The One I Believe In

“Lo taamod al dam réakha”: Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of fellow human beings. When Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel was asked to name the most important commandment, this was his response.

I recently finished reading Weisel’s Night with my students. I’ve taught it before, but this year has been different. Perhaps I have an especially thoughtful group of students – young adults who are compassionate and wonderfully attuned to both justice and hypocrisy. Perhaps I have finally taught for enough years to allow conversations to become what they want to be, without over-planning. In early December, I showed them the documentary Paperclips. It profiles a small middle school in rural Tennesee whose project on the Holocaust eventually transforms the town. They were riveted. The next day they asked, predictably, “Can we do a project like that?”

I teach Night, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Frederick Douglass for a clichéd yet still pressing reason: Never Again (or again or again). When I mentioned that the Holocaust was not the last genocide, some students were visibly jarred. When I noted that the situation in Darfur has been labeled genocide, they had their project. Research. Op-ed essays. Bracelets. Letters to congressional leaders. School and community education. A benefit concert in the works. I love teaching middle school.

The week we began these conversations about Darfur, the lesson in Relief Society was on Letting Our Light Shine Before The World. Sitting quietly, listening to an exhortation to “call Walmart to protest the shameful utterance of ‘Happy Holiday,’” I began to reflect on the chasm between the social activism I am drawn to and the social activism frequently advocated from the pulpit. Sometimes I have Quaker/Unitarian Universalist envy when I look at the long list of abolitionists, civil rights, and social activists who’ve graced their ranks.

While I wasn’t surprised, I was still disappointed when I reviewed the diverse membership of the Save Darfur Coalition — an alliance of over 100 faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organizations. The Baptists are on the list, sandwiched between Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Unitarians.

No “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

Why? What harm could come from formally lending our name to protest crimes against humanity? On Larry King a couple of years ago, President Hinckley noted, “The church does not become involved in politics” but “we speak very strongly on moral issues” — e.g.: Gambling. Same-sex marraige. Liquor laws.

But wasn’t genocide the moral failure of the twentieth century? (At some point I’ll post a review of Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.)

To be fair, the church hasn’t been entirely silent on the suffering in Darfur. Hinckley mentioned it briefly in the last conference. The complete statement was: “Man’s inhumanity to man expressed in past and present conflict has and continues to bring unspeakable suffering. In the Darfur region of Sudan, tens of thousands** have been killed and well over a million have been left homeless.” However, this short statement was in the context of personal preparation in the last days and transitioned into a discussion of food storage. (LDS blogs have proliferated discussions of gay marriage and p*rnography, but have given scant mention to the first genocide of the twenty-first century. Kudos, though, to Kaimi for writing a post in 2004 and again in 2005 on the crisis).

I guess I am left wondering about which battles we pick and why — personally and as a church. At some level, I am a fan of those who become socially and politically engaged to any degree – even when it is for causes I do not support. I love the scene in Biloxi Blues when Arnold Epstein chastises his friend: “You’re a witness. You’re always standing around watching what’s happening, scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight. Any fight. The one you believe in.

However, as someday “saint,” I keep returning Elie Weisel’s comments on Darfur:

“Sudan has become today’s world capital of human pain, suffering and agony . . . How can a citizen of a free country not pay attention? How can anyone, anywhere not feel outraged? How can a person, whether religious or secular, not be moved by compassion? And above all, how can anyone who remembers remain silent? . . . Should the Sudanese victims feel abandoned and neglected, it would be our fault – and perhaps our guilt.”

Some battles feel more pressing than others.

**Note: More accurately hundreds of thousands have been killed. Current estimates run about 400,000, with the death toll exceeding 10,000 a month – 70% children. These numbers do not reflect systematic rape of women. If war breaks out between Chad and Sudan, the death toll will increase dramatically. For a personal face to the crisis, I highly recommend reading Nicholas Kristoff’s columns in the New York Times (if you don’t have a subscription, google his name with Darfur and you’ll find plenty to read). Also, consider taking a few minutes to send a postcard.


Deborah is K-12 educator who nurtures a healthy interest in reading, writing, running, ethics, mystics, and interfaith dialogue.

You may also like...

No Responses

  1. Rebecca says:

    I too wonder why we aren’t more involved with situations like Darfur, which is so obviously wrong. Action is what’s needed, and I wish the Church would get more involved with things like the coalition you mentioned. I guess it’s up to us a members to do so.

  2. sarah says:

    I agree! I’ve started attending the UU church, as I got too fed up with the lack of social activism and seeming lack of care about the plight of members of our world community who aren’t members of our church. I know the church does a lot of good, it just doesn’t feel like we care — as a collective group — all that much about making the world a better, safer place, unless it involves converting people. I hope to see some changes in the church and perhaps to someday see groups like the RS actively take on larger world issues, such as the plight of women in the majority of the world, domestic violence, sexual abuse. And I’d love to see the church more involved with social activism — other than campaigning against same-sex marriage (which IS politics, no matter what they say). I love our church, but I’m growing increasingly frustrated and wish that we would stand up for helping the helpless in Dafur and other areas of the world.

  3. Caroline says:

    Your post strikes a real cord with me. I particularly have Quaker envy, since they have such a rich history of always being on the forefront of great social movements, like civil rights and women’s rights. I love the fact that Alice Paul, the leading suffragist activist in the early 20th century, was a Quaker.

    Like Sarah, I also attended a liberal Christian church for a few months whose focus was on social activism and just peace. It was so refreshing to hear sermon after sermon on Jesus’ life hearkening back to these themes!

    I also scratch my head in wonder and disbelief that the church doesn’t more actively deal with situations like Darfur. How inspiring and wonderful if our leaders asked us to somehow get involved, write letters, send supplies, do anything to help and protest horrible situations like this genocide in Africa.

    One thing I am encouraged by is the new Enrichment format. Now that we’re not all forced to meet together monthly to do things most of us aren’t interested in doing, we have the freedom to form little special interest groups. I’m hoping to start a humanitarian group that will raise awareness of situations like Darfur as well as get out into the community to serve others. Jana is interested in starting a social justice book/discussion group, which I think might also lead to some great service opportunities.

    I’m hoping that if we show locally that we’re interested in becoming involved in such humanitarian crises, church leaders will eventually notice and make it a bigger part of their agenda.

  4. Deborah says:

    Sarah: Thanks for stopping by 🙂 I love the cluttered front table at the local Unitarian church in my town — filled with sign-ups local (meals for congregational families in need), regional (fair-housing issues at a town meeting, food bank staffing, grass-roots organizing), and global (Darfur, domestic violence, etc). I also love the sign-ups in Relief Society — feeding missionaries and meals for new mothers fill real needs; but these are insular needs. Embracing one does not negate the possibility of the other.

    Caroline: That is a fabulous, practical idea. I’ve starting multiple clubs like that at schools I have taught at, but haven’t found a way to integrate social activism into my formal spiritual life. This new format could be ideal for such a group. My ward has already created a group for quilting, sewing, card-making, and scripture study — why not a local or global cause that could use some powerful help from LDS women?

    I’d love to hear people’s stories about such service — and would love to work up some posts highlighting LDS women who are making a difference world-wide (Carol Grey comes to mind — the UK Relief Society president who sold her car to buy a truck to drive donated goods to war-torn Bosnia — several times over).

  5. Rebecca says:

    A post I wrote on FMH last was entitled “What Relief”, which vented my frustration that the RS so often does not help in the community and stays insular. I made the effort to have a weekly collection of hygiene products (after much effort to convince the RS Pres we needed to do more service). We then distributed them to a homeless charity and to a battered women’s shelter. It took little effort, but gave an opportunity to serve those outside of our membership records who are really in need of help.

  6. Deborah says:


    I just looked up that post — thanks for the tip. I particularly like the quote from Emma Smith from the first RS meeting, “Each member should be ambitious to do good.” (Partly because “ambitious” is too often used as a pejorative in our culture :).

  7. jana says:

    In our community Public Affairs does a great deal of service–both locally and for items to go abroad. However, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get the individual members involved in such service, though we are currently brainstorming ways to do so.

    Last night I attended a very informative event about a Muslim-run charity that is delivering relief to Pakistan. The LDS Church and LDS private charities have had a big hand in this work. I wonder if much more is actually being done than we realize (the church always doesn’t ‘toot’ its own horn).

    But we as LDS have so much more that we should/could be doing!! We can’t just pay our tithing and FO and consider our job(s) done.

  8. Deborah says:


    Sounds like an interesting calling — I’d love to hear more. I respect church’s humanitarian relief arm, and I know they provide extensive supplies world-wide (though we don’t tend to hear much about it). I guess I feel like service and activism is two-pronged — to help others and to change ourselves in the process.

    For example, I used to run a community service program with 8th graders. They had to pick a project they cared about and that filled a need. Money collections were not allowed. Why? It is very easy for parents to write a check without the students ever understanding with the issue or their role in meeting a need — it creates a disconnect. They wouldn’t gain a sense of their own POWER to make a dent in the world. If we rely on writing checks (which is a GOOD thing) to LDS Humanitarian Services and then return to “tending our own,” we’ve lost something. This post is giving me extra motivation, though. I think I’d feel more connected to Relief Socity if I felt like it was a world-wide “relief” organization. Emma gave us quite a name to live up to. Maybe I’ll wear my “Save Darfur” to church next week and see who approaches me . . .

  9. Dora says:

    Deborah ~ what an amazing piece. I love that you are teaching your students not only about world events, but how their actions can make a positive difference. I think that too many people become complacent against causes because they think that one person can’t make a difference.

    We have an ever-expanding resonsibility to love our neighbor, on a personal, communal, regional and global basis. I think that individual LDS members do a decent job on the ward level, but leave it at that. Some venture into the community and regional efforts, but I see that as mostly a personal decision that doesn’t generally get the church membership at large involved. I’m also comforted to know that the church organization does more than is generally acknowledged. I’m glad that people get involved at any one point along the continuum, but also hope for more.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    one of my friends introduced me to Mormons for Equality and Social Justice (–it seems that a lot of other Mormons share our concerns about being more of a force for good in the world.

  11. Mike says:

    I think one tricky thing about the Church taking political stances is that Church members will disagree as to what cases merit public involvement. You might want the Church to fight your causes but will feel uncomfortable if it fights the causes of someone else with a different political perspective. People leave the Church when it supports a cause they dislike, so I think that avoiding direct involvement is a way to avoid internal dissension.

    Personally, I think the Church’s ultimate purpose is religious and not directly humanitarian (in the sense of aid ) or political. I think it should keep that focus while continuing to support other humanitarian groups since those other groups are and will be better at it. If it became too political, it would then be under the control of one political ideology or another, and that would kill it.

    I also think giving cash to the humanitarian fund is underrated even if it is impersonal. Much of those funds are given to other international organizations (eg, Red Cross) to distribute, and these other groups often prefer cold, hard cash to other goods (blankets, food, etc) for practical purposes.

    Of course, I’m not saying to ignore other ways to get involved personally. Actually, the opposite might be the best advice in terms of getting the whole Church involved. Just about every major program in the Church started first via local innovation, and when it was seen to be successful the Church adopted it Church-wide. Instead of waiting for top-down dictates, local units could innovate new humanitarian methods which could later be adopted generally.

  12. Deborah says:

    Good comments. Mike wrote:

    “You might want the Church to fight your causes but will feel uncomfortable if it fights the causes of someone else with a different political perspective. People leave the Church when it supports a cause they dislike, so I think that avoiding direct involvement is a way to avoid internal dissension.”

    That’s exactly the rub. The church _does_ get involved in causes — and this often does lead to some degree of dissent or dismay (think Prop 22). Yet Darfur seems benign (politically) but absolutely and uncontroversially morally pressing — leading almost every major church/temple/mosque in America to issue statements. So I go back to the question in my original post. What battles do we choose to fight and why?

    As you point out [and as Caroline has taken on — go girl!] it is probably my responsibility to find ways to integrate faith and humanitarian work at a grass-roots level.

  13. Deborah says:

    Emily — I had never seen that site or heard of the group. Very interesting indeed. Thanks!

  14. nancy says:

    I think many people care but really do not know what they can do from where they are. I have no idea how to help the situation in Darfur, but I can join with my local Relief Society (which alternates every three years making newborn kits, school bags, and hygiene kits for the Church Humanitarian Center.) My sister and I made another 30 kits when there was a call after Hurricane Katrina. We had a Sudanese family living on our street for a while. A neighbor was a big help to them. My husband (the Bishop) got them some food (even though they are not Church members.) Many neighbors have driven her places. I think there is a lot of caring on the part of Church members; we just don’t know what to do except to “Think globally, act locally.”

  15. Deborah says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Nancy. As for “what to do” on this particular issue . . . My students, who have now researched this extensively, would give tell you that “local” people can do the following.

    1) Send a letter/e-mail to your congressional representatives. Senator Paul Simon has famously said that if even one million citizens had expressed concern about Rwanda, Clinton and congress would have felt more pressed to act out against that genocide.

    2) Talk about it; encourage coverage from your local paper; educate others.

    3) Support ($$) the NGO’s that are currently the groups providing relief to the 2.5+ million refugees and who do not have nearly funds/supplies they need to save the children from starvation (7 out of every ten deaths is a child under the age of five).

  16. nancy says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. There are so many worthwhile battles in the world. No one person can fight all of them. Each of us has to pick two or three or ten or whatever we think we can manage, and give most of our time and energy to just a couple of those. Can you recommend a good organization to send money to for the Darfur situation? That at least I can do. I would be happy to write a letter at a time when it appears to be really needed–i.e. if Congress is discussing the situation or something. Keep us advised.


  17. Deborah says:

    Nancy (and all others interested):


    This website lists several organizations helping in Sudan — and gives a description of what they are actually doing in Darfur. Unfortunately, some agencies have been pulling out because of the dirth of peace-keepers.

    As for writing, go to They are currently trying to gather a million postcards to deliver to Congress. In November, Congress cut 50 million from the budget that would have funded African Union peacekeepers for a few more months (the “peace-keepers,” though few in number, are the one barrier between the refugee camps and complete decimation). Sam Brownback (R) and Barak Obama (D) recently wrote a joint editorial in the Washington Post with more ideas for Congress — but public interest is always key to expediency.

  18. nancy says:

    Have you heard that an Olympic gold medal winner (I have forgotten his name, but he is from Utah) is donating his $25,000 bonus from the Olympic committee to help in Darfur? It was in the paper a few days ago. I didn’t even know athletes got gold medal bonuses. Apparently he is racing in another event and said if he wins that he will donate that money as well. On the email site the situation in Ecuador is being discussed. As I said before, there are so many good causes. I think each of us has to decide to send a little to many or all we can afford to one that particularly catches our attention. So far a little to many has been my approach.

  19. nancy says:

    I went into the website Deborah suggested where you can send an email postcard to join the “Million Voices for Darfur” effort. That is an easy way to participate for sure. You can also contribute with a credit card or mail a check.

  20. Anonymous says:

    That’s a great story. Waiting for more. »