Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.
One of the distinguishing features of the LDS system is the highly structured, highly organized and extremely efficient nature of the organization. Bishop storehouses, for example, exist throughout the world, and they serve as a repository of goods that are accumulated through fast offerings and offerings of members of the church that are made available to bishops to distribute on a case-by-case basis according to the needs that he's aware of at the individual level. ...
When it's brought to his attention through the home teachers or through the Relief Society president [that] there is a case of need or destitution within the church, then the Relief Society is charged with visiting the home of that individual, assessing the needs, filling out the welfare order, which is then submitted to the bishop, who approves it. Then an actual order is passed on to a bishop storehouse, where those goods, those foodstuffs and materials that are required, are delivered to that individual, so that at every level there's supervision, there's accountability, and there is that close interaction between the bishop and the individual members of his ward that occurs throughout every ward, at every area within the church. ...
Can you talk about the remarkable efficiency with which Mormon relief efforts operate?
The efficiency of the Mormon welfare apparatus is really legendary. As early as the beginnings of the 20th century, an American writer said, "The Mormon Church operates with the efficiency of the German Weirmacht." This efficiency is seen at its best in moments of natural disasters such as the Teton Dam disaster of 1976 when over a billion dollars' worth of damage occurred, and almost overnight almost 35,000, 45,000 Latter-day Saints were marshaled into forces and deployed to make order out of chaos and provide emergency relief.
When Hurricane Andrew struck [in Miami-Dade County] in 2002, the stories went around that the Mormon relief trucks were on the way to Florida before the hurricane had even made landfall. In the Hurricane Katrina of 2005 we know that once again the trucks were there before the National Guard was even allowing relief through. So the response is incredibly fast, incredibly efficient.
In recent years especially, those relief efforts have been extended to not just members of the church, but anybody who's in the midst of a disaster or crisis. In the past 20 years alone, the church has responded to over 150 major humanitarian crises around the world. They have provided relief and funds in locations as disparate as Kosovo, North Korea, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. There's hardly a place on the earth where they haven't been seen, providing relief and assistance, and it's often through other, more established channels, like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army, but very often, as was the case in Africa, renting their own helicopters to speed relief to areas that were remote and hard to reach. ...
Greg Prince is the author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and a book on the Mormon priesthood.
There is an infrastructure in the church already in place that can respond instantaneously when needed. Each family in the church is assigned to what is called a home teacher, whose responsibility it is to visit once a month. But that organization, already being in place, can be mobilized literally within minutes to respond to whatever the situation is, including a natural disaster. When [Hurricane] Katrina hit, it only took moments, once a decision was made to render assistance, for that message to travel down the chain that was already established for other purposes and mobilize those members and even mobilize the young missionaries in those areas to redirect their efforts and suddenly immerse themselves totally in disaster relief. ... They put on the Levi's and the T-shirts, they go out, and they're engaged in hurricane relief. That has been replicated time after time after time, not only in the United States, but throughout the world when natural disasters strike.
... My bias is, that's the way missionary work should be accomplished. Don't tell me what you are; show me. And when these young men and women get mobilized, albeit in the form of a disastrous event, that's when the face of the church is both most visible and most benign.
Ken Verdoia is a Utah historian and has made several documentaries about the Mormons.
Let me give you an analogy: My father was a young man during the Great Depression, and to his dying day he squeezed a nickel to make the figure on it squeal in pain. He knew the value of a dollar because of his experience as a young boy when the times were very, very lean. I think the same is true of the LDS Church, which survived some extraordinarily dark days financially, where they were scraping to get by, where they couldn't even pay their own workers in money but they had to pay them in food stores from the bishop's warehouse. Those lessons inform and grace everything that came subsequently in terms of financial management. ...
I've been extremely interested about the welfare system that's been set up. ...
It was born of survival. It was born of the darkest days early in the territory, where drought or pestilence would visit the agricultural crops and they would have the bishop's storehouse for the poor. ... That evolves over time, and it reaches really a peak of sophistication during the 1930s, during the Depression. Representatives of the federal government actually come to the LDS Church to study how the LDS Church goes about delivering food to the people that are hungry in its membership, delivering clothes. ... It's an issue that all societies struggle with, and we're still struggling with, but the LDS Church is organized from the top all the way down to the individual member -- on the neighborhood, on the city-block level -- and there is an ability to respond to need, whether it's hunger or food or meeting a mortgage payment, that is truly amazing for the member in good standing.