Famine for the Words of the Lord

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. (Amos 8:11)

In Mormon contexts, this Old Testament text is often taken as a prophecy of the Great Apostasy, and sometimes as a description of people outside the LDS church today. Sadly, there is a sense in which this statement is true, as well, of many active, faithful Latter-day Saints.

Our ward in Caracas, Venezuela, has a variety of surpluses: of love for strangers; of new converts who are taking their first joyful steps into Mormonism; of women making valiant efforts to raise Mormon children without support from their inactive or nonmember husbands; of people who don’t quite have enough to feed their own families but who nonetheless sacrifice to help those in even worse circumstances. Even so, the ward suffers from a set of important shortages: of hymn books; of copies of the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price; of subscriptions to the Liahona (the international church magazine).

For some reason, many wards in Caracas don’t have hymn books available for use in the chapel. Our bishop explained that they weren’t given funds to buy hymn books, and the local distribution center has evidently never given the wards free hymnals. So hymn books are private property. This has negative consequences: prospective converts, new members, and the poorest established members have no access to the hymns we sing together on Sundays.

Everyone has a copy of the Book of Mormon, because the church gives those, at least, away for free in great quantities. The same is, unforunately, not true regarding Bibles or triple combinations. Many, although certainly not all, members have family Bibles. However, the modest sums necessary to purchase a triple combination are beyond the means of about half of the ward members.

The same is true of subscriptions to the Liahona–which are actually somewhat more expensive than the cheapest triple combinations, and have the further disadvantage of being an annual expense. Of course, members who can’t afford a subscription can read the Liahona at home on their high-speed internet connections, but only if they (a) have computers, (b) have high-speed internet connections, and (c) aren’t too intimidated by the fact that the web page listing issues of the Liahona is, for some reason, in English. (Actually, internet cafes are widespread in Venezuela, but their prices are also out of reach for many poor members.)

My wife and I wanted to help with this situation. We spoke with our bishop and our stake president, and both begged us to get donations of funds from U.S. wards to help Venezuelan members have the basics: a hymnal, a complete set of scriptures, and a subscription to the Liahona. We contacted various wards that we were connected with; nobody chose to help with the project.


Another ward, another set of challenges. This time in the high Andes of Peru. Here, the problems involve language and illiteracy. Peru’s once-high levels of illiteracy are slowly vanishing, a result of the dramatic expansion of rural educational opportunities during the nationalist-reformist military dictatorship of the 1970s and of subsequent governments. However, Peru today still has quite a lot of adult illiteracy, concentrated particularly among older people who were born in homes where Spanish was not the primary language.

The ward we attended was about half native Spanish speakers and about half native Quechua speakers. Of the Quechua speakers, about half could communicate pretty well in Spanish and about half could not. Because Quechua was traditionally not a written language, many of the Quechua speakers have never learned to read any language. Hence, the Book of Mormon and other scriptures in Spanish — and even the selections from the Book of Mormon in Quechua that the church publishes — remain to these members a sealed book.

As we entered Sunday School, it became evident that something strange was going on. After about ten minutes of a typical Gospel Doctrine lesson, the bishop walked in and commandeered the class. He asked a series of pop-quiz questions regarding the reading assigned for that day, and most of the members were unable to respond. The bishop then used the rest of the class period to give the members a quite thorough lecture regarding their evident failure to read the scriptures assigned for Sunday School. He explained that, by not reading the scriptures faithfully enough, these members were not fulfilling their baptismal covenants. They were letting down the missionaries who had baptised them; they were the reason the church was not growing in Peru as it once had.

About twenty minutes into this lecture, one of the class members (a native Quechua speaker who could communicate clearly, but certainly not fluently, in Spanish) raised his hand. He asked, “What about my wife and these other sisters, who don’t speak any Spanish and have never learned to read?” The bishop replied that they hadn’t shown enough faith; if they had the faith, God would work a miracle and they would be able to read the scriptures.

My wife and I decided that we could help work that miracle. We got in touch with a set of people at BYU who were willing to record an audio version of the Quechua selections of the Book of Mormon and provide the audio files to the stake we had visited. They were also going to raise funds to purchase CD players for the Quechua speakers of the stake. The stake president agreed to arrange to have CD copies of the new Quechua audio Book of Mormon burned for each relevant member. Unfortunately, the literacy specialists that the stake president put us in contact with quickly lost interest in the program, and nothing ever happened.


  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    This is ridiculous. Please update your post and let us know how we can help.

  2. Julie, we are unfortunately no longer in South America and therefore would have a much harder time coordinating a project in response to the situations I’ve described than we would have done a year or two ago. However, I would be shocked if these kinds of problems aren’t prevalent in wards other than the ones I’ve visited. (Unless my luck is perhaps even worse than I think it is.) Furthermore, there’s no good reason that the wards I’ve happened to visit or live in should be the only ones we help, right?

    So a straightforward answer to your question would be to get in touch with missionaries from your ward or stake in third world areas and ask them if the local stake president sees any needs along these lines. If so, I suggest a fund-raiser and then a big purchase of church materials by facilitated by the missionary and the stake president.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    The rededication of the temple in Chile and other Church actions seem to signal a revitalization in South America. See Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent article on the topic. Perhaps this is a good moment for us to approach local and general authorities with our desires to help any way we can.

  4. I want to say that this is incredible, but it is, sadly enough, very credible. I’ve lived overseas a long time, and I have seen the lack of basics in several places I’ve attended. It always gets me sorely irritated and I start thinking very unbecoming thoughts about the organizational structure of the church. The church has money — they need to use it in terms of resources. A couple weeks ago I was in a coorrelation meeting with my BP here in Malaysia about how the nursery had no resources, and I thought we needed some. I think I was the first person to ever open my mouth. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy asking for money from a budget.

    In the late 80’s I was in Ecuador and attended a Quechua ward. They were the coolest people and had so little in terms of resources. I attended primary instead of gospel doctrine, and they had nothing. I thought: wow, I could really help out here. I can play the primary songs on the little keyboard they have. I can do something non-verbal. The spirit was very strong, and I loved it. After the meeting the American ex-pat SP just happended to be visiting and forbid me to go to that ward (even though it was the closest to my house). It was only for Quechua speakers! He then took me to his house to await the start of the meetings I should be going to (the Spanish speaking ward with an English speaking SS). As I stayed in his home for the 2 hours btwn meetings, I just grew so fed up. He was living in totally luxury (not only compared to the Quechua speaking Indians but to me!), and it didn’t seem right. I just felt so discouraged that day. I understand the need for branches and wards to grow and come into their own on their own, and for the reasons being so as not to lure poverty stricken people into church membership because it will seem like a ticket to be like a rich American, but basic needs are basic needs. There should be some sort of Maslow’s heirarchy for church stuff.

  5. Don’t just look for stakes to help though. There are plenty of places without stakes that need help too. If you know any LDS expats living overseas, you might ask them if you can help. They may well be spending a reasonable amount of their own money to supply these basic things to local members.

    There are a few individuals who help supply things here in Kyrgyzstan. A few subscriptions to the Liahona, a few copies of Gospel Principles and some DVDs of Conference make a difference. But we always, always need more. We’re always limited because we don’t have the books and supplies we need in Russian, much less in Kyrgyz (since there is nothing in Kyrgyz).

  6. So, here we may have two good opportunities to make a difference: helping Meems’s branch in Malaysia and Amira’s congregation in Kyrgyzstan. If you two would be willing to help coordinate donations, please send me an email and we’ll work out a way for Bloggernacle participants to send funds for the purchase of church materials.

    Amira, you’re right, of course–areas without stakes are probably in even worse shape in terms of church materials! I talked about stakes simply because the places I’ve lived, in Latin America, are heavily organized in the church. On the other hand, that may make it even more remarkable that the members within them continue to lack basic church materials.

  7. If meems and Amira follow through on this, I pledge to donate. And I bet others will too.

  8. Fratello Giovanni says:

    One place I served on my mission (in Italy), I was companion to the branch president. He dealt with members’ spritual needs, and I took care of everything else. That included spending most of the branch’s budget allowance getting materials for 1) the meetinghouse, and 2) some members’ specific needs. Things ordered through Church Distribution are priced very reasonably. (Sometimes, though, if you have several choices for an item, only one is subsidized. It will cost about half as much as the other choices.)

    If any unit is going without basic things like hymnals, then their leaders (whether it’s at the branch, ward, district, stake or even mission level) aren’t attuned to the members’ needs.

  9. cchrissyy says:

    re: Venezuela
    when you say nobody chose to help, do you mean that nobody here would add to your donation, or that nobody down there would coordinate to receive it?

    we’re interested to help too.

  10. Things were pretty normal in France, where I have lived. This really is a moving post. This is something that I would love to be involved with – time and means. The sad part is that I lack, at the point, the organizational volition to start this up.

    Seriously, I’d be willing to make a go of this if there are collaborators.

  11. #2: It’s not bad luck; Central America is absolutely littered with those wards and branches.

    #4: My admittedly second-hand understanding was that (in theory) welfare missionaries actually use Maslow’s hierarchy; aren’t they supposed to be following that old dictum about temporal or physical salvation going along with spiritual salvation?

    I don’t have time to tell stories right now, but a whole host of mission and post-mission-fieldwork experiences in poor urban and rural Honduras suggest to me that even if plans for great social/welfare programs don’t often come to fruition (my record: 4 years, 3 failed literacy programs, 2 countries), we can all individually make a difference on personal level (my fiancée Karen teaching her elderly neighbor in Tegucigalpa how to read comes to mind).

    In fact, I’ve even wondered on occasion if the Lord didn’t thwart my attempts to get hymnals for a certain branch. After all, pretty much every active convert member in Honduras can tell you what quorum president/missionary/ward mission leader/visiting teacher gave them their first triple and/o rhymnal, under what circumstances they received them, and how much they value that person, memory, and book. Come to think of it, about a third of the inactive ones can tell you the same things, and will usually ask you what’s going on in the ward these days when you ask.

    Lest I be misunderstood: in spite of mentioning that the gospel is as functional as ever (and, in my opinion, moreso) in a materially and otherwise impoverished economy, I do not think that those who have means can sit back and relax or abandon plans to help just because the plans often fall through. On the contrary, I have seen such acts of charity amongst the poor that I am all the more convinced of that harsh (and, here on BCC, topical) teaching about a camel through the eye of a needle.

    Great thread, great stories and comments. It’s really heartening to me to read about experiences similar to my own, and also with such immediate positive reactions.

  12. Another simple way to directly help members is to contribute to the Temple Patron fund. The money is used to help members attend the temple who couldn’t otherwise afford to go. You can write in “Temple Patron Fund” under “Other” on your tithing slip.

    We would really appreciate any help at all here. I’ve emailed RT about this.

  13. cchrissyy:

    Re: Venezuela, J. meant that no one in the U.S. would help. We emailed several people in every ward we were associated with up here, including a few folks we’d been in ongoing correspondence with; only one person acknowledged our request for help. Her response was well-meant, but essentially useless for the Caracas members.

    The Caracas stake president was eager to coordinate something, anything, to help his members. He wanted Liahonas in particular.

    Unfortunately, the current diplomatic situation nixes any such aid to the Venezuelan stakes right now…

  14. You guys are so wonderful! But maybe I painted a bleaker picture than was waranted. Our branch has hymnals and the basics – no doubt about it; but the smaller items are what we lack. No problem though – For about $15 I went out and bought stuff to supply the nursery! Not super well stocked, but at least we’ve got something. :-) I think Amira’s idea of the temple patron fund is spectacular, because the saints here have to fly all the way to Hong Kong for a temple trip and for larger families this is really a financial difficulty. Thanks for everyone’s kindness!!

  15. It is sad that SLC can spend $100’s of millions on purchasing shopping centers but the needy members around the world have to fend for themselves. I just don’t understand it.

  16. Mike,

    Think “investment.”

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