SALT LAKE CITY — Mormons have doubled donations to their faith's humanitarian fund and have sustained that giving for the past 18 months, fueling expanded LDS Church efforts to help refugees worldwide.
The Deseret News has learned that the additional money and the global response to the "I Was a Stranger" initiative launched at the women's session of general conference a year ago powered a record year for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in terms of humanitarian contributions, expenditures, international partnerships and more, according to exclusive interviews and data provided in a fresh report by the Welfare Department.
LDS Charities conducted 488 refugee relief projects in 54 countries in 2016, according to its new annual report. About 250 of those projects took place in Europe, where tens of millions of refugees are fleeing persecution and war to gather in new camps under poor conditions. Older camps, some established decades ago, are being forgotten, and the church is engaging in efforts to provide fresh relief.
The church built important new relationships in the past year that have increased the faith's profile and reach with major world partners and created opportunities for its general women leaders to travel with international relief agencies.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Mormon women and girls responded to "I Was a Stranger" by simple acts of kindness and relief for refugees recorded with the hashtag #iwasastranger. More than 90,000 messages about those acts have been sent, many of them captured at the bottom of the home page of the website iwasastranger.lds.org.
"We knew we had a sleeping giant," said Sister Linda S. Reeves, second counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency, at a small presentation at the Church History Museum on Thursday night. "It's been fantastic to see all that women and their families across the world have done."
The response to "I Was a Stranger" did not surprise Sharon Eubank, director of humanitarian services at LDS Charities.
"I've always thought, if the women of the church all wanted the same thing, step back," she said. "I've really felt that before, and this was an opportunity for that to happen."
Saturday, 20,000 LDS women and girls will gather at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City and millions more will participate via broadcast in the women's session of the faith's 187th Annual General Conference.
Many will remember the lit match dropped into dry kindling by Sister Linda K. Burton, the Relief Society General President, at the women's session on March 25, 2016. She announced "I Was a Stranger" and then watched the seven million women in the church's global women's organization respond.
For the past 12 months, news outlets around the world have published stories about the efforts made by Mormon women and their families to help refugees.
Sister Reeves said the initiative grew out of a committee of community activists and leaders from the LDS Church's general auxiliaries led by women leaders — the Relief Society, Young Woman and Primary. Their charge was to find an action to rally Mormon women.
The committee considered human trafficking, addictions, poverty, literacy and other serious problems before prayerfully settling on refugee aid, Sister Reeves said. When the women leaders presented their thoughts to priesthood leaders in the fall of 2015, they learned the faith's First Presidency and Presiding Bishopric were preparing to send a letter to be read in each of the church's congregations.
It encouraged all members of the church to give to the humanitarian fund as they are able "in response to the growing refugee crisis."
"And contribute the members did," said Derek Westra, director of communications for Welfare Services. "It was an amazing response. In fact, the humanitarian aid fund doubled, and it has never done that before. Not only did it double, and you'd expect a temporary spike, it doubled and it stayed there and it has been there ever since.
"So... 2016 was the most impactful year in the history of LDS Charities in every category, including donations from members, expenditures and distribution of those donations, product quality, number of beneficiaries, number of volunteers, number of partners."
As winter approached Greece last year, refugee children and families in a temporary camp at the base of Mount Olympus were living without basic necessities.
"We were able to go in and give immediate supplies — tents and coats and shoes and so forth," Sister Burton said. "We were able build and take in containers and customize to give some warmth, adding heaters. Here's all these children who might not have lived through the winter if that had not been provided by the church, and by the generous donations of the members of the church who have helped out."
Eubank, the director of humanitarian services, said the church is a small but important player on the international stage. Larger partners, like the United Nations and the Amar Foundation, know that the church can move quickly to fill certain needs like those by Mount Olympus, she said.
The church provides three kinds of refugee response. First, immediate relief to people who are fleeing and need basic survival materials, including food, water, shelter and clothing.
Second, long-term support includes assisting camps and communities with clean water, ongoing education for children and medication and equipment for health clinics. For example, during 2016, LDS Charities partnered with Save the Children to create safe areas for children in refugee camps in Greece to play and heal from trauma.
Finally, LDS Charities helps as refugees return to their homes or resettle. In resettlement countries like the United States and Germany, the church provides funding and household items to resettlement agencies that provide language training and help refugees find employment and other support.
"This crisis is the biggest crisis the modern community has ever faced," Eubank said. "You have more migrants, more refugees and fewer resources. The traditional mechanisms for dealing with these have been paralyzed."
Three of the church's areas of emphasis have coelesced in the effort to fill gaps.
"We care about reaching out in Christian fellowship to anybody on the earth," Eubank said. "That's who we are. It's in our DNA. We serve. That's what it means to be a member of the church. We also care about strengthening families. And we want to protect people's religious freedom. We want people to be able to express their faith and feel free to live their faith. We want to be able to; we want other people to be able to. Suddenly, with refugee response, we've got a cause that all of those streams of the church are now working on.
"And to me that does my heart good. You've got the resources of this magnificent church and the faith and the power in the members all over the world directed on this one area."
Eubank said 2016 marked a new age in global partnership for the church.
For example, while LDS Charities has long worked with the United Nations World Food Programme, the partnership evolved in the past year.
"They're much bigger than we are," Eubank said, "but as we worked with them on this refugee crisis, they came to us and said, 'You're doing something that nobody else is doing' ... with our ability to engage at an institutional level and also funnel requests down to all of our members wherever they live."
Through that dialogue, the World Food Programme shared the LDS Church First Presidency's statement on food security at their meeting of 33 countries.
"We've never been operating with them at that kind of level before. They've come to us on really big projects in Chad, in Sudan, in Syria and said, 'Can you help with this?' And the church has made really large donations. That's an example of a partnership.
Another example is a budding partnership between UNICEF, the United Nations charity for children, and the Primary, the church's organization for children. Sister Jean Bingham, first counselor in the Primary General Presidency, traveled with Eubank last month to the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, where 260,000 people live. The camp opened in mid-2016.
Older camps often fare worse, Eubank said. "Only 1 percent of the refugees get resettled," Eubank said. "So 99 percent of them are in camps, and lots of them, more than half of them, are in forgotten camps that happened 20 years ago that nobody is paying any attention to. We've started to take a real interest in those camps. Some have been there for a long, long time. (Their) sanitation is bad, their health care is poor; nobody's paying attention because the media has drawn resources to the latest crisis. So LDS Charities is really looking to see what we can do in the forgotten camps to see if we can relieve some of that suffering."
Sister Burton said LDS Church women's leaders felt pressure not to add stress to Mormon women's lives.
"That was one of our biggest concerns. We really tried to articulate that you do what you can within your own circumstances, and we hope that has resonated enough that people aren't feeling so heavily burdened but gives them a spark if that's what they need to get going."
She asked a reporter if it was possible to print "Thank you" in large type across the page.
"I'm so proud of my sisters, really," she said. "I think it just brings back the notion that there's something good within all of us and we have a need to reach out to others, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a member of the church.
"We all have goodness within us, and so I would say just 'Thank you, thank you, thank you for responding to the tuggings of your heart, and keep up the good work, because the ones that are blessed are the ones that participate. Sometimes you wonder who's at the best end of the deal, is it the ones that are giving or is it the ones that are receiving? I think it's both."