Between March 26 and April 2, Latter-day Saints (also known as "Mormons") gathered in Salt Lake City and in churches around the world to watch General Conference. General Conference is a time when Mormons hear council and direction from their leaders. On Sunday, April 3, I was watching Conference with my family in Florida when Elder Patrick Kearon, a high-ranking leader within the LDS Church, spoke about the current refugee crisis in Europe. What he said moved me to tears and compelled me to write this article.
"There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today," said Elder Kearon. "Which means that 1 in every 122 humans has been forced to flee their homes and half of these are children."
While Elder Kearon recognized that there are "highly-charged arguments in governments and across society regarding [the refugee crisis]" he emphasized that his comments were "not intended, in any way, to form part of that heated discussion, nor to comment on anyone's immigration policy." Instead, Elder Kearon wanted to "focus on the people who have been driven from their homes and their countries by wars that they had no hand in starting."
Elder Kearon then went on to enumerate some of the many ways in which the LDS Church has responded to the refugee crisis. Indeed, the LDS Church has not been blind to this crisis. For months, the Church--based in the United States--has been working with over 70 organizations in 17 European countries. In November of last year, the LDS Church made a sizable contribution to immediately help displaced families and then donated an additional $5 million in February of this year.
Elder Kearon went on to say "It's been inspiring to witness what Church members from around the world have generously donated to help these individuals and families who have lost so much. Across Europe, specifically, I've seen members of the Church who have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul as they have responded to that deep, innate desire to reach out and serve those in such extreme need around them."
Elder Kearon's report on the Church's contributions were not boastful. In fact, it felt less like a report and more like a humble call to action. There is so much more that we can do to help those who are struggling. And as I listened Elder Kearon speak, the refugee crisis began to feel deeply personal to me. You see, Mormons have a long history of being refugees. "[The story of the refugees] is our story--not that many years ago," said Elder Kearon.
But perhaps one of the poignant moments of Conference was what happened after Elder Kearon spoke--when President Uchtdorf, a member of the First Presidency (the highest governing body of the Church), stood up to further conduct the meeting.
First, you have to understand that Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a native of Germany, was once a refugee himself. When President Uchtdorf was a boy, his father was labeled as a "dissenter" in Soviet-occupied East Germany, and their family fled to the U.S. occupied West Germany. Dieter and his mother even climbed a mountain to avoid being detected by the Soviets.
When Elder Kearon finished his remarks President Uchtdorf stood up to announce a musical number and additional speakers--but his voice was laden with emotion. It took him a while for him to get through what he wanted to to say. Now, I don't pretend to know what was going through President Uchtdorf's mind. But after hearing Elder Kearon's talk and knowing something of President Uchtdorf's story, I had a chain reaction of thoughts.
President Uchtdorf, a beloved leader in my Church, was a refugee. Mormons were refugees. Americans, in large measure, were refugees. Are we not all, in some way, refugees--people in search of hope, help, and a belonging place?
In his talk, Elder Kearon made this remarkable observation:
"The Savior knows how it feels to be a refugee--he was one. As a child, Jesus and his family fled to Egypt to escape the murderous swords of Herod and at various points in his ministry, he found himself threatened and his life in danger, ultimately submitting to the designs of evil men who had plotted his death. Perhaps then, it is all the more remarkable to us that he repeatedly taught us to love one another, to love as he loves, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Truly, pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to look to the poor and the needy and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer."
If you are looking for ways in which you can help refugees, please check out I Was A Stranger, a new website created by the LDS Church in response to the refugee crisis. If you scroll down, you'll find a host of resources you can use and ways in which you can get involved.
I'd also recommend downloading Serve Refugees. Serve Refugees is an incredible app that allows users to team up with various organizations and make a direct and immediate difference in the lives of refugees.