In 1985, a special fast for the famine victims of Ethiopia sparked a flood of donations that far exceeded the Church’s expectations. This act of generosity by Latter-day Saints marked the beginning of what would become LDS Charities—the Church’s humanitarian organization—which has been spreading hope and healing throughout the world ever since.
The images were heartbreaking: Crying children with skeletal frames, bloated stomachs, and dark, sunken eyes. Starving men and women in such despair that they didn’t have the energy to swat the flies from their faces. In 1984, news of the devastating famine in Ethiopia dominated the world’s media and weighed on the minds of people everywhere.
Church headquarters received a consistent stream of letters from concerned members asking what the Church planned to do to help ease such incomprehensible suffering. Because of several media stories reporting on less-than-trustworthy humanitarian organizations, Latter-day Saints were asking to send donations to the Church so the Brethren could ensure the money was used wisely. As a result, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve requested that Latter-day Saints in the United States and Canada participate in a special fast on January 27, 1985. All donations from that day would then be dedicated toward assisting famine victims.
The response was overwhelming. In fact, Church members donated an astonishing $6.4 million on that single day.
A Mission of Mercy
Elder Glenn L. Pace, who was serving as the managing director of the Church’s Welfare Department at the time of the fast, was given the daunting task of determining the best way to use the consecrated funds.
“At that time, the Church did not have the infrastructure or license to deliver aid directly to the people,” he explains. “Therefore, we were dependent on using other organizations.”
After painstaking research, Elder Pace identified trustworthy partners such as Catholic Relief Services, the American Red Cross, and Africare. But before the funds were released, Elder Pace, along with Elder M. Russell Ballard, then of the Presidency of the Seventy, was assigned to go to Ethiopia to determine firsthand how the donations should be allocated.
The two men embarked on their journey, well aware of the risks: in addition to desperate people suffering from famine and disease, the country was in the midst of a civil war, which meant trucks full of lifesaving supplies and food were often attacked and never reached their destination.
Photo from iStock
Miracles from Heaven
When Elder Pace and Elder Ballard arrived in Addis Ababa, the men were devastated to learn it would take at least 10 days to obtain the required permits to travel throughout the country—time they didn’t have.
“We knelt in prayer and literally asked the Lord for a miracle,” Elder Pace recalls. Their prayer was answered when, just three days later, they received the required permits. It was only one of the many times Elder Pace and Elder Ballard felt the hand of the Lord during their trip.
“We had spiritual experiences there that are those that mold your life forever,” says Elder Ballard.
Another of those spiritual experiences occurred when Elder Ballard felt strongly that they should locate the only member of the Church in the country and give him the opportunity to partake of the sacrament. Anxious to accomplish their fact-finding mission, Elder Pace was hesitant but supportive.
“We began our search by talking to people at the airport to see if they had heard of him. Much to my surprise, we found out he worked at an office in the airport, and within minutes, someone brought him to us,” Elder Pace recalls. “He was a man from Seattle, Washington, by the name of Harry Hadlock. He was located in Addis Ababa temporarily while doing some consulting work at Ethiopian Airlines and had been in the country without his family for several months.”
Elder Pace continues, “When we asked if we could hold a sacrament meeting in his home, tears immediately welled up in Brother Hadlock’s eyes. He then began to sob as he said, ‘I have not partaken of the sacrament in months.’ I learned a great lesson from Elder Ballard that day about seeking out and ministering to the one.”
When the sacrament meeting was held a few days later, Elder Pace gave the opening prayer, after which the three men bore their testimonies and partook of the sacrament. Elder Ballard then closed the meeting by offering a powerful blessing on the drought stricken country.
Photo from iStock
“In his prayer, Elder Ballard stated that we were the only Melchizedek Priesthood holders residing in the country and that we were there on assignment from the First Presidency of the Church,” Elder Pace shares.
“He expressed gratitude to the members of the Church who had contributed their means during the special fast and who had offered up individual and family prayers on behalf of the people of Ethiopia. Then, with as much power and boldness as I had ever witnessed, calling upon the power and authority of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood, he commanded the elements to gather together, which would cause rain to come upon the land and begin to relieve those who had been suffering for so many years.”
After the sacrament meeting concluded, Elder Ballard and Elder Pace left for a luncheon with representatives of Catholic Relief Services and Africare. They enjoyed their meal outside, and Elder Pace took note of the pleasant, sunny weather.
“We returned to the hotel in the afternoon to rest up for the coming week, and I was sitting at a little desk writing in my journal when I heard a clap of thunder,” he recalls.
“I went to the patio just in time to see a torrential downpour. People came running out of their little huts and public buildings looking up in the sky and reaching their arms toward the heavens. They were shouting and crying. Children and adults alike began to frolic and splash on each other. They grabbed buckets and barrels to collect rain from the roofs.”
He continues, “I began to weep. I knew there were only two other people in the whole country who understood what had happened.”
Elder Pace left his hotel room and knocked on Elder Ballard’s door. The two men then knelt together and offered a prayer of gratitude.
“The land was burning up—it hadn’t rained for a year, and no crops had grown in three years,” Elder Ballard explains. “I knew that if we called upon the Lord to bless the land, the elements would be tempered.”
For the rest of their time in Ethiopia, it rained wherever the two men traveled.
After meeting with their humanitarian partners, Elder Ballard and Elder Pace traveled to a feeding camp in the city of Makale. The only way to get there was by plane, so they “hitched a ride” onboard a British Royal Air Force supply plane. Upon arrival, the scene was overwhelming.
“You can’t prepare yourself for the smells, for someone looking you in the eye and asking for help,” says Elder Pace. “People we met that day ended up dying that night.”
The feeding camp was at maximum capacity, housing 120,000 people in tents. Men, women, and children came from hundreds of miles away—with thousands dying on the journey—only to discover there were another 30,000 people waiting to get in.
“Even with 30,000 people, it was eerily silent,” Elder Pace recalls. “There were no children laughing or playing—no one had the strength. There was nothing but dead silence.”
“I’d been to other countries where people were struggling, but never where many people were living in the last moments before their death,” Elder Ballard shares. “It seemed so hopeless, yet we were so grateful to be able to do what we could do. We were two men praying that somehow, some way, the Lord would help solve this terrible tragedy.”
He adds, “The thing that penetrated my mind more than anything was the children. What is their escape? What is their hope?”
For both Elder Ballard and Elder Pace, one of their most profound experiences in Ethiopia occurred when an old man stumbled into the camp carrying a baby. He had been walking for at least 50 miles to find refuge in the feeding camp. As he began his journey, he heard a baby crying. After investigating the noise, he found an infant next to its dead mother. The old man, starving and suffering himself, picked up the baby and carried him for most of his journey.
“As he arrived, thirsty, hungry, and delirious, the first words he uttered were, ‘What can be done for this baby?’ He didn’t ask anything for himself,” says Elder Pace.
After their visit, the two men were dropped off at a primitive runway with “not much more than a bench for a terminal.” They were instructed to wait until the next humanitarian plane came along and ask the pilot for a ride to Asmara. Finally, a Swedish Air Force cargo plane landed. The pilot was more than happy to give the men a ride but pointed toward a 16-year-old soldier with a machine gun and said, “You’ll have to ask him.”
Thankfully, the soldier agreed, and the men completed their journey and arrived safely back in the United States with a new and profound perspective on the famine crisis.
“I have never seen more despair and suffering than I observed on this trip,” Elder Pace says. “However, I also received a constant assurance that the Savior loved these people and that He was very near and well-pleased that the members of this Church were trying to help.”
Elder Ballard adds, “The trip to Ethiopia was one of the very choicest experiences of my ministry. I will never be the same.”
Photo courtesy of Elder M. Russell Ballard
Making a Difference
The Church members’ donations were immediately put into action. On April 7, 1985, just a few weeks after Elder Pace and Elder Ballard’s life-changing journey, President Hinckley, then second counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball, reported on the Ethiopia trip during general conference and shared with members how their donations had been used thus far.
He said, “The funds you consecrated are literally saving the lives of many who otherwise would die of starvation, disease, and exposure. Your contributions not only have supplied food and medicine where they are so desperately needed, but your contributions also have furnished tents sufficient to put 30,000 people under shelter from the blistering sun and the cold night winds, with blankets to comfort them. The food and other commodities are getting through to those who need them.”
President Hinckley also read letters of appreciation from some of the Church’s humanitarian partners, including this sentiment from the president of the American Red Cross:
“I cannot thank you and your members in the U.S. and Canada enough for the outstanding support you have given the Red Cross relief effort in Africa. . . . This support . . . has permitted us to provide 350,000 victims food for a month.”
LDS Charities Begins
“Because the Ethiopia assignment was managed absolutely marvelously by Elder Pace, it ended up becoming the foundation of the tremendous humanitarian organization we now have that donates millions and millions of dollars every year,” Elder Ballard explains.
That organization, known today as LDS Charities, is making a significant difference in the lives of people around the world through emergency response, vision care, maternal and newborn care, immunizations, clean water and sanitation initiatives, wheelchair donations, gardening and farming initiatives, and community projects. In fact, in 2014, LDS Charities responded to 132 disasters in 60 countries.
Photo courtesy of LDS Charities
It has also provided wheelchairs in 48 countries, maternal and newborn care in 42 countries, vision care in 34 countries, clean water and sanitation projects in 26 countries, gardening projects in 17 countries, and medical immunizations in 9 countries. And since its inspired beginning 30 years ago, LDS Charities has donated a staggering $1.7 billion to humanitarian efforts.
Earlier this year, while addressing Parliament in the United Kingdom, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reported these numbers, explaining, “Because of our religious convictions—convictions grounded in the command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves—we sponsor humanitarian relief programs.”
He continued, “We would hope that along with our much needed temporal services . . . that the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind would be remembered, that character would be built both in the providers and in the recipients of such aid. We tell our workers—virtually all of them volunteers—that even though it can get covered with dust in a refugee camp, the long-term objective of our humanitarian effort is not only to provide temporal relief but also to remember and rescue all that is noble and divine within every human soul, to bring to flower and fruition the latent richness of the human spirit in which our religion and surely all others believe.”
Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities, echoes Elder Holland’s sentiments. “The long-term effort of LDS Charities is to build character,” she says. “We are all givers and receivers. Everybody can contribute something of value—you’re never too old or too poor.”
Hope and Healing
According to Eubank, LDS Charities is operating on a global level like never before. “It’s a mark of maturity and of the members of the Church who have continued to give the funding,” she says.
Bruce Muir, director of Emergency Response, explains that the international success of LDS Charities is in large part due to the many humanitarian organizations that serve as partners, including Catholic Relief Services, the United Nations Commission, Islamic Relief, the American Red Cross, UNICEF, and many more. “Much of what we do is in partnership—we don’t try to do it alone.”
Gustavo Estrada, manager of Area Community Projects, explains that partnerships with local organizations within each country are also crucial since LDS Charities doesn’t always have the needed infrastructure.
Photo courtesy of LDS Charities
“In Nepal, there are farmers who can barely feed their families one meal a day—it’s a local solution to a local problem that requires leveraging local resources,” he says. “We find out what the need is and then support the local organizations who are already dealing with that issue. In this instance, through a partner, greenhouses were established using local materials. Now they are feeding their families two meals a day with maybe a little extra to sell, too.”
Estrada continues, “In Argentina, local organizations are taking wheelchairs all the way to the middle of nowhere in a canoe or on the back of a donkey in order to get them to the people who really need them. The need is so personal.”
“When we look to help the individual, we are also helping the people that person has relationships with,” says Kristi Haycock, humanitarian analyst for Wheelchairs and Immunization Initiatives. “When someone receives a wheelchair, it’s often the caregivers who have tears streaming down their faces because it’s a life-changing moment for the entire family.”
Robert Hokanson, manager of Major Initiatives, gives a recent example of cooperation with the Greater Islamic Society of Salt Lake, a long-time and trusted partner. “After Typhoon Haiyan, the Greater Islamic Society of Salt Lake approached the Church. Their members had worked tirelessly to raise $250,000 for relief efforts and wanted to give it to us to distribute,” he says. “They presented that quarter of a million dollars to LDS Charities so we could apply it to relief in the Philippines. For someone to say, ‘Let’s raise the money and give it to our good friends the Mormons,’ that speaks volumes about the work we are doing.”
Photo courtesy of Jed Wells
Closer to Home
LDS Charities is best known for its international humanitarian efforts, but there are plenty of projects underway in the United States, too. “Domestically, we’re working on food bank support, homelessness, victims of domestic violence, and refugees,” says Rick Foster, LDS Charities manager for North America.
The continued donations from Church members are vital to the humanitarian efforts of LDS Charities, with every penny applied toward helping the poor and needy. For members who are seeking additional ways to serve, Eubank offers this thought: “Our most powerful acts are in the place where we live.”
Hokanson adds, “There are people in our own neighborhoods who have struggles that we might not see because we’re looking to the other side of the world. Ask yourself what you can do to help in your own community.”
“We can pray and ask Heavenly Father, ‘Help me be your hands. How can I help? What can I do?’ It’s so simple for us to offer that prayer,” Foster suggests. “Small efforts on our part can make a huge difference in someone else’s life, and the Lord will facilitate that every time.”
He adds, “There is healing that comes through service. By taking the time to bear someone else’s burdens, somehow, miraculously, your own seem lighter. When we are the Lord’s hands, He makes our own burdens easier to bear.”