw them back up on the truck which had done a nice 360 degree roll and came to rest in an upright position and seemed not much worse for the wear.

    We don’t have to roll the hay truck in order for welfare service to work.

  33. “I wish there was some middle ground where we could serve on projects that were better organized and executed. We have the talent to do it.”

    There are innumerable such opportunities – but they require not being commanded in all things and being agents unto ourselves.

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