SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — A flash flood of Mormon volunteers was a spring surprise for Lutherans who run refugee resettlement organizations in 25 U.S. states.
Motivated by statements of church leaders encouraging them to help refugees, the influx of Mormons prompted resettlement centers of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to add volunteer training sessions in places like South Carolina, Colorado and Arizona.
On Tuesday, the budding relationship expanded again, as LIRS leaders visited Salt Lake City and received a check for $130,000 from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church also pledged an additional $520,000 in commodities such as food and mattresses.
"We've been chomping at the bit on building this relationship, which is evolving on two levels," said Linda Hartke, president and CEO of LIRS. "On the local level, we're seeing greater interest and more volunteers coming forward.
"On the national level, leaders of LDS Charities are giving open and thoughtful consideration to how the church might be more deeply engaged learning and testing ideas about working together."
LIRS expects to help resettle 15,000 refugees in the new fiscal year that began Oct. 1, up from the 13,008 refugees its 45 locations helped to resettle in the United States in the past 12 months.
One item many of those refugees need is a new mattress, and a significant part of the LDS Church donation will come in the form of mattresses produced at Deseret Manufacturing in Salt Lake City. Hartke and other LIRS leaders toured the manufacturing plant, which employs refugees and other marginalized workers to provide them with vocational training.
"There will be lots of refugees sleeping on your mattresses," said Hartke, who added that 10 LIRS locations await shipments with great anticipation. "Thousands of refugees will be sleeping in safe, warm, welcoming places on mattresses made right here."
A member of the LDS Charities board of directors, Sister Linda S. Reeves, said it is a privilege for the church and its members to work with a faith-based organization with decades of experience. LIRS has been helping refugees since 1939.
Sister Reeves, the second counselor in the general presidency of the Relief Society, the LDS women's auxiliary organization, said she hopes the number of Mormon volunteers continue to surprise the LIRS.
"We hope that happens in every one of their offices," Sister Reeves said. "We highly endorse them. We'd like to support them in any way possible to help their work with refugees and migrants."
Hartke is excited by the partnership's potential.
"We look forward to building on the talent, commitment and international experience of many LDS volunteers and missionary personnel," she said. "They can make a huge difference with us either as volunteers or in a staff capacity."
The First Presidency of the LDS Church issued a letter on Oct. 27 last year, encouraging members to donate to the church humanitarian fund and to participate in local refugee relief efforts.
The general president of the LDS Church's Relief Society, Sister Linda K. Burton, then announced in March a new initiative, "I Was a Stranger," encouraging the faith's women and girls to engage actively in local relief.
The church launched a website, iwasastranger.lds.org, and lists refugee relief opportunities on a website, justserve.org. A recent review of the site found hundreds of volunteer opportunities for refugee support available in 30 states and Canada.
LIRS is in the opening stages of promoting its opportunities on Just Serve. In essence, the two churches hope to see LDS congregations supporting LIRS refugee relief efforts across the United States.
The LDS Church encourages members who volunteer to share their experience via social media with the hashtag #iwasastranger. More than 37,000 posts have appeared with that hashtag, said Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities.
"We're grateful for the engagement of the sisters of the church and their families in this refugee effort," Sister Reeves said. "We would hope it will become a long-term effort."
Both Lutheran and LDS leaders learned from each other Tuesday.
LIRS has deep experience with congregational volunteers working with refugee families, a model with positive outcomes for refugee integration.
That model is a natural for LDS congregations, said Kay Bellor, LIRS vice president of programs. She also sees a great need for LDS foster families for refugee children.
LIRS is a leader in refugee employment services, providing advice to the other eight resettlement agencies. But LIRS leaders felt they learned Tuesday as they saw firsthand the vocational training provided at the LDS Humanitarian Center. The center employs 150 refugees, who are paid for four hours of work a day and for an additional four hours of English study, said Rick Foster, manager of special projects for the LDS Welfare Department. The center prepares employees for jobs with local hotels, restaurants and retail outlets.
"Seeing how the LDS model is designed and delivers consistently is exciting," said Staci Coomer, the LIRS vice president of development, outreach and communications. "They do it thoughtfully and well, and it's amazing to see in action. We know the LDS will be a great partner."
Tuesday's donation was part of $5 million in cash and commodities the LDS Church has pledged to the nine U.S. refugee resettlement agencies, which operate over 300 affiliates helping newly arrived refugees settle into local communities.
In August, the church gave $2 million to the two resettlement agencies that work in Utah — $1.25 million to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services and $750,000 to the International Rescue Committee.
On Monday, church officials will travel to the East Coast to give $2.35 million to the remaining six resettlement agencies.