By Common Consent recently published a guest post by Maryan Shumway describing her missionary service among Southeast Asian refugees in the 1980s. She noted a particular rule: “[We] were absolutely not allowed to proselyte or even mention the church in any way. I was a missionary, but was strictly forbidden to talk about the church.”
It is not unheard of for the church to have restrictions on proselyting. Students attending the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies abide by a strict “no proselyting” rule due to stipulations of the church’s lease. Other areas of the world are also off-limits to proselyting efforts for legal or other reasons.
Humanitarian Aid and Proselyting Concerns
With humanitarian aid, unique factors necessitate proselyting restrictions. Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities, explained to BYU Students at a 2008 Kennedy Center address why tying proselyting to humanitarian efforts is problematic. At the time, she managed the LDS Humanitarian wheelchair program and supervised humanitarian couples and projects in the Middle East Africa North area. She used the experience of a wheelchair distribution in Latin America to illustrate.
(Abt 5:08) They used young [proselyting] elders and sisters that were serving missions to help assemble the chairs: take them out of the boxes and put the footrests on, get them [ready]. But it was several blocks from the venue where the distribution was going to take place.
In their enthusiasm the missionaries, and whoever was helping them, decided, “Let’s bring the recipients down to this place where we’ve assembled the chairs and put them in the chairs. And then we’ll get them up to the venue. We’ll have the missionaries give them a ride and they’ll push them up this road to where the big distribution is going to take place.”
As this was happening, of course crowds gathered and the missionaries decided, “Well, let’s sing!” So they started to sing “Called to Serve.” They’re pushing people in these wheelchairs up the road and they’re singing “Called to Serve” and somebody thought, “Well hey, there’s all these people on the side of the road!” So they passed out pass-a-long cards and literature and anyway, you can just see how this evolved with missionaries in their enthusiasm.
Later in the address, Sister Eubank explained:
(Abt 11:50) Imagine if you’re one of those people lining the streets. You’re watching these people you’ve never seen before in name tags and shirts pushing people with disabilities in these brand-new wheelchairs up the street and they’re singing, “Called to serve Him, heav’nly King of glory, Chosen e’er to witness for his name!” If you don’t have any background in the church, what does that sound like to you?
And how’d they get those chairs anyway? Do they have to join the church? And you probably think so because somebody handed you a pass-a-long card as you were looking at the whole event.
Sister Eubank was adamant that for the church to maximize their ability to perform humanitarian aid, proselyting missionary work had to remain in a separate sphere.
(Abt 7:30) You can’t tie the proselyting work, that we believe in and we actively do, to the humanitarian work, that we also actively believe in and do. Because if you do, [the humanitarian work] loses it’s credibility. It becomes tainted in a way that it can’t be sustained. And, after awhile, we won’t have access and we won’t be able to do humanitarian work if it’s seen as a vehicle for us to proselyte.
Those two things have to stay separate in the church. It’s one of the main principles. There can’t be any strings attached when we give humanitarian aid, and, hopefully, when we do it right there aren’t any strings attached.
By disassociating itself from the proselyting effort, the church’s humanitarian aid resources are utilized by more agencies worldwide.
Dresses for Yazidis
A little over a year ago I heard about unusual aid provided by LDS Charities. Someone who’d participated in the effort shared her experience in a Relief Society class.
In late 2014 ISIS initiated genocide against the Yazidi ethno-religious group of Northern Iraq. The LDS church assisted several other relief organizations in the set-up and management of refugee camps, providing medical supplies, equipment, and food. The sister who related the story explained that members of the relief organization in charge (not LDS Charities) became frustrated at the refusal of Yazidi women to accept fresh clothing. These women, along with others, had literally left their homes with only the clothes on their back, escaping from forced conversions, massacres, and sexual slavery.
It took the charitable workers some time, but they eventually understood the traditional dresses of Yazidi women were part of their religious identity. Due to the unique design and religious meaning the dresses had to be handmade, which posed a problem for workers who needed a large number of dresses manufactured quickly. Eventually a solution was found, and the dresses were sewn by volunteers according to the individual specifications of the Yazidi refugees (using materials donated by LDS Charities).
A newspaper article describing this relief effort shared viewpoints of workers. The surgeon who headed the medical unit in the refugee camp noted, “[The Yazidi women] feel we are respecting them because we have brought something very special, very specific to them. It is a simple gift but for them it means a lot.” Another volunteer remarked, “We are doing this with happiness … because there are people that need help and we can help them.” (Ellipses in original quote.)
I loved hearing this story in a Relief Society lesson. I felt so proud that our church had identified such a unique need, and that we helped people maintain their religious identity. In view of our beliefs and practices, we understand how important religious clothing can be in worship.
Then something happened. A Relief Society sister remarked how unfortunate it was that we were not allowed to share the gospel with them. She was sad that we couldn’t proselyte… to a group that was fleeing massacres and sexual slavery because of their religion.
As the general women’s session reminded us, Mormon refugees escaping religious persecution were indebted to the citizens of Quincy, Illinois. The small town of 1,500 embraced 5,000 Mormons, helping them survive the winter of 1838-1839. Their help allowed us to regroup and establish a new city at Nauvoo, where we could freely practice our religious beliefs (for a few years, anyway). How would we view Quincy if those citizens had attempted to convert us to their beliefs while giving aid?
“Serve with no strings attached”
Sister Eubank’s remarks echoed those of Elder Marion D. Hanks in the 1980s, quoted by Sister Shumway, concerning the Southeast Asian refugee efforts: “Serve with no strings attached–without looking for any credit. Our purpose is to serve in a way that exemplifies pure religion. As you teach and visit with the refugees, you are sitting in proxy for the Savior.”
Final thoughts from Sister Eubank,
(Abt 6:57) In our doctrine we believe our salvation is somehow inextricably tied with the salvation of other people. Not just people in our church, but everybody in the world. So we are commanded that our salvation has to do with how we look after the poor and the needy. And that’s the reason the church does humanitarian work.
We hope that we do it in a way that shows we are Christian, and that we believe in Christian principles, but we’re going to do the work anyway. Whether people believe we’re Christians doing it or not, that’s not the reason we do the work. We will do it regardless.
- Do you feel proselyting should be allowed in some types of large-scale LDS humanitarian work? If so, under what conditions?
- Do you think the women’s session video about the friendship between a Mormon and a Muslim indirectly addressed this issue?
- Should any of these concerns between proselyting and humanitarian aid apply to individual members participating in non-church-sponsored projects?
 Peggy Fletcher Stack also reported on Shumway’s post in the Salt Lake Tribune.
 In May 2015, Yair Rosenberg, an Israeli journalist, wrote an informative piece on the history of the conflict surrounding the establishment of the BYU Jerusalem Center resulting in the non-proselyting clause.
 All quotes from Sharon Eubank are my transcriptions from the YouTube video of her 2008 presentation at the BYU Kennedy Center: “Please Don’t Tell This Story: LDS Humanitarian Work and the Media.”