Go the Distance

Migrants reach out for bread distributed by volunteers, at a border crossing between Croatia and Slovenia, in Trnovec, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Hundreds of migrants have spent the night in rain and cold at Croatia's border after being refused entry into Slovenia. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

I was struck in yesterday’s morning conference session by the quotation Elder Renlund gave, “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” What gave me pause at this, since I agree with the statement, is a simple question: What do we do about the distance?

This seems like a crucial question. Elder Renlund points out that this is the reason why the Church’s welfare system is designed for those in needs to seek help from family first, and then from their local leaders–i.e., from their ward and branch. But it doesn’t seem to me like this solves enough of the distance between givers and recievers; I see lots of distance within wards and branches, and sometimes even within families. Too often givers and receivers simply have completely different viewpoints and even different cultures.

BridgesoutofPovertyI have wrestled with understanding the issues and principles surrounding welfare and giving support to those in need recently. As a result I started reading a book on the subject recommended to me, Bridges out of Poverty, a manual for those working with the needy, including community and religions leaders like bishops and stake presidents. This book suggests, among other things, a very simple idea: those in different economic classes live in different cultures. Simply put, the way that those in poverty think and act, even when they think and act logically, is different than the way that those in the middle class think and act. And those in the wealthy class think and act is different from the other classes.

Now, lest I am misunderstood, let me make clear that the authors of this book are not talking about those who are temporarily in poverty or in a class, or those who grew up in one class and recently switched to another class. Changing thought and action from one class to another takes time, and if you are temporarily in poverty you likely haven’t changed your culture. Instead, these authors are claiming that the culture of those who are more or less permanently in one class is different from those in another economic class.

These cultural differences, or hidden rules (as the authors of Bridges out of Poverty call them), aren’t obvious to those in other classes. Just like the differences between national cultures often lead to confusion or misunderstanding, the differences between economic classes often lead to similar difficulties. In this book the authors point out how this happens:

…if you fall mostly in the middle class the assumption is that everyone knows these [rules]. … many of the hidden rules are taken for granted by a particular class, which assumes they are a given for everyone.

The book gives an example that explains how these cultural differences can cause problems:

…in one school district, the faculty had gone together to buy a refrigerator for a family who did not have one. About three weeks later, the children in the family were gone for a week. When the students returned, the teachers asked where they had been. The answer was that the family had gone camping because they were so stressed. What had they used for money to go camping? Proceeds from the sale of the refrigerator, of course.

For those of us in the middle class this makes no sense whatsoever. Why would you make your long-term life worse for a temporary pleasure? But Bridges out of Poverty suggests that the classes simply have different cultural understandings: “The bottom line in [long-lasting] poverty is entertainment and relationships. In middle class, the criteria against which most decisions are made relate to work and achievement. In wealth, it is the ramifications of the financial, social, and political connections that have the weight.”

It doesn’t matter whether you think that the decision of the family that sold the refrigerator is wrong or not. The point is that the culture this family lives in influences them toward that decision. Yes it is wrong to misuse a gift like this family did–but clearly they didn’t see this as misuse! Is the problem their lack of knowledge? Or was it the misunderstanding of the givers, who clearly didn’t understand the family’s culture? I think the problem really lies in the distance between the givers and the receivers.

Any actions taken to help someone in need must include an understanding of culture and the influence it has. In the Church our goal is the family’s temporal and spiritual well-being; therefore understanding the family’s culture is crucial to successfully achieving temporal and spiritual well-being.

Of course, the cultural differences that I’m describing here are often a large part of the distance between the giver and the receiver. Bishops and other local leaders are often in the middle class (if not in the wealthy class), while those who most frequently need help are in poverty. This means that local leaders don’t always understand why those in need act the way they do. This cultural distance makes solving problems of poverty difficult. So again, the question needs to be asked: what should we do about this distance?

As I listened to Sister Oscarson this morning mention Lehi’s dream and the great and spacious building, the thought occurred to me that this symbol also includes distance: its rare to see anyone who would dare mock and sneer at others without the safety of some distance. Those in the building weren’t near the tree, they were safely across a river and elevated above the targets of their mocking. They didn’t have to face those they were making fun of. Distance aided them in their mocking and criticism.

I think the same thing often happens when it comes to the needy and poor (and the wealthy as well, this works for all cultural differences): we criticize from a distance, across the cultural gulf that separates us. We work from different assumptions and environments and the distance keeps us from seeing how and why they do what they do.

Again, I ask. What should we do about this distance?

I hope that given all this the answer is clear. We can’t remain like those in the great and spacious building, criticizing those of a different culture from safety, across a river of misunderstanding. It is our responsibility to reach across the gulf to understand.

In my view, the Church Handbook of Instructions suggests that this is the case. It tells Bishops that it is their responsibility to seek out the poor–instead of waiting for them to ask for help. Can our responsibility be that much different? Shouldn’t we be vigilant, looking for opportunities to help personally AND understand personally those we are helping?

As I’ve studied this subject, I keep coming to the conclusion that the only way that we can really help those in need is by going the distance to them. We need to know them. We need to understand their situation, the ways they understand life, their views, and their needs.

There is, I think, an inseparable connection between knowledge and love. We can only truly love what we know. So our efforts to serve others can only be as successful as our efforts to know others.

Instead of stereotyping others based on our cultural assumptions we must seek to know them. Instead of criticizing from across the filthy river of misunderstanding, we must love.

24 comments for “Go the Distance

  1. Great thoughts, Kent. I heard one of the authors of the book speak a few years ago at a professional conference. Applying it to the Church situation, the problem is not simply that local leaders may think in terms of a middle-class culture and fail to understand those in poverty. It’s that LDS culture as a whole is thoroughly middle-class, including a firm rejection of government aid programs intended to help those in need — programs those in the middle class rarely employ but those in need may depend on for day-to-day survival. But the Church has no problem at all with government programs that benefit the middle class, like tax breaks (especially the itemized deduction for charitable giving) and subsidized programs like scholarships, student loans, and farm subsidies and grants.

  2. Kent,

    Instead of the plural “we,” could you make it singular? This way, it becomes actionable based on your learning, with no need to wait for others. With a plural “we,” it sounds more academic and suggests you’re thinking that others need to adopt your conclusion.

    As I’ve studied this subject, I keep coming to the conclusion that the only way that I can really help those in need is by going the distance to them. I need to know them. I need to understand their situation, the ways they understand life, their views, and their needs.

    I need to be kind to my neighbor.

  3. I see your point. But I think that your changed wording could also let people off the hook — they may think this is simply what I am doing or want to do, and not something they need to do.

  4. Yes, let’s let people off the hook. Let’s let people decide for themselves how, when, and where to do good. It works better that way, and it’s more personal (less distance, perhaps, to use Elder Renlund’s approach).

  5. Gee, ji, I don’t think that attitude is called for, given what I actually said. I didn’t say I wanted to let anyone off the hook. I DID suggest that maybe the wording you propose doesn’t do what you think it does.

    Please, give me a break and actually respond to what I say.

  6. responding to comment 1. I have served repeatedly in callings that included dealing with welfare matters, the local and federal programs that offer short and long term aid were always used . I am unaware that these program were to be rejected in looking for sources for those with need. Other priesthood and Relief Society leaders never suggested it was inappropriate to use such programs. Did I miss something in the handbook or training meeting?

  7. To Jennifer’s point, when I served as a stake employment specialist, we were encouraged to look at *all* government sources to help those who might need them — sometimes people needed assistance with procuring clothing, or childcare, etc., and that we should look at all available programs.

    I think the anti-government sentiment is a cultural thing, not something advocated by Church leaders.

  8. Let me ask — were you rejoicing in something that you learned from Elder Renlund’s talk that will help you be kinder to your neighbor, or were you using Elder Renlund’s talk as a way to get others to be kinder to their neighbors? The first is good — and my comment was to help clarify that that was your intent — but instead, it looks like the second is actually your intent. We have a different approach to charity. I prefer to let people decide for themselves how, when, and where to do good. To.me, it seems to work better that way, and it’s more personal (less distance, perhaps, to use Elder Renlund’s approach).

  9. queno,

    Old handbooks did actively discourage seeking governmental assistance. The handbooks changed in the early 90’s or late 80’s.

  10. Agreed. That’s my understanding as well.
    It’s one reason that discussions around this topic all too often feel political, like (U.S. party) Democrats vs Republicans.

  11. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints attends to the total needs of its members,” says Keith B. McMullin, who for 37 years served within the Mormon leadership and now heads a church-owned holding company, Deseret Management Corp. (DMC), an umbrella organization for many of the church’s for-profit businesses. “We look to not only the spiritual but also the temporal, and we believe that a person who is impoverished temporally cannot blossom spiritually.”

  12. I thought the context of the statement, was that it was advice he was given by a higher up GA while he was serving in Africa. So about helping the poor in Africa.

    I thought the concept was in direct opposition to the RS initiative on helping refugees.

    Your concept may have some value in the US, how do you help people starving in Africa.

  13. I appreciate the perspective that the refrigerator/camping story provides.

    “Bishops and other local leaders are often in the middle class (if not in the wealthy class), while those who most frequently need help are in poverty. This means that local leaders don’t always understand why those in need act the way they do. This cultural distance makes solving problems of poverty difficult. So again, the question needs to be asked: what should we do about this distance?”

    For starters, I’m probably one of those referred to in comment #4. But, I have an anti-big government sentiment, not anti-government sentiment. Surely the way relief to the less fortunate is administered in the US puts the maximum amount of distance between the giver and recipient. Elder Renlund’s comment encapsulates the huge problems I see (as a somewhat-informed US voter not very involved in political issues) with US government welfare programs.

    1. Government welfare requires donor participation. A taxpayer cannot choose how much to contribute and may go to jail for withholding taxes out of principle. Clearly this is NOT an example of the pure love of Christ. On the other hand, donations to Church welfare are entirely voluntary.

    2. Government welfare is heavily influenced by elected officials who sometimes attempt to use it for political advantage. Those who administer Church welfare locally did not seek the responsibility they have and are not looking to further their career by administering relief to the less fortunate.

    3. Government welfare is administered by government employees who are often more interested in clocking out at 4pm. Church welfare is administered with large amounts of volunteer labor.

    4. A bishop may be culturally removed from a recipient in his ward, but he clearly has a proximity advantage over government welfare programs formulated in Washington DC and state capitals.

    My 2 cents worth…

  14. I threw up the boogeyman of “political” so let me say that anti-big government is a lot different than anti-government and in my experience leads to fruitful conversation. Another way to say that is that I have a lot of sympathy for “the smallest and closest that works”–there are good arguments in that direction. I do not, however, have much sympathy for “ONLY the smallest and most local works.” That begs the question.

  15. Did anybody ask the family what they needed? Or did somebody just decide that a fridge was what was needed and act accordingly?

    I’ve been reading the book “White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” and your ‘distance’ idea would seem to cover much of the same territory. You can’t just decide what somebody else needs and then try to make them accept it.

  16. While I think there’s a problem that the leadership often is suburban that does of course vary quite a bit. (At least it has in the non-Utah wards I’ve attended) Where the church covers large geographic areas I think the diversity of the church is reasonably good. That’s not to say there aren’t low income vs. higher income differences, especially in terms of having the time to take on a leadership position. Just that I’m not convinced its as big a problem as you suggest. I also think the anti-welfare stance some portray is exaggerated as well – as others in the comments have noted. Even a far right winger like Pres. Benson was fine with taking church welfare for instance. My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that church welfare as a practical matter takes into account what the state offers. (Wisely I’d think, regardless of what anyone thinks of particular government policy)

    That said I do worry that especially along the wasatch front there are too many of a certain leadership role drawn from upper income members. Again, I think as a practical matter this is tied up with time commitments in the modern economy. I’m not sure the best solution to this. I also think that while it’s great to have ward boundaries fit ones local communities, this means members in Utah simply don’t encounter a very diverse membership. (Unlike members in less Mormon areas)

    To the broader political issue I tend to be sympathetic to the idea that people are fine with programs that benefit their group (however defined) while more skeptical of those that benefit others. That said I’m skeptical about the way you break it down. (If anything Mormons seem more inclined to be deeply skeptical of farm subsidies and other corporate grants) It’s not that I necessarily disagree with your claims, but rather I’m skeptical we know the breakdown of what Mormons actually think on these matters.

  17. JI (2.2) As a practical matter isn’t that already the case? While people may judge others in terms of obvious things they see, by and large it’s nearly impossible to know what service people are offering or how they are spending their money. I don’t know what my neighbors are paying in tithing or fast offerings. At best I know when someone offers a hand when I’m doing something.

    While the Church can call us to repentance in a general way, ultimately they expect us to listen and respond. Beyond the occasional quorum service project or call to come to the cannery, does the Church offer much by way of structure for service? (Other than callings of course)

  18. Not to state the obvious, but I think liberals often forget that the GOP is a set of coalitions with people in the varying groups having quite different views. Hopefully the surprise of Trump lets them know there’s more diversity than the caricatures of conservatives they make.

    Even among conservatives there’s quite a bit of variance from those who are more libertarian with a desire for very minimal government to those who see more of a role (either in funding or in regulation). Typically conservatives differ from libertarians in seeing a role for government in many places.

    My own view is that I think we’d do much better simply either block granting programs for the poor to the states with few strings attached or better yet by simply giving it directly to the poor in some way.

    The idea of “anti-government” seems worse than a caricature unless one is already talking of a more radical group like the Bundys. Both liberals and conservatives are fond of pointing out government abuse when it fits their worldview. (Say reckless interventionism in foreign nations for a certain class of liberal who undoubtedly will be consistent in such criticisms when applied to Obama or HRC as they did Bush)

  19. + 1. I would add that the anti-government sentiment is much stronger among LDS conservatives when a democrat is in power.

  20. While your points about government welfare are valid, there are plenty of potential flaws in voluntary welfare systems. 1) They often lack donor and volunteer regularity. 2) They often don’t have the means to research poverty problems on a systemic level and actually rely on government-assembled statistics to figure out how to organize effective charities. 3) They often lack accountability. Many are run as scams. 4) Many pursue their own social and political agendas. 5) Some people have good intentions but are painfully ignorant of the problems at hand.

    A coordinated combination of government and private voluntary systems of welfare seems ideal.

  21. #1. If only a system of volunteer charity worked that would be great. But even as the compassionate service leader in my ward I encountered people happy to help the new young mothers but not so much the “down and outers.” A taxpayer can choose how he/she feels about his taxes being used for welfare purposes. (Frankly I would rather my taxes go for foodstamps than bombs).

    #2. The most reliable voters are retirees/elderly.

    #3. Sweeping generalization/judgement there.

    #4. Some programs are state administered.

    Another observation: the church collects tithing from those on govt aid.

  22. Clark, I think you are jumping a bit beyond what I am talking about. I don’t mean to suggest that the Church needs to take some kind of restructuring or policy change to limit the effects of the cultural differences among classes (although I will admit that there may be things the Church could do). Instead, I’m simply bringing up the existence of these differences and, if anything, hoping that church members might change their personal behavior as a result.

  23. FWIW, I don’t think the problem is really rejecting the government programs that exist, but simple ignorance of anything but the most superficial understanding of the programs and what they do.

    In the Ward where I attend, there are welfare specialists who are social workers–precisely because most of the Ward don’t know about programs like “section 8”, “heap”, “snap”, “tanf”, “scrie”, “drie” & etc.

    It seems like most middle-class members haven’t had to apply for any of these programs, so they don’t know even how to apply for them…

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