Connecting to the Community Through Service
It is a bit daunting to look out among all of you, but I must begin by saying that I thought Jen did a wonderful job with the thought that she shared about not fearing, and I loved that Leah and Brittany together performed one of the most beautiful renditions I believe I’ve ever heard, of “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” We’ve all three shared the podium already, and I think it is a little bit fearful to stand up in this room because the greatest fear I have in my heart is that I won’t be able to adequately express what is in my heart—to touch your heart in a way that maybe your heart needs touching today. But I firmly do know that my Redeemer lives, and I know that He helps all of us to do the things that we’re asked to do. I pray for His help today in these minutes that I have with you, that I might have adequately prepared, so that the Lord can touch my heart and help me deliver and give the message that maybe you need to hear and that I’m intended to share.
As has been mentioned, I am comfortable here, and I am delighted to be able to stand and be part of any event at LDS Business College. I have loved my opportunity to work with faculty and students. I had about five years of time that I intimately worked with LDS Business College, and then with my husband’s calling, I get to continue the association that brings me in these chairs often, with the 36th and 42nd wards.
Every time I sit here, I feel a purity that I don’t really feel in every other congregation, for maybe the commitment, the extra effort, and the lives of the people that come and are part of the LDS Business College. I was, last night, ice skating with some of you in the stake. And as I was circling around, a few of them said, “Hey, you’re going to be speaking tomorrow,” I had probably the biggest crash I’ve ever had on my ice skates. I don’t recall ever falling on ice skates, but last night amidst this crowd, I totally splatted on these skates, and I thought, “I just hope this isn’t an example of what I might do tomorrow, and that I won’t make a big splat.”
So with that, I just tell you that I’m so honored to be here, and just another layer that was added to my feelings about LDS Business College happened this fall, when Michael and I were invited to come and participate with the inauguration of your new president, Larry Richards. I feel fortunate that I’ve known Larry for a long time, and his wonderful wife, Julie. But it was very special for me that day to sit in the midst of many general authorities and President Eyring, and to hear President Eyring—and of course, it’s not surprising that he would weep, because he is so tender and emotional—but he wept about LDS Business College, and to understand the history of this great institution, and to understand the future and your future, and why this opportunity is here for you. I was touched in a way that I had really not understood before of the mission of LDS Business College and the purpose, and I feel fortunate to be one tiny thread in the fabric of what this institution accomplishes. I am delighted that I have the opportunity today to be asked to talk about a subject that I feel passionate about, and that is our opportunity to engage in the community.
As was mentioned, I am lucky, very lucky, to be associated with LDS Business College and other institutions across the state as all of us are endeavoring to bring community engagement to our college students and to the life of a college and an institution. And as the current director of the Bennion Center, if I were to identify one task that I have, it is a task of connecting. It is an opportunity to try to connect students to the community through service and service learning. And I am delighted to be able to address that topic today.
Behind me I brought a few posters, and one is of Lowell L. Bennion. I must tell you a little about Lowell. Some of you in this room would know Lowell Bennion, but others of you, that is only a name. If he were alive today, Lowell Bennion would be 101. Lowell, as a young man, pursued education, just like you are. In fact, he loved learning, and he studied psychology as an undergraduate. He served a mission to the Swiss-German Mission, and later returned to Europe to study with the famous psychologist, Max Webber. He earned a PhD before returning to Utah. Lowell became the first director of the LDS Institute at the University of Utah, and it was here that many students came to love him as he connected their academic studies with religion, a practice that LDS Business College has for every student attending.
Lowell was also a faculty member on campus, and pushed students intellectually. During his lifetime, he lovingly was known as someone who knew that one person made a difference, and it takes action and participation to make things happen. In fact, Lowell Bennion, in all of his free time, was known for helping individual people, mostly elderly widows, by taking them food, making repairs around their home, or just visiting. But he also advocated for causes. He lobbied at the legislature. He served on various boards, committees and councils. And he later started the Community Services Council, which began coordinating services in our city, and from which the Utah Food Bank began.
One of Lowell’s students, interestingly enough, was a person by the name of Dick Jacobsen. Dick left the University of Utah with his wife, Sue, and headed to begin his career, as many of you will. He moved away from Salt Lake City, and ended up in California. As he began his real estate and development career, he decided at a certain place that he wanted to begin to give back. And as Lowell had taught him to do, he saw that at Stanford University, which is close to where he lived, they had begun the first ever Community Service Center on a university campus.
Dick and Sue Jacobson looked at that and thought to themselves, “That should happen at the University of Utah, and we want to make that happen, but we want to do it in the namesake of Lowell L. Bennion.” And so those many years ago, Dick and Sue Jacobson launched this Bennion Center at the University of Utah. And next to Stanford University, it is the longest running center on a university campus, with a specific mission: to tie what many of us do in our religious or personal lives, and serve in our communities. More explicitly, tie it to a student’s education, and be very clear about the fact that it is during these critical years when you are deciding—what is your course of study? What is your course of endeavor? What is your pursuit?—that you tie that in a very intentional link to the way that you’re going to turn around and become the citizens of tomorrow. For I don’t think I can look at the newspaper any day and not think of the talent that is on your shoulders as you are going to help solve the problems you did not create. And what an opportunity and a challenge that is.
I want to tell you that we at the university feel a great responsibility to carry on the legacy of Lowell, and even though we have many students that do not know him personally, we try to share his passion. And we hope that for what we will pass along to students, we will help them get outside themselves and find their passion, so they can also give that back.
It is at the Bennion Center that we’re trying to engage students, and not in the type of engagement that many of you think of more often, but in community engagement—getting them to volunteer, organizing others, and tying it to their academic studies—so that they leave the institution with a passion and a knowledge about how to be a lifelong civic participant.
I’d like to share a short video clip with you today, and I appreciate the technological wizards that have made this work. We had a few glitches.
At the University of Utah, we host an annual event. And some of you, because of your involvement with the University 2nd Stake, might have participated with us last September. Each September we have an event called the Legacy of Lowell. It honors what Lowell did in the community. It helps our students think about the year ahead, and all the ways that they can get involved in the academic year. What it mostly does, I believe, is help people realize that one person, added collectively to a large group, can make a difference. And so, I’d like to just let this roll, and I might make a few comments as you see our little clip of “Legacy of Lowell 2009.”
As it begins, you’ll see that we have this ready for our next year, as our advertising to get students involved. This is looking back at what happened on that one Saturday morning. The paint was not always applied by very professional people, but we were excited to find ten very needy homes and one large warehouse that needed a lot of attention. And what was accomplished in one day was absolutely phenomenal to each of these individual home owners and business owners. Students from campuses came in great numbers.
As many of you intimately know, we have such a high refugee population in Salt Lake City, and our efforts are challenged. But it was a great opportunity to visit homes of refugees, help take disabled partners that we work with and offer an activity, and offer about ten different opportunities to serve in the community that day.
This project began about five years ago. Lowell Bennion started the Food Bank, and it’s been very exciting to expand it and have 15 different sites where students can serve and do so many things, from dental hygiene and food box delivery to activities for refugees. And then whether they just did one activity, they could come back and get a sense of all of the things that were accomplished in those two and a half hours, because so many people came.
This was definitely a very positive part of our service day. It’s always good to feed the troops, and mostly the feeding aspect, as you know, brings people together. It allowed us to celebrate the success and the folks that came out, and hopefully to encourage them to come next year, and to serve all throughout the year.
We do believe that Lowell’s legacy lives on. Lowell has written many books. One that I would recommend to you that I could give an entire talk on is a small little book, one of his first ones, called The Things That Matter Most. Another one that I love so much is a book called How Can I Help? I believe that Lowell Bennion is just one of many simple lives and examples, but his legacy has lived on, just as each one of ours can live on through community service and community engagement.
The First Presidency has addressed this topic in many ways. One comment that I would like to share is the statement that, “We wish to reiterate the divine counsel that members should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and to bring to pass much righteousness, while using gospel principles as a guide, and while cooperating with other like-minded individuals.”
Community service and service learning—some of you know these terms, and others, maybe have not heard or understood them. Service learning came about in the ‘80s as a national trend in response to the growing desire to tie academic study to the real pressing problems of society. As you all know, it’s a privilege to go to college. Many of you are here as first generation college students, and we must all remember the great responsibility as a college graduate. With that privilege comes a responsibility. There’s a public and private mission of higher education. I see it often at BYU, with their statement as you drive onto campus that we all really should take that to heart, to “Go forth to serve,” armed with knowledge, degrees, and passion.
Many of you have heard these statistics which came out so many years ago; I’m sure they would be a little different today. But I love the notion that if you were to shrink the world’s population to a village of precisely a hundred people, it’s a good reminder to think of not just the world that we live in, but the world that is out there. Of that hundred people, one of the most compelling statistics is that only one would have a college degree. Only 30 would be able to read. Only 20 of those hundred would live in housing. And over half would suffer from malnutrition.
Only one—I think that number has gone up—would have a computer. But I’m sure that with a college education, we all need to be reminded of the deep commitment and change of the world that we have in our hands. I can’t help but watch the news right now, with the destruction in Haiti, and realize all of the hands and all of the pieces that are going to be needed to solve the destruction and the crisis and the mayhem that shows on my television every night. And how blessed I feel to be part of a religion and a Church that has prepared in advance and is ready to serve. I know my resources and the things that I want to do can go straight to the cause, by missionary and service leadership that is part of the Church. But as a student here today at LDS Business College, I think that you are part of an engaged campus, and I think it is important for you to realize that an engaged campus is one that is consciously committed to reinvigorating the democratic spirit and community engagement in all aspects of student life—students, faculty, staff and the institution itself.
Community engagement includes service learning, which integrates community service into academic study. It gives students an opportunity to improve their citizenship skills, and it often renews a faculty member’s enthusiasm for teaching. Engaged campuses realize that beyond just service learning in a class, there are so many opportunities to connect to the community. LDS Business College, as you know, is probably one of our most directly placed campuses, as it sits right in the heart of a community. But it must be intimately connected to the public purposes and the aspirations of the community, tie academics to service, and our purpose of engagement.
I have watched faculty members, whether it’s here at LDS Business College, or up at the University of Utah, work hard to figure out how to replace book assignments with real life issues—take their students to the legislature and lobby, look at issues from a different perspective, bring speakers in, and deal with topics in a way that helps the material of the course be brought central and more specific to the issues and concerns of our community. Examples that I recall from my time at LDS Business College include professors who, instead of reading history accounts, did live history documents with veterans or folks from the community that lived through those times. They brought those living histories alive, documented them, printed them, and left a legacy. That history class went far beyond the books, because it dealt specifically with needs and issues in the community.
Doing tax returns in a business class for those that need that tax help is a common practice at LDS Business College, and I watched that and saw that. Great faculty members like Keith Poelman, and those that have led out here forever, set such a wonderful spirit of understanding that concept. I know too well from working with faculty at the University of Utah, and students, that it takes continued commitment to do that work. It’s hard. It takes more time. It’s labor intensive. But the payoff is a hundredfold what we get out of students and faculty and on campus if we truly stay committed to the real purpose of an education, which is to help us to understand ways to address the real issues in our society.
I also give a charge to students, because I have found in my experience that it’s always students who often know the most and have guided the work of service learning with more energy throughout history. It’s students that have often come to faculty members and said, “Could I replace that particular assignment with this particular community focus?” Or, “Could we put this as part of the course, and share a little bit more of a perspective with the community”? And I have had many faculty members that stayed committed to this work because of students and their interest and what they’re learning from the real life issues at hand.
I think it’s interesting that many people have written about citizenship and being a good citizen. We hear that term a lot, and indeed, many educators and politicians and community activists pursue agendas for change under the banner of citizenship and democracy. But how do you see yourself, as a citizen? What does that look like to you? And what does lifelong participation mean to you?
There are three types of citizens I’d like to take a moment to describe. I believe there is not one type that is ideal, but it’s a combination of all three that we need in society. And the hope is that your time here at LDS Business College—your time, spending service in your wards, and your personal lives—will give you opportunities to channel each type described.
The first type of citizen is one that you hear often, and that is the personally responsible citizen. This person acts responsibly in his or her community, by picking up litter, giving blood, recycling, volunteering, and even staying out of debt. We need people to be personally responsible, and that is a good citizen. Those are citizens that pay their taxes, obey laws, and help those in need during times just like what is happening in Haiti. The personally responsible citizen contributes to the food and clothing drives when asked, and volunteers to help those less fortunate, whether in a soup kitchen or a senior center. He or she might contribute time or money or both. This is an individualistic notion of community service, and it’s where most often we are encouraged to participate as Church members. Underneath the motives to act and serve are often charity, character, hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. The bottom line is to develop compassion by engaging students in volunteer activities.
Kurt Vonnegut actually elaborates on this when he says, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
The second type of citizen is the participatory citizen. Those are ones that are actively engaged in civic affairs and social life at the local, state or community level. That would be some of you in here: you’re personally responsible, and you’re an organizer. Your focus is on how your church or community based organization works, and the importance of planning and participating in organized efforts to care for those in need, and to guide policies. While the personally responsible person might bring food cans to the drive, the participatory student organizes the drive.
The proponents of participatory citizenship argue that civic participation transcends particular community problems. It develops relationships, and brings people and collective commitment together. This perspective of a strong democracy adopts a notion of a political sphere in which citizens with competing but overlapping interests can live together communally. In many ways, the little video that I showed you brought a lot of people to do something individually, but it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of committee and participatory people willing to plan for large events. Every single small activity took the participatory type of citizen to plan and pull it together.
Rudolf Steiner quotes that, “A healthy social life is found only when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community, the virtue of each one is living.”
Finally, the justice-oriented citizen is perhaps the perspective that is least commonly pursued. This is the advocate, the person who is most interested in the root causes and the issues. These kinds of students assess social, political, and economic structures, and consider collective strategies for change. They challenge injustice when possible, but mostly address root causes of problems. The justice-oriented citizens are less likely to focus on charity and volunteerism as ends in themselves, and instead focus on change. If a personally responsible citizen is bringing cans of food, and the participatory citizen is organizing the drive, then the justice-oriented citizen is asking why people are hungry and acting on what they discover.
Those that focus on justice issues would worry that the community committee may get so focused on collaborative actions that they often fail to focus or critically analyze the social, economic, and political structures that generate problems.
In this focus, educators help students emphasize the connection between the social ills of today and the interplay of economic, political, and social forces, working to develop skills and commitments to improve society.
Philip Randolph said that, “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”
I feel lucky to be part of a gospel that is engaged. In these three types of citizens I can see the life of Christ. The gospel shows us His example of emulating personal and individual focus, and His discipleship and community pursuits. Most important, he was an advocate for alleviating suffering and getting to the root causes of the ills of society.
The living gospel is adapting and changing to meet the needs and crises of the world. Natural disasters are on the increase, and the Church is there, helping personally responsible people take action to help themselves, and also to participate as a team and collectively help in larger ways, supporting local governments to identify systemic change that must come out of the learning that goes on.
So whether it’s in New Orleans and Katrina, it’s in Haiti, or it’s right here at home, these are tangible examples of how to be a global citizen that cares and thinks and acts. I love the notion that, as the gospel is engaged, the whole notion of spirituality is from the Latin word “spiro” or “spirare” which means “to breathe.” To breathe means the essence of our lives. We wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t have oxygen. And even though we’re not even thinking about it today, our ability to sustain and be here is the fact that we’re taking in air and letting it out. The term of spirituality says to me that we need to think a little bit more about how our spirits need to give back—that we cannot just take in air and hold it in. We have to release air to breathe and live physically. I believe spiritually that we are nurtured and sustained the most, and we are most fulfilling the purpose of our creation to take all that has come to us—all of the opportunity, all of the education—and make sure that we in turn, just like oxygen, breathe that back out and share that back with the community.
I want to end my comments today by bringing this back to Lowell Bennion, because he was all three types of citizens—he got involved, he cared, he made a difference. And I want to bring it back to the most simple message of the gospel. In Matthew 22:36-40, we all know well the words that are spoken there, that say, “Master, [what] is the [greatest] commandment in the law?”
And “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
And “This is the first and great commandment.
“And the second is like unto it, [that] thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I love that it goes on in Matthew, when the Savior was asked, or told, “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: [and] I was a stranger, and you took me in:… I was in prison, and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
And the righteous answer him and say, “When did we do these things?” And He responds back and says, “I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (verse 40).
I don’t know of any successful community engagement that doesn’t begin right at home in our personal lives. I love the admonition I read in Matthew, because it says to me, “Get out of our comfort zone and begin to be a good citizen.” It must be right close to home, and we must be looking for examples in our own personal lives that allow us to give back—whether it’s our roommates, or someone we visit teach, or a classmate in our class. I am convinced, without any doubt, that there are connections that are waiting just for you. And there are not only large issues in the community that you can get in and serve, but there are connections.
And I want to just end with sharing with you one example that happened to me in a personal way. It’s a very small example, but it shows me the power of being a good neighbor and the connections that are all about enlarging our world. And just so briefly, like many of you young men and women in here that have served missions—it’s a hard role for a mom to send a son on a mission. Our oldest son got a mission call to Prague, Czech Republic. And Prague, Czech Republic felt a long way away to me. I remember he left for that mission and sent us an email the day that he arrived. It simply said these words: “Arrived safe. Landed in Prague, and I have been transferred to Brno.”
Brno, Czech Republic was not a place I had imagined, but on that Saturday morning, I was thinking about my son in Brno, Czech Republic as I got on my bike and rode up Immigration Canyon. I was with my husband, but he tends to ride faster, so he had gone up ahead and literally this entire ride I was wrapping my head around the idea of where this son of mine was. And I was feeling kind of far away from him. As I rounded the top of the summit—a lot of people were up there that day—and pretty tired, and just thinking about getting water and doing what you do, and suddenly I noticed a man coming up the other way. And there were many other people, but there was something about this man that caught my attention. And he rode up quite close to me, and we exchanged a hello and a little bit of a smile. It must have made him feel comfortable, because he turned to me in a few moments and asked me if I knew more about the bike routes that you could ride to from the top of Little Mountain.
I told him what I knew, but I also detected a bit of an accent, and I said to this man, “Where are you from?”
And he leaned a little closer and said, “Oh, you won’t know where I come from, but I come from the Czech Republic.”
I about fell of my bike. I got a little closer to him, and I said, “I don’t know a lot about the Czech Republic, but I know a little. And I cannot believe I’m meeting you.” I shared with him that my son had just landed in the Czech Republic and said, “What city do you live in?”
He said, “You wouldn’t know it. I live in Brno, Czech Republic.”
And I said, “I’m now going to hug you.” And I got off my bike—this strange man at the top of Little Mountain got this hug from this strange woman that he didn’t know, but what I will tell you is that two years later when my son returned from his mission, Uri Frandsu and his family, I did know. They had come to our home almost twice a month, for all the holidays, and they became not just neighbors and community people, they became dear friends of our family. And we had a connection that I can stand here today and say without any question, that I felt divine intervention, that I was supposed to meet that man that day. And I know that it connected for us because we both had a need.
He had a need to meet somebody that could help introduce him and his wonderful family to Salt Lake City, because they had just landed here for two years as visiting professors in the geology department of the University of Utah. They were not LDS, and they had seen the Mormon elders in their country, in Brno, Czech Republic, but they didn’t know Salt Lake City. I got to help them negotiate their rent with their landlord, I helped them find their schools that felt comfortable for their children, I drove a car that they wanted to buy as a used car, they wanted my opinion. But mostly, I learned about the Czech Republic from this family that was Czech. And they were able to help us understand more of our son’s experience.
It’s a small example, but I share it as a powerful tool that people are out there for you to connect to. And you will not just help them; they will help you far more. And they will help you understand best the notion of engaging in the community, because it comes not out of moral duty—yes, I can be told at church that it’s a good idea to serve, and I might go to a service project because I feel the duty—but really, what the Savior wants us to feel and understand is that it’s the caring and the compassion and the love. And it’s that one person that will help us understand how to make a difference in a community. And it’s that way that we solve the larger problems.
I share my testimony with you that the Savior does live and that all of the things we’re seeing happening in this world that sometimes can make us feel very concerned about the future—we are so fortunate to understand that it is in the loving arms of our Heavenly Father, and it is our role to take the part that we can play, and He expects us to do that. I humbly pray that you will feel the motivation to personally figure out your passion and your mission and the way that you can give back, and I share these things humbly, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.