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.