“Look for the Yellow Vests”: Mormons and Sandy

My friend Joshua Brown shot this footage of the Sandy relief effort yesterday in the Rockaways here in NYC. In case you weren’t aware, Mormons have played a very active role in the relief effort; for instance, the local missionaries have worked tireless every day since Sandy hit. Their contribution has been noticed. A co-worker of mine organized a non-Mormon volunteer team last week, and here’s what she had to say: 

“Yellow vests were one of the first things I saw at the scene in Rockaway Beach. A few dozen of them. I deployed with a group of colleagues, including military veterans, to help the residents and I was so happy to be joined by missionaries from the Church of Latter Day Saints in human chains loading and unloading donations. They are always present wherever humanity needs the most help–I have seen this my whole life.”

Out of the tragedy of the storm, the church is doing a marvelous work. Mormons from all over the Northeast have come to put on yellow vests and clean out flooded basements. I asked Josh about the impetus for gathering the footage, and his feelings yesterday as he was gathering it, and here’s what he had to say:

I guess its this ongoing theme in my mind that people just don’t really understand Mormon culture. I view it as my responsibility as an “insider” to tell stories that others don’t really have access to, or without context, don’t really understand. I also chose to shoot on Sunday instead of Saturday because I thought it was a great example of “pure religion.” I thought it was a better visual and interview to ask people how it felt to be serving instead of sitting in church.

As I walked around I was just filled with so much pride for the church. As a sometimes “non traditional” Mormon with a lot of nonmember friends and family, people are constantly asking me why I am a Mormon. It usually boils down to something along the lines of “it makes me strive to be a better person, and it gives me opportunities to serve.” It’s pretty simple, but that is religion to me. And this service I was witnessing was a pure manifestation of it. There was nothing more than love as a motive. People weren’t dressed up trying to impress anyone, and we weren’t trying to impose any beliefs on anyone, it was just pure love for those who needed it.

There are very few moments in my life I would consider my testimony anchors. This was one of them. As I walked around and saw so many friends (men, women, and children) doing such backbreaking work with smiles on their faces, it made me realize how much I love this community of people. I don’t always line up with all of them politically, or culturally, but at key moments in my life, I have been able to find support. I have never needed the kind of support that I witnessed this weekend, but I know that if I needed it, my friends, and total strangers, would be there in a second.

I think one thing I am really excited about is that we as a community are looking outside ourselves. We are sharing our stories online, looking for service outside our own walls, and looking to build genuine friendships. I also think its great that the church is really starting to focus on the clean-up process rather than donation of hard goods. The donations are pretty easy to find, but it’s harder to find a pack of people willing to come in and rip out wet carpet and drywall.

I wanted the film to speak to both members of the church and nonmembers. I tried to avoid focusing too much on the damage or focusing too much on patting ourselves on the back. In general the point was to encourage and motivate as many people as possible to actually come down and serve.

To that end, watch the video above, try not to cry, and if you can find a way to help, please do so. This video footage is only a day old–there’s clearly a lot more cleanup to be done before the rebuilding can begin.


  1. I think my 19-year-old little sister (who is in New Jersey and assisting in this effort) said it best when I showed her this video: “This is what its all about. Doing this first hand. This gospel is amazing.”

  2. Nice

  3. Thank you Josh for capturing this insider’s view. I feel I am sharing in your reaffirmation of your love for our community through observing the service in this video. I’m proud of this. I can say that I’m proud of us.

  4. “try not to cry”

    Good luck with that.

    Thanks for this tonight.

  5. This makes me wish even more that our missionary program could be fully-dedicated to service outreach. Just imagine how transformative 50,000+ young women and men could be in areas of severe need as the result of natural disaster or extreme poverty. Transformative not only for those they serve, but for themselves as well.

  6. #5 – Fwiw, I don’t feel that way.

    Missionaries serve in outreach of various kinds now more than they ever have in the past, but it’s not the fault of the missionary program that more service doesn’t get done. That’s on US – the membership – not “The Church” or “The Missionary Program”. If there is failure in that area, we need to look in the mirror and not wish others (even our own) would do more.

  7. My husband and I would love to help set up and/or run a mission made up of those who are socially challenged and are not accepted into traditional proselytizing missions but who are very good at lending a helping hand. We’ve daydreamed of being located in a central place where training for various types of disasters takes place. Then when something happens somewhere, these special missionaries would be dispatched to help. Ideally, it would be wonderful if such missions could be organized in various areas/regions of the world. When joined by local traditional missionaries and other relief groups from local wards and branches, Muslim and Catholic groups, etc., such a marvelous work and a wonder can turn despair into optimism and hope. Many hands make light work. And I know many who long to serve missions but aren’t able to in the traditional sense that would regain their self-respect and confidence. I hope such blessings may come to them as soon as possible as they so long to be missionaries.

  8. That was a beautifully done video.

  9. I think Josh’s testimony is equally beautiful. Everyone comes out ahead when our church fulfills its christian mission.

  10. Amen to the beautiful testimony and film. Two of my favorite things!

  11. Someone’s cutting onions next to my face.

  12. What would be different if they did the same thing without the helping hand vests? They would be be doing the service without the missionary angle. Appearently there are others coming out to help anonymously. Did Christ say when you do good works make sure everyone knows it is you, or do it in secret?

    We had a flood in our city where 20,000 homes were destroyed and 100,000 volunteers were there the first day the water was down to help, without any advertising of who they represented.

    It is good that the church is helping, i’m not sure we need to advertise who we are while we do it. Perhaps it is OK in your culture, it is slightly offensive in mine.

  13. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    I have to say, participating last Saturday in this service was one of the better workouts of my life. We worked at one home – just getting wet sand out of their basement. One or two people with shovels filled buckets (two or three spadefuls per bucket, otherwise they got too heavy) and then we had a bucket brigade moving the sand out the door and onto the beach. The first twenty minutes were the hardest (this hurts! – how am I going to keep doing this for hours?) but then I got my second wind and it was no longer a problem. We worked for about 5 hours.

    The couple who owned the house where we were doing this – they were so overwhelmed by what had happened to them. You could just tell that they had been psychologically crushed – they were simply at the end of their energies. But they were so grateful for the help. They each made a point of coming over to each of the volunteers and giving us a hug. Christine, the woman we helped, she told me a bit about her experiences but she summed it up by saying “I hurt in places I didn’t know existed.”

  14. Local leadership (I live in Brooklyn) has received a lot of calls from individual and group LDS from as far away as California, asking if locals can house them in their spare bedrooms. While the request is understandable, the reality is that most LDS who live here inhabit astonishingly small-yet-expensive apartments. A family of four in a 600-sq.ft. apartment simply can’t house 3-4 strangers for a week.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    The video is awesome.

    If one watches the video, I think one sees one of the reasons for the yellow jacket branding. At first there was some concern over “Who are all of these people? What do they want? What are they here to do?” Locals were understandably a little skittish about a large group of strangers showing up; were they there to loot? Now that their bona fides has been established by their actions, the yellow jackets are a symbol of reassurance as to their helpful intentions. As crews return, this anxiety will not longer be an impediment. At least,that was my take on it.

  16. My goodness. A beautiful video and beautiful service in a time of tragedy. Thank you.

  17. Geoff-A, I was initially worried about the yellow vests as well with the churches name on it, but after going out to Coney island and Staten Island I realized how good it was to have something that identified us as a group of aid workers- a uniform of some sort. People could flag us down to help, we could approach houses and say we have a group of people willing to help and wave at the yellow vests. Plus, it was easier for other people to find us when they came late or were from another stake. I’ve felt so grateful for people from other stakes who have come to help us out and the vests have helped us feel like a team doing this work. Everyone asks who we are anyway and wants to know why we are coming out to help them. There are thousands of volunteers helping and everyone is doing it out of love and the aid workers mostly all have something to identify them. I echo Josh’s testimony and I have felt an abundance of love for my community and for the church and its members through this experience. I hope it doesn’t happen again because the hurricane was truly so devastating, but I do hope that we can remember how to serve our community this way and keep doing that without it being an organized effort.

  18. I work for FEMA as a disaster reservist and regularly go to disasters around the country. Most everywhere I’ve been LDS volunteers have gotten attention for their outstanding efforts to help people muck out their flooded basements or clean up debris or some other activity important and necessary. It makes me proud to be a member of the church.

  19. My stake suffered from Hurricane Sandy but not as badly as the coastal areas, so now that the area is largely cleaned up and power is back on, the stake has been paired with one of the North Jersey stakes to help with the clean-up efforts there.

    The project takes some organization, and emails have been flying back and forth working out details. The question arose about whether volunteers — members of the church or friends — really had to wear the yellow vests, and the answer was what Kevin Barney said: the vests identify church members and affiliated groups as “helpers” and not looters or others there to cause problems.

  20. Awesome. Thanks for sharing. My daughter is in the NY-NYC North mission. As of Wednesday last week they had not yet been asisgned places to help, but expected to as soon as organizationally possible. I’m guessing this week’s letter will provide an update…

  21. And yet, we complain continually about how the Church doesn’t do enough….

  22. The devastation there looks incredible. I wish the media was showing more about this (the needs, destruction that remain), but I guess they have moved on to other stories. Bless those who are giving of their time to reach out and help.

  23. Yes, the coastal areas are devastated. My neighbor’s family owns two vacation homes in a small beach community near Atlantic City. It’s a small town, just six streets with a mixture of vacation homes and permanent residents. She said that almost 40 homes were completely destroyed and hundreds suffered so much damage that they are entirely unusable.

    It was a week before she could even get into the area to check on the condition of the homes. The community has many full-time residents who have lost everything.

    The needs of these communities are so immense that it is good to belong to a church that’s organizing efforts as shown in Joshua’s film.

  24. European Saint says:

    I loved this. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Thanks for the video, Josh. I’ve been involved in two different flood relief efforts, once in Utah, and once here in Washington, and to be a part of something like this is truly a great experience. Just a reminder, if you can’t help in person, donations on the regular donations slip for Humanitarian Relief helps to fund supplies and emergency food and clothing that is also used in these events.

  26. We went down to Queens from Boston last Saturday, and it was a transforming experience. We wore the yellow vests, and as we walked along the street to a new assignment, people in the houses would call out to us, “Could you help me?” knowing that we were, indeed, there to help (and we would either stop to help, or take their address to give to the people in charge so that someone could go there the next day). I think that that is the real importance of the vests. We worked hard all day, in several different houses, and exhaustion has never felt so good. I only wish we could go back this weekend again.

    As a side note, last year my daughter’s ward in New Hampshire wanted to help victims of hurricane Irene, but for some reason the church hadn’t organized volunteers to help, so the members in their ward joined a locally organized effort. They said it was kind of too bad, because they had a big turnout of people from their ward, but the organization didn’t really have things together, so they spent a lot of time standing around, waiting for an assignment or for tools to do the assignment they had been given.

    Down in queens, despite over 2,000 volunteers (half in Staten Island, half in Queens) everything was well organized, and we were able to get right to work from the moment we arrived.

  27. Hi Geoff A – are you in Brisbane? I also was initially wary of the idea of “advertising” our good works, rather than not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing! I do think that some other comments have mentioned the benefit of the yellow jackets to community members.

  28. I. Loved. This. Video. I started getting emotional just reading Joshua’s written testimony and explanation, before I had even pressed play. Thank you so much for making and sharing, and congrats for getting it posted on the LDS Newsroom blog, just noticed that.

  29. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, I have a very practical question. So you get dozens of ward members onto school buses, and they spend say over five hours in the affected areas working. With the round trip that might be like seven hours or so. What happens when people need to go to the bathroom?

  30. @29, to answer your question, we were cutting down trees in Bucks County, PA along a heavily wooded stretch of road paralell with the Delaware River. Trees to the left and a big river to the right made going to the bathroom during our 5-6 hours of cutting and hauling fallen trees no problem. Kind of like camping. None of the homes along the road we cleared had electricity, so we couldn’t ask any homeowner to use the facilities though I’m sure they would have gladly let us judging by their thanks for what we were doing. (There was some kidding about skipping the house with Obama signs in the yard-let the government help them out was the common joke. But, it was only a joke or two.)

    We cleared our assigned road, but we were all amateurs and had more willing spirits than true experience. Too often I think we skirted further disaster and harm with some of our over-exuberant efforts to cut massive trees which were precariously perched on electric lines and other trees. With each narrow miss of a tree falling on someone or a house or car we grew more confident and reckless. Lucky the road ended before our stupidity and recklessness caused us and others harm.

  31. In Queens, the volunteers gathered at an elementary school before being assigned. Although the first floor was destroyed, the upper floors were ok, and there was a working water supply. So there were working toilets in the school that people used, both before and after we worked.

  32. #29 Kevin, on Staten Island there were port-o-potties for the yellow vests so there were no issues last Sunday.

  33. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! The video, the yellow vests, and most of all, the willing hearts and hands! Thank you!

  34. Paul #20, what area is your daughter serving in right now? We had 50 missionaries from the North Mission assigned to the Westchester Stake join us last Saturday. They were beyond amazing.

  35. Jeff, that’s good to hear! She’s in Chinatown (Mandarin speaking). Her service up until last week was among her neighbors — helping them prepare and then in the aftermath to understand instructions, etc. (I can imagine how frightening it could be for residents of Chinatown, some of whom don’t speak a lot of English; we lived through three or four typhoons in Taiwan when we lived there and relied on English language radio and good friends to help us know what was up.) She said as soon as things were more organized (eg, open for movement, etc) they’d be joining the effort in the harder-hit parts of the area.

  36. Antonio Parr says:

    Tried not to cry.

    Major fail.

  37. it's a series of tubes says:

    Nice to see some old friends in the video. Great work.

  38. As a member of the church in the NE, I appreciated seeing the video both to see the relief work from fellow church members but also to get an idea of the overwheming task ahead of the people in hard hit areas. I did feel uncomfortable though with how it was spreading on FaceBook. I have always liked how the church does great service quietly–no need to self proclaim our good works. Too sensitive? IDK.

  39. beautiful film, beautiful people, beautiful sentiment

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