Part 2 in a series on Malnutrition in the Modern Church
Learn about the work of the Liahona Children’s Foundation at a free HUNGER BANQUET, Monday, September 29, 2014, 6:30 – 8:00 PM at Utah Valley Convention Center, Provo, UT. For more information go to https://www.liahonachildren.org and click on Hunger Banquet
I was born during what today is known as the Great Depression. It took years of hard work and sacrifice for my parents to overcome the financial and social devastation caused by the Depression. I can remember times when we didn’t have enough food on the table or money to buy anything beyond our most basic needs.
I often think of my childhood when I visit Latter-day Saint congregations in the developing world where conditions are similar to those I remember. This spring and summer I travelled, respectively, to the Philippines and Colombia to join with colleagues to continue the work of the Liahona Children’s Foundation, a non-profit organization, operated by Latter-day Saints to end malnutrition and to support elementary education among the poorest Latter-day Saint children and their friends. In both countries we encountered conditions similar to those experienced by Americans during the 1930s and early 1940s.
The response of the Church to the Great Depression was the Welfare System, one of the most progressive responses to poverty in the nation’s history. Established in 1936 under the direction of the First Presidency, it was based on the twin principles of service and self-reliance. The spirit of the Welfare system is reflected in the words of Presiding Bishop, David Burton, “The work of caring for one another and being ‘kind to the poor’ is a sanctifying work, commanded of the Father.” It is this spirit that guides the work of the Liahona Children’s Foundation and was evident in our work in Colombia this summer.
On July 13th, my grandson, Emmett Rees, and I flew from Los Angeles to Bogotá and then the next day on to Popayan where our work for the Foundation was to begin. We were joined by a BYU student volunteer, Sean McClellan, and two of our coordinators from Peru, Lynn Léon and Diana Guevara. Sean had spent several months volunteering for the Foundation in Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala and Ecuador and Lynn and Diana had previously screened children in Ipiales, a city on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border, so we had a very experienced team. It became even more so the next day when Luz Londoňo, the Foundation’s coordinator from Piura, Peru, joined us.
Following the screening in Popayan, we drove to a stake just north of Cali. Cali, known as “the City of Fiestas,” is one of two cities (the other being Bogotá) in Colombia where the Church was first established in 1966. We were welcomed by local leaders and missionaries who joined in helping us with the screenings.
Emmett, Bob and Rowens weighing and measuring children
Malnutrition varies from city to city and region to region, depending on a number of factors. In Ipiales, over a third of the children screened (11 out of 27) were malnourished whereas in Popayan, over half (77 of 134) fell below the standards set by the World Health Organization.
Occasionally, as I reported in my article in July, we meet children who are so severely malnourished it is evident from the moment we see them. This was the case with Samantha, a little girl who was part of our screening in Palmira, a city to the Northeast of Cali. Of the more than fifty children we screened that day, she was the one we all noticed immediately. Not only was she severely under-weight and stunted, but it was clear that she had suffered more serious effects from malnutrition. When we interviewed her mother, we were told that when she was pregnant with her daughter, she had had severe food insecurity herself, sometimes going days without eating. While the mother has recovered, the child clearly has not. Unlike other children, during the screening she showed no emotion. It was a graphic demonstration of the cost of not addressing malnutrition as early as possible. To see it face-to-face is sobering. We gave the bishop some money to provide immediate help for this little girl.
Wherever we do our work, we find that parents are concerned about the health of their children. While they are aware of food insecurity in their homes, it is often stressful for them to discover that their own child is malnourished, although the converse is also true: some mothers seem disappointed to discover that their child doesn’t qualify for the program, probably because they are aware of the scarcity of food in the home and are hoping for some help. During one screening, a mother wept when her child did not qualify since she felt the child was not of normal height and weight. When we realized the child had a wet diaper, we re-weighed her and discovered that she was indeed malnourished.
After finishing the screening in Cali, the next day we took a nine-hour bus trip to Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia where we had arranged to do several screenings in the Medellin Stake. In each stake in which we do our work, in consultation with the stake/district president, we identify a sister whom we can engage to serve as a coordinator for the Foundation. The coordinator’s essential task is to help the Foundation identify a source of nutrition supplements within the country which the Foundation can purchase and which she can then deliver to the parents of children identified through the screenings as suffering from malnutrition.
Coordinators are also responsible for coordinating their activities with local leaders, screening the children of new converts and conducting periodic follow-up screenings.
Following sacrament meeting the Sunday after our arrival in Medellin, we met stake and ward leaders with whom we had arranged to conduct screenings and also met one of the newly-selected coordinators for Medellin Stake, Gumercinda Tresplacios. Sister Tresplacios, a pediatric nurse who teaches at the university, had just gotten back in the middle of the night from a twelve-hour bus ride from the temple in Bogotá and was very tired but absolutely bright and energetic. She was able to observe our first screening that day.
In the afternoon, we went to the stake center to conduct another screening where we met Eduardo Pastrana, a doctor former stake president, who told us of a region northwest of Medellin where there is a very high level of malnutrition. It is in a “red zone” meaning it is very dangerous due to criminal gangs who live in the nearby forests. The Mormon population there consists of two small branches of Afro-Colombianos, descendants of slaves brought over centuries earlier. They have no chapels and so meet in “house churches.” Our schedule didn’t permit us to visit these branches, but Dr. Pastrana and his daughter plan to visit them.
Dr. Pastrana, has been working at the behest of the mission president to set up a malnutrition program in this region and so was very interested in our work and hopeful that we could find ways of working together. We spent well over an hour with him trying to understand the resources for addressing malnutrition in Colombia. He said the government has a program and in fact manufactures a product to address malnutrition, but said it was plagued by problems including corruption (some of those who are charged with distributing the supplement for free end up charging for it) and waste (apparently some of the material does not get to the children in need and so sits unused and has to be destroyed—or sold past its expiration date). Nevertheless, without the Colombian program, as inefficient as it apparently is, many children would be far worse off than they are. Dr. Pastrana will continue to be a good resource for the Foundation’s work in Colombia.
Violence in Colombia
Although historically Colombia has had a notorious reputation due to the powerful drug cartels which operated there, it is much less so today thanks to the investment of billions of dollars by both the Colombian and U.S. governments to counter the cartels. Many families have been affected by the violence from gangs and the illicit drug culture. Luz, our Ecuadorian coordinator who is from Medellin, has been robbed a couple of times at knifepoint and one of our coordinators was repeatedly stabbed in a robbery. Luz lost two brothers to violence. One, a member of a drug gang was shot and killed by the police and another at age twelve was abducted, tortured and murdered in a satanic-like killing. I asked Luz’s mother how she dealt with such tragedies. She replied, “When my older son was killed, I was in deep despair and then it was terrible losing my younger son, but when I joined the Church, I understood for the first time that I would see my sons again in the next life, and that has given me great hope and joy.”
“The poor you have always with you.”
“Are we not all beggars?” asks King Benjamin. One of the most difficult challenges in the developing world, including in Colombia, is encountering people who either beg or who are so destitute-looking that one has an instinctive response to help. Right after arriving in Medellin, we passed a woman, obviously an indigenous Indian, sitting on the sidewalk with a baby in her arms. Both mother and child were dirty and obviously very poor. We gave her some money and then Luz informed us that such people often are tied to gangs who take a percentage of the money they get from begging. My feeling is that even if such families only get part of what people give them, that’s better than nothing (although I know not everyone would agree with my sentiments). Seeing the family below, I asked permission to photograph them before giving them some money.
Many beggars come up to us on the street, or, worse, when we are sitting at an open street cafe. Some are so thin they look like refugees from Aushwitz or Buchenwald. As in many countries, thousands sleep under the bridges or any place they can find shelter. How to respond is one of the moral dilemmas one faces, especially in the developing world. One evening as we ate a hearty meal at a sidewalk café, an obviously emaciated young man asked us for something to eat. We took part of what we were eating and gave it to him. I keep thinking about him, about the blind man in front of the museum from whom we bought some peanuts, and all of the other people who could be, as Mother Teresa called them, “Jesus in disguise.” Somewhere between always responding to such people and never doing so is a balance to be struck. That the line is difficult to draw shouldn’t prevent us from drawing it somewhere.
The Church’s website on humanitarian services makes our responsilility clear: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strive to follow the Savior’s admonition to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. The Savior also taught that we are to love and care for each other and visit the fatherless and the widow in their afflictions.” Contrary to what some believe, that injunction encompasses our fellow members as well as those beyond the borders of the Church.
This moral dilemma is at the heart of King Benjamin’s sermon. President Gordon B. Hinckley, speaking to a large gathering of saints in Managua, Nicaragua, who had survived a devastating hurricane that claimed more than 11,000 lives, promised, “As long as the Church has resources, we will not let you go hungry or without clothing or without shelter. We shall do all that we can to assist in the way that the Lord has designated that it should be done.”
Liahona Team: Sean, Gumercinda, Bob, Diana, Lyn, Emmett, and Luz
We conducted our last screening in the Medellin Stake on July 23. The children in this ward were obviously less well off than the one we screened on Sunday.
Of the forty-three children we evaluated, a third were malnourished, including three children from Luz’s own extended family. The screening gave us an opportunity to train our newest coordinator, Gumercinda, who actually needed nothing more than an introduction to our protocol.
Emmett and I said goodbye to Colombia, flying from Medellin to Bogota, on to Mexico City and further on to Los Angeles. There is still much work for the Foundation to do in Colombia. Nevertheless, it has been an interesting and productive trip. Working with these sweet children and their faithful parents and leaders is immensely rewarding and inspiring.
“There is always a Great Depression happening somewhere on earth.”
During the Great Depression, President J. Reuben Clark stated that the Welfare Program was the result of a revelation to President Grant Heber J. Grant and that the Church was fully committed to it. As Presiding Bishop David Burton reported in his 2011 general conference address: “The commitment of Church leaders to relieve human suffering was as certain as it was irrevocable.
President Grant wanted ‘a system that would . . . reach out and take care of the people no matter what the cost.’ He said he would even go so far as to ‘close the seminaries, shut down missionary work for a period of time, or even close the temples, but they would not let the people go hungry.” Bishop Burton underscored this by saying, “No matter how many temples we build, no matter how large our membership grows, no matter how positively we are perceived in the eyes of the world—should we fail in this great core commandment to ‘succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees,’ or turn our hearts from those who suffer and mourn, we are under condemnation and cannot please the Lord.”
This remains one of the most important challenges for the institutional Church and for all its members and one the Liahona Children’s Foundation is dedicated to addressing.
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Attend a “HUNGER BANQUET” sponsored by the Liahona Children’s Foundation: Monday, September 29, 2014, Utah Valley Convention Center, 220 W. Center Street, Provo, UT 6:30 – 8:00 PM. Guest speaker is a general authority from an area in the Developing World. Special musical performance by John Canaan. For more information click on “Hunger Banquet” at https://www.liahonachildren.org ;
Sunday, October 5, Liahona Children’s Foundation fireside, 6:30 p.m. 753 East 200 South, #3 BARN Salt Lake City, UT 84102
Those wishing to support the work of the Liahona Children’s Foundation can do so by:
Making a donation at: https://www.liahonachildren.org . The Foundation depends on the generous contributions of individuals who share its concern for these vulnerable children. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes just one individual contributing at least $50 to rescue one malnourished child for an entire year.
Adopting a Stake. Get your ward,/stake, your family or a group of friends to adopt a stake in the developing world. For just $5,000 a year, a family, group or ward/stake can provide all the nutrition supplements for all the malnourished children in a stake in the Philippines, South America, Central America, Africa, or Asia.
Serving as an intern volunteer: Liahona has nutria-tours whereby individuals, couples and families can volunteer to participate in our work. There are literally hundreds of stakes in the developing world left to screen, stakes in which many children are malnourished. Check our website for volunteer opportunities or upcoming nutria-tour events
 April 2011 General Conference address, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2011/04/
 “President Hinckley Visits Hurricane Mitch Victims and Mid-Atlantic United States,” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 74.