SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church is escalating its efforts to help refugees, directing more resources to aid programs one year after its "I Was a Stranger" initiative activated Mormons around the world to help on an individual basis.
"I hope it's more of the same" in the second year, Sister Linda K. Burton, Relief Society general president, said of rank-and-file members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who volunteered for resettlement agencies, mentored refugees one-on-one, gave money, put together aid kits or launched grassroots English classes or daycare groups.
"I hope people have gotten confident enough that they can see that this is an ongoing effort," she said, "that we're not pulling back."
In fact, the church's governing body, the First Presidency, added money for refugee response to the budget of LDS Charities for 2017, said Sharon Eubank, the charity's director.
"We also have rearranged some of our own budget priorities so that we could fund (refugee response) at a very high level so it will become part of our ongoing programs, not just a one-year flash," Eubank said.
The LDS Church has been providing international aid to refugees for over a decade, but the new refugees crisis prompted increased efforts to help. In September 2015, the church gave $5 million to help displaced families who had fled to Europe. The following month, in a letter to congregations, the First Presidency encouraged members to help individually.
In July, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency presented a donation of $3 million from the church to the U.N. World Food Programme.
Last fall, the church gave $5 million to nine resettlement agencies in the United States.
Amid those donations, Sister Burton introduced "I Was a Stranger" a year ago this month at the women's session of the faith's international general conference. She encouraged LDS women to "serve the refugees living in your neighborhoods and communities."
The "I Was a Stranger" website now counts 89,000 uses of hashtag #iwasastranger detailing individual, grassroots support efforts of church members separate from the institutional church's relief aid.
"The members of the church responded so generously to the letter from the First Presidency and then the invitations at conference," Eubank said. "Our resources grew and we were able to reach out more, and last year was the biggest year in our history.
"We were able to probably quintuple the number of refugee relief projects we were able to do. That's amazing. Now that won't happen year after year, but for one year to be able to quintuple the amount of aid that we were able to give to refugees was amazing. I'm full of gratitude to the members of the church who made that possible."
In an interview with the Deseret News, Sister Burton expressed gratitude to church members, especially the seven million members of the Relief Society, the church's women's organization, and to teenagers in its Young Women program and girls in the children's organization, Primary.
"Women have helping hearts," she said, "and 'I Was a Stranger' speaks to their hearts. They can relate to those who are suffering. Especially mothers, it seems, have really put themselves in the shoes of those who are having difficult times."
Sister Burton lamented the plight of the world's 61 million refugees and displaced persons. She traveled last month to Indonesia, where she met a woman who fled in a boat that sank. More than 120 people drowned. She treaded water with her 2-year-old daughter for 15 hours.
"I could tell that she had been a long way away from a mother's arms," Sister Burton said. "She just wanted a hug and a hug and a hug and a hug, and she just wept and wept and wept. We didn't speak the same language, but I could feel her pain, but her joy also at being cared for."
"I Was a Stranger" asked Mormons to engage in small, simple acts to help others.
"A lot of people have come to it from that vantage point of I was a stranger myself," Sister Burton said. "They see themselves in that: 'I was a stranger when I was a student. I know what that feels like.' "
One 7-year-old London girl raised $335 with a hot chocolate stand for Lifting Hands International, which provides aid to refugee camps in Greece. A choir director in Washington state invited refugees to participate — "when we sing together, our hearts are knit," she told Sister Burton. In New York, the wife of a medical student felt impressed to talk to a pregnant woman with four children. Initially she was too scared, Eubank said, but when she next saw the woman, with her brand-new baby, she approached her. The refugee mother knew little English, but they became friends.
"The best thing about that story was," Eubank said, "after they got to know each other, the woman thought, they need help with English, just from their neighbors, just from the people who live in our apartment complex. So they started a little school in the apartment complex. The way that they helped was born out of need. They didn't decide ahead of time, 'oh, I need to teach English, and go find somebody.' They found somebody, got to know them, and then they responded with what they needed."
The efforts are international, from the Canadian congregation that noticed the children of working refugees were home alone after school and opened their church building a couple of days a week for organized games and handicrafts to congregations in San Miguel, Chile, that opened opened a church building to teach Spanish and provide day care for 40,000 Haitian refugees.
Meanwhile, LDS Charities has quadrupled the work it has done with global relief partners like the Amar Foundation and UNICEF, Eubank said.
Sister Burton said she is pleased with the two-pronged effort of the institutional church working with global relief partners and church members working in their communities.
"You think of the accumulation of the little simple things done by a whole lot of people," she said, "and then couple that with the partnering availability of the global resources. That's powerful."
In January, after President Trump announced a four-month suspension of the U.S. refugee program, church leaders released a statement. They said the church has "special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution."
Both Sister Burton and Eubank said the church and its members will continue their efforts.
Sister Burton said that U.S. resettlement agencies have a backlog of refugees already in the country that need to be resettled. If they managed to help all of them, there still would be work to do.
"Resettlement is just the first part of starting a new life," she said. "Resettlement really is just the first six months they are in a new country. This may give us a chance to catch up with the real mentoring that really does need to happen after that."
"The politics are going to swirl up and down," Eubank added, "but our responsibility as covenant people is to just be good to people, reach out to them, treat them as if they are our family."