To make our communities -- and world -- better, safer, more loving places

This is an approximate transcription of a talk I gave in church today at the Memorial Park 1st ward in Houston, Texas.

 I posed after I gave a talk in church. Full image at the end of the post.

I posed after I gave a talk in church. Full image at the end of the post.

My wife Katie and I met on Facebook in 2015. At the time, she lived in Alberta, Canada, and I lived in Provo, Utah. She was working as a social worker, and I was working first as a teacher and then as an entertainment reporter at the local newspaper there in Provo.

She eventually moved to Utah and we continued to date, and then on Canada Day in 2016, which is July 1, we got engaged. And then a few months later in October 2016 we got married.

We were living in Provo, and then last year, we got a call from my wife's sister who lives here in the Houston area, and she wanted to get another apartment for her teenage son, our nephew, so that he could transfer schools. So she called us up -- Katie had gotten into grad school in New York City, so she knew we were going to be going to New York City, but we had a year in between because Katie is Canadian and she was working on her immigration papers -- so we had this amount of time before we were going to be moving, and my sister-in-law called us up and said, 'How would you like to move to Houston and live with Carson for a year, so he's not alone in that apartment?'

And at first we thought, 'That's a wild idea,' but then we thought, 'Let's be wild!' So we decided to do that. We quit our jobs, and we packed up, and after we did all of that, we were looking at the weather report, and discovered it was raining a lot in Houston -- and then it was raining a lot in Houston, and then my sister-in-law's family was flooded out of their house, so they ended up moving into the apartment where we were going to live, but by this time, we had already made up our minds to come, so we decided to come anyway.

It's been an interesting year, or not quite a year, but it's been an interesting time, because we've been kind of living from place to place. We were in an Airbnb for a while, we were in different people's houses, and now, in a few weeks, we're going to finally be going to New York and having some stability again, but it's been an interesting year.

One thing that has been hard for me during this time is not having a really stable sense of community. I have felt displaced at times, and so this experience has really renewed my testimony of the importance of being part of a community, because I've kind of felt the lack of it, and that's kind of what I'm going to be talking about today.

Community: a 'complex connection'

I want to share a couple quotes from a poet named Wendell Berry, who's also a farmer and somebody I like a lot. He said this:

A proper community … is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members -- among them the need to need one another.

He also wrote at another time:

A healthy community is a form that includes all the local things that are connected by the larger, ultimately mysterious form of the Creation. In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland but also between human economy and nature, between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.

I really like that idea, thinking about the communities that we live in -- not just among humans, but just the broader community that we're a part of in nature.

The talk that I was asked to base my talk on is called "The Needs Before Us." It's by Bonnie L. Oscarson, who, when she gave this talk, was the Young Women general president. This was in October 2017. 

She starts the talk by talking recent natural disasters around the world including Hurricane Harvey, which had been very recent when she gave her talk. And then she shifts to talking about how we can serve within our own communities. She said: 

Today I want to mention an aspect of service that I feel is important for all -- no matter where we are located. For those of us who have watched news of recent events and have felt helpless to know what to do, the answer might actually be right before us.

One of the things she talks about in her talk is how we can go to church with an attitude of servce toward the people with whom we will worship. She said: 

A(n) area of focus for our service can be in our ward families. Occasionally our children would ask us the question, 'Why do I have to go to Mutual? I just don’t get very much out of it.' If I was having a good parenting moment, I would reply, 'What makes you think you go to Mutual because of what you get out of it?' My young friends, I can guarantee that there will always be someone at every Church meeting you attend who is lonely, who is going through challenges and needs a friend, or who feels like he or she doesn’t belong. You have something important to contribute to every meeting or activity, and the Lord desires for you to look around at your peers and then minister as he would. 

She was dropping the word "minister" before it became official.

She also quoted President Spencer W. Kimball who said, “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.”

'Think globally, act locally'

This talk reminded me of the phase, "Think globally, act locally," which happens to be something I have on a bumper sticker on my car. Sister Oscarson talked a lot about that idea. She said:

I also think that sometimes it’s easy to miss some of the greatest opportunities to serve others because we are distracted or because we are looking for ambitious ways to change the world and we don’t see that some of the most significant needs we can meet are within our own families, among our friends, in our wards, and in our communities. We are touched when we see the suffering and great needs of those halfway around the world, but we may fail to see there is a person who needs our friendship sitting right next to us in class.

This is a pretty interesting and complex idea.

Quoting again from Wendell Berry, the poet, he said something similar:

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question, 'What will this do to our community?' tends toward the right answer for the world.

So it's a really interesting idea to me that Sister Oscarson and Wendell Berry are getting at here. Acting locally and being aware of the needs of those immediately around us doesn't mean that we stop thinking about the broader, global questions and problems that are happening around the world. It doesn't mean that we isolate ourselves from the world's problems. Rather, it's an invitation to to refocus our efforts on the ways in which those global problems, those generalized problems, affect our local communities and our own families.

In Houston, there are a number of organizations that are concerned with local ramifications of global issues. We can join forces with some of those institutions, like Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston’s Refugee Services and Refugee Services of Texas and Human Rights First -- these are organizations that are based here in Houston. And also, our fast offerings go to local needs, so as we pay fast offerings, we're also contributing to local issues.

I was reading in the Houston Chronicle and I learned that "Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement."

I thought that was really interesting. And of course we know that Houston is a very diverse place, with people from all over.

Just yesterday, I read a news report (that was published yesterday) that an agency has signed a lease to loan a warehouse in Houston to the federal government for the housing of children that have been separated from their parents at the border.

So if we look around us, there are needs all over, right here in our homes, right here in our communities. And if we're looking and praying to see how we can notice those opportunities to help, and willing to act on those promptings, then we can really be a great help in our communities. 

Displaced from a community of faith

Sometimes, people are displaced from their communities not from natural disasters or political disasters but spiritual disasters -- personal disasters -- or a crisis of faith.

I mentioned that Katie and I met on Facebook. We actually met in a Facebook group specifically for Mormons who sometimes struggle or have questions or problems with their faith, and so I have personal experience of how even online communities can be legitimate kinds of communities to help minister to each other and offer support. (But they also can't replace in-person communities and ward communities.)

It can often be hard to minister effectively to those who have had a crisis of faith or who have struggled with doubts unless the person ministering has personally gone through those doubts themselves -- however, everybody can help. Everybody can offer genuine help to those who have suffered in different ways than they have personally.

If we lead with love, if we are always humble, and if we listen more than we speak as we're ministering to people, I think we can help everybody, even if we haven't gone through exactly what they've gone through.

And I testify that Jesus Christ has gone through everything that we have gone through, and that everybody else has gone through, and so if we can direct people to that source of ultimate comfort, then, Jesus Christ can fill in the gaps where our personal experiences with whatever problems people are having fall short.

Service without ego

Another thing from Sister Oscarson's talk that jumped out to me is about service without ego, service without doing things for the sake of being seen by other people. 

I saw a movie this week that reminded me of this talk. The movie is about Mr. Rogers. I don't know if any of you know about this, but there's a movie playing right now here in Houston that is a documentary about Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister. But he decided he would focus his efforts on this television program. And thematically appropriately enough, the program was called "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He was really focused on helping -- in his case -- children, mostly. But I love the way that he really showed what is to me genuine Christlike love for other people. He saw the value of every person and every child.

I want to read the lyrics to one of his songs, because I think this attitude is the kind of thing that I want to exemplify. The song goes like this:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

I love that song. I feel so much love when I hear that song and think of those words. And I think if we adopt that type of attitude, recognizing people wherever they are, and seeing the value that they have, no matter what they're going through, I think that will really help us in our efforts to minister to those around us.

A Father's Day example

I want to close with an example of ministering to our own communities and families with an example from the scriptures of this that also relates to Father's Day, which is today. In Luke 15, we learn of the story of the Prodigal Son. In verses 11 through 19 or so, we see the story of this father. It says, "A certain man had two sons."

One of these sons gave up all of his inheritance and opted for a short period of time of riotous living and disobedience, and then he ultimately had the consequences come of those bad choices, and he thought he was going to perish of hunger, and he lost everything, and he didn't think that he was a worthy person. Then it says, beginning in verse 20:

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to be merry. 

And then it goes on to say that his other son was a little bit jealous of this, or feeling like, "I've always been obedient, how come you're not throwing a party for me?" And it says in verse 31:

And he said unto him, 'Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.'

So to me, this is an example of a father who understood his role as a nurturer for both of his two sons.

With the second son, he knew how to communicate with him and make him feel reassured of his love. And I think it's very poignant that with the first son, when he came back, it makes a point to specify that the father was "still yet a great way off" when he went to enthusiastically greet his son and forgive him and just love him where he was. 

Finally, I'll share this quote from President Uchtdorf. This actually comes from the talk right before Sister Oscarson gave her talk in that same General Conference session. He says this:

On your journey back to Heavenly Father you will soon realize that this journey isn’t just about focusing on your own life. No, this path inevitably leads you to become a blessing in the lives of God’s other children -- your brothers and sisters. And the interesting thing about the journey is that as you serve God, and as you care for and help your fellowmen, you will see great progress in your own life, in ways you could never imagine.
Perhaps you don’t consider yourself all that useful; perhaps you don’t consider yourself a blessing in somebody’s life. Often, when we look at ourselves, we see only our limitations and deficiencies. We might think we have to be 'more' of something for God to use us -- more intelligent, more wealthy, more charismatic, more talented, more spiritual. Blessings will come not so much because of your abilities but because of your choices. And the God of the universe will work within and through you, magnifying your humble efforts for His purposes. His work has always advanced on this important principle: 'Out of small things proceedeth that which is great.'

I testify that we are each capable of looking within ourselves at the experiences and the talents and the skills that we have been given -- the spiritual gifts that we have -- to then bless the lives of others. And also, if we pray to have our minds open and our eyes open to the suffering that is immediately around us, within our own families, within our own communities and wards, I testify that the spirit will put actions in our mind that if we follow them, will not only bless our own lives, but will bless the lives of other people in ways that only we can. And I bear this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 Photo by Katie Kyle

Photo by Katie Kyle