Refugees in The Book of Mormon: Ancient Light for a Modern Crisis

By Alicia Alba[1] (ed. Mel Henderson)

refugee: noun. ref· u· gee \ˌre-fyu̇-ˈjē\ An individual seeking refuge or asylum; especially: an individual who flees for safety (as from war), usually to a foreign country.

The Book of Mormon begins with a refugee story: Lehi was a wealthy landowner in ancient Jerusalem at a time of social and political unrest. Among the first things we learn is that Lehi was a good man who tried to share what he knew—but enemies emerged in his own community, men who “sought his life, that they might take it away” (1 Ne. 1:20). Lehi and his family were forced to flee.

Lehi and Sariah gathered their children and the belongings they hoped would support a long journey to an unknown destination, and they left behind everything else. They struggled with hunger and loss and family discord in the wilderness. They were displaced for many years before at last finding their refuge, their promised land, here in the Americas. Then, not long after their arrival, their son Nephi led another group of people into the wilderness, this time seeking refuge from the wicked designs of his older brothers.

In fact, the entire Book of Mormon is filled with stories of people who sought refuge from the storms of life: the Jaredites, the Mulekites, the converted people of Ammon, the poor Zoramites, Alma the Elder and his followers, and others. In many ways the Book of Mormon is a chronicle of refugees and the people who knew them — and who responded to their crises with either kindness or wickedness.

Our leaders often remind us that the messages in the Book of Mormon are meant for us, here, now, today. So one challenge of our discipleship is to recognize and embrace this ancient counsel just as we would embrace a brand new directive. Accordingly, King Benjamin teaches us how to care for our fellow man today in his farewell address found in Mosiah 4:

16. And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. . . .

22. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth.

19. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? . . .

26. [Therefore] I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.

Alma 37 tells the story of the people of Ammon. These people had been converted by Ammon and were still living in the lands of their fathers, among the Lamanites. Then another group — the Amalekites — began preaching hate and discord among the Lamanites, stirring them up against the people of Ammon. Tensions escalated, and many innocent people were persecuted and killed. They had nowhere to go, but they couldn’t stay.

So Ammon and his brethren decided to ask the people of Nephi for help. This was a difficult request to make because of their complicated history: Before their conversion and repentance, the people of Ammon had been cruel to the Nephites. They had persecuted and killed many of them. Knowing the Nephites owed them nothing, the people of Ammon even offered to give themselves as slaves in exchange for any security they might be willing to offer. But the Nephites astonished them with a generous gift of both land and military protection:

Behold, we will give up the land of Jershon, which is on the east by the sea, which joins the land Bountiful . . . and this land Jershon is the land which we will give unto our brethren for an inheritance. . . . And behold, we will set our armies between the land Jershon and the land Nephi, that we may protect our brethren in the land Jershon; and this we do for our brethren . . . and we will guard them from their enemies with our armies, on condition that they will give us a portion of their substance to assist us that we may maintain our armies. (Alma 27:22-24)

The Nephites kept their promise, and the people of Ammon found safety and refuge in the land of Jershon.

The Nephites were willing to follow King Benjamin’s counsel by sacrificing of their substance, giving their lands to the poor and the needy. They didn’t debate whether or not these refugees “deserved” their help; they simply enacted King Benjamin’s counsel. And they went even further, showing great Christ-like love in their willingness to even lay down their lives and sacrifice their safety and security to do what was right: protecting the defenseless. They understood that when we are in the service of our fellow beings, we are only in the service of our God.

Alma 35 tells the story of the poor people among the Zoramites who were rejected by the rich and powerful in their land. The poor were cast out of their synagogues and were later converted in humility by Alma and his brethren. After their conversion, the “more popular part” of the people went throughout the land in an effort to discover who believed in the words of Alma. It was surely with surprise, shock, and dismay that the people who had expressed support for Alma learned that as a consequence of their beliefs they would now be cast out and forced to leave their homes. They could not stay. In their time of need, these poor but faithful people found refuge with the people of Ammon in Jershon, where they were ministered to by Alma and his brethren.

But the wicked Zoramites weren’t finished with them. They sent messengers to the land of Jershon, demanding that the people of Ammon should likewise reject these poor Zoramites. Alma 35:9 says that “[The chief ruler of the Zoramites] breathed out many threatenings against them. And now the people of Ammon did not fear their words; therefore they did not cast them out, but they did receive all the poor of the Zoramites that came over unto them; and they did nourish them, and did clothe them, and did give unto them lands for their inheritance; and they did administer unto them according to their wants.”

The people of Ammon offered these poor Zoramites the same compassion the Nephites had given to them in their time of need. Kindness begets kindness. Kindness changes hearts. But only when we remember, and fear not.

We can find many more stories of poor and needy people seeking relief in both our ancient and modern histories: Joseph of Egypt’s 11 brothers and their families sought food from the pharaoh to sustain them during a severe famine. The children of Israel fled into the wilderness in search of a new land after being miraculously freed from slavery. Our Savior’s family sought refuge from Herod’s sword by fleeing to the land of Egypt. Our pilgrim forefathers sought freedom and opportunity here in America. Our pioneer ancestors sought refuge from persecution by fleeing west across the Great Plains.

Our human stories of seeking and finding refuge continue today. There are currently about 70 million displaced people in the world. That is one in every 100 people who fled their homes because it was not safe for them to remain. These poor and needy people need our help. Are we willing to follow the examples in the Book of Mormon and heed King Benjamin’s counsel?

It’s been just over a year since Elder Patrick Kearon gave his powerful talk, “Refuge from the Storm.”[2] He urges us to remember that, “We must be careful that news of the refugees’ plight does not somehow become commonplace when the initial shock wears off and yet the wars continue and the families keep coming. Millions of refugees worldwide, whose stories no longer make the news, are still in desperate need of help.”

The United Nations recently declared that “the world is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since [the UN] was organized in 1945.” In addition to those who have been displaced, there are currently more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation, and that number keeps climbing. That’s the equivalent of the entire LDS Church membership worldwide, plus roughly 5 million more, at risk of dying for lack of food. Closer to home, there are many widows, orphans, veterans, homeless, sick, afflicted—neighbors, friends and family members who also need our help. There are no true strangers among us in an eternal sense. Only brothers and sisters.

So what can we do? How can we help? Although we still face challenges, we are truly richly blessed here in America. And because we have been given much, we are called upon to give. At baptism, we make our first and foundational covenant. We promise to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort. So what can we do to keep our covenants and help make a difference in our world today? How can we share our love with our neighbors as God has commanded us?

First, we can pray. We have the opportunity and responsibility to seek inspiration for how and who to serve on our knees in prayer. As Sister Linda K. Burton explained in her conference talk last year, we can be inspired to “recognize and respond to the extraordinary and pressing calls—and also the ordinary occasions—of those within [our] sphere of influence.”[3] Sometimes we will be inspired to help in local efforts, at other times we may be inspired to help in international efforts. But whatever inspiration we receive, the important thing is to take this inspiration and turn it into action.

Even if we don’t feel that we have much to give, we can remember the story of the widow who gave her “mite” for the poor and needy. Although this was a great sacrifice for her, she courageously gave the best she had in service of others. I wonder if she felt embarrassed by the seemingly small size of her offering. I wonder if she doubted whether it was big enough to make a difference. I am thankful that she gave what she had as an example that we can follow today.

Charles Arnold, a stake president in Cedar Hills, Utah, recently said: “When you have so little, it doesn’t take much to make a big difference.”[4] I know that widows’ mites can make a difference and that it is through small and simple means that great things can be brought to pass.

Elder Kearon added: “The Savior lovingly acknowledged the widow whose contribution was only two mites because she did what she could. He also told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which He concluded saying, ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’ Sometimes reaching out is inconvenient. [Sometimes there is risk involved]. But when we work together in love and unity, we can expect heaven’s help.”

This sacrifice doesn’t have to cost much or be stressful. $1 can make a difference. About 70% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day (Pew). In fact, even our discarded trash can literally be transformed into treasures that will bless many lives. In my ward we are currently saving empty soda bottles and cast-off jeans, which will be made into shoes to bless the lives of school children in Africa. I know many other wards and stakes are engaged in similar humanitarian efforts to help relieve the poor and needy in our world.

Elder Kearon made another urgent plea:

[We should] increase our awareness of the world events that drive these families from their homes. We must take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions. Meeting refugee families and hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop and will foster compassion and successful integration. The Lord has instructed us that the stakes of Zion are to be ‘a defense’ and ‘a refuge from the storm.’ We have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in God and in our fellow man, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father.

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love” (2 Timothy 1:7).

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

So please, get on your knees and pray. Ask God for his guidance about what you can do to be a Savior on Mount Zion for the poor and needy people in our world. And whatever you are prompted to do, please do it. Remember to use wisdom and order and to “not to run faster than you are able,” but please act. You can make a difference in our Heavenly Father’s great work. You can help bring to pass the eternal life of man, one person at a time. Look unto God in every thought. Doubt not. Fear not.

I know it is possible that was said of the Nephites in Alma 1:30 can also be said of us:

And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.

Our prophets’ counsel is timeless and clear. Let us now heed the call.

——————

[1] Alicia Alba and her husband reside in Utah with their five small children. She is engaged in a variety of humanitarian initiatives at home and abroad. She helps lead the Anti-Discrimination Committee of the newly-formed political activism non-profit initiative known as MWEG, or Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She also supports and follows the efforts of Their Story is Our Story (TSOS), a non-profit multi-media conglomerate dedicated to empowering refugees by sharing their experiences on a worldwide platform. Both non-profits aim to bridge the cultural, language, and political gaps between refugees and citizens in all nations.

[2] Patrick Kearon, “Refuge from the Storm,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2016.

[3] Linda K. Burton, “I Was a Stranger,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2016.

[4] Author’s notes from Cedar Hills West Stake Relief Society Address, Charles Arnold, Feb. 25, 2017.

Comments

  1. Americans have not exactly covered themselves in glory with regard to their role in contributing to refugee flows of historic proportions and their willingness to do anything about it. The number of (extremely vetted) refugees allowed to resettle was already minuscule under previous administrations, and the current one is bound and determined to walk even that tepid commitment back to zero. So much for Reagan’s vision of a Shining City: “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Imagine that, the Book of Mormon really was written for our day! Great post, thank you.

  3. Jason K. says:

    This excellent post mentions starvation: in addition to the massive refugee crisis, there’s also a famine in East Africa that threatens millions of lives. Those of us who never want for food have an obligation to give generously so that our sisters and brothers can eat.

  4. Thank you, Alicia.

  5. This also remainder of this refugee-themed Haggadah supplement for Passover from HIAS, the Jewish affiliated refugee agency. https://www.hias.org/sites/default/files/hias_2017_haggadah_supplement.pdf

  6. Ah, Lehi was a settler, not a refugee!!!!

  7. Great reminders. Thank-you!

  8. Bob, I think 1 Nephi 2:1-2 makes it pretty clear that Lehi left Israel because his life was in danger. The fact that he later was guided to settle in a new land doesn’t detract from the fact that he needed refuge from the people who wanted to harm him and his family.

  9. One might say it’s better to prevent the situations (often tied to politics and war) that create refugees in the first place. In particular I think a lot of the problems of the Syrian civil war could have been avoided.

  10. As if we had to choose only one.

  11. You can spend all of your time arguing that someone else should/could/would have done something to avoid the Syrian refugee crisis, but that does nothing for the people who need help right now.

    In what could be considered a rather foolish political decision the people of Ammon refused to defend themselves, but the Nephites still took them in, gave them land, and provided military protection. Because they didn’t want to see innocent people hurt anymore.

  12. Amira, I agree. I’m more thinking on those who oppose helping prevent problems before they arise. I’m certainly not criticizing taking in refugees and think we take in far too few.