The LDS Church launched a website on Monday to support its new “I Was a Stranger” refugee relief effort.
The website, iwasastranger.lds.org, encourages Mormon women to help refugees in their communities by prayerfully seeking opportunities to serve according to their individual and family circumstances.
Relief Society General President Sister Linda K. Burton announced the effort at the General Women’s Session of the 186th General Conference on Saturday, March 26.
“This is an opportunity to serve one-on-one, in families and by organization to offer friendship, mentoring, and other Christlike service and is one of many ways sisters can serve,” she said.
The church’s First Presidency issued a letter to LDS ward councils around the world to inform local leaders of the “I Was a Stranger” relief effort. Attached to the letter was a page of guidelines for leaders to follow as they invite women to help refugees.
“‘I Was a Stranger’ gives sisters a way to serve as individuals, in families and in organizations and to offer friendship, mentoring and other Christlike service to the refugees in our midst,” said the letter, signed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.
Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement services at Utah’s Catholic Community Services, believes the church’s initiative will be helpful. In fact, Catholic Community Services has already seen an influx in volunteer inquiries.
“I think the church, and leaders, have already determined to have church members get involved in helping the refugees welcomed in Salt Lake and also internationally,” Batar said. “We’ve already seen the effect. People are calling and wanting to get involved. I think this will help a lot of the refugees in the community.”
Catholic Community Services volunteer coordinator Raul Yumul also believes the program is going to make a big difference.
“I already have people calling in regards to interest of people helping to mentor in families,” he said. “With more volunteers, we will be able to have a good impact on the refugees.”
Yumul explained that for most refugees, “a proper welcome” is more valuable than just mentoring. Catholic Community Services hopes interested potential volunteers will continue to call. The organization’s goal is to “get as many volunteers from the community” as possible.
Director of Refugee Services in Utah Gerald Brown believes the new initiative will help introduce more people to the community of refugees. “Many will become friends,” he said. “The most important way to help a refugee is to befriend him or her.”
Guidelines provided to local LDS leaders explain that fundraisers and local unit budget funds should not be used to assist refugees. “I Was a Stranger” efforts extend to all refugees in need, regardless of citizenship status or personal beliefs.
“This invitation is to provide relief and support for God’s children, regardless of their race, religion or citizenship status. Your efforts should focus on person-to-person aid, which follows the example Christ taught in His parable of the good Samaritan,” said the guidelines.
The website provides resources and ideas for women who are interested in aiding the effort. Women are also invited to share their service experiences by emailing . Members in the U.S. can call 2-1-1 to learn about opportunities to serve refugees in their area, and members outside of the U.S. can contact their area welfare manager.
The guidelines state the intent of the initiative is to help members “be more involved in ongoing, one-by-one ministering efforts,” but reminds members that the effort is not political.
The women serving as the church’s general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women and Primary organizations also released a letter on Monday to be distributed to organizations worldwide.
“Sisters are encouraged to prayerfully seek opportunities to serve and to consider finding trusted local community and civic organizations to support,” said the letter, signed by Sister Linda K. Burton, general president of the Relief Society; Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, general president of the Young Women; and Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, general president of the Primary.
The letter also encouraged those with a “desire” to participate, “remembering that no sister is obligated and no one should serve at the expense of her family and other responsibilities.”
The website is a part of the church’s ongoing effort to help refugees. In a letter sent to LDS congregations on Oct. 27, 2015, the First Presidency encouraged members to aid in refugee relief efforts. The letter encouraged members to contribute to the Church Humanitarian Fund. They also invited “Church units, families and individuals to participate in local relief projects, where practical.”
During the General Women’s Session of the church’s 186th Semiannual General Conference, viewers watched refugee-focused videos that made it clear their story has been the Mormon story.
Sister Burton reminded those watching that more than 60 million refugees, half of them children, have been forcibly displaced and are sorely in need of a “friend and an ally.”
“When We Were Strangers” depicted a time when about 7,000 Mormons became refugees, forced to flee from Missouri in 1839 while Joseph Smith was being held in Liberty Jail. The residents of Quincy, Illinois, welcomed the Latter-day Saints crossing the Missouri river, providing the strangers with extended refuge and relief. The video’s text came from the writings and experiences of Elizabeth Haven Barlow.
The second video, “I Was a Stranger: Love One Another,” shared the story of an American Latter-day Saint woman who befriended a Muslim refugee from the Ivory Coast and created a friendship that blessed them both.
See a summary of The Daily Universe’s coverage of the April 2016 LDS General Conference