This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This is hardly the only time in modern Mormon history when Latter-day Saints have addressed the plight of refugees.
In the 1980s, Marion D. Hanks was serving as an LDS area authority in Hong Kong during the time of the so-called "boat people" Vietnamese who had taken to the seas after the war in their country and others in Southeast Asia seeking refuge from political upheaval in their nations.
Hanks organized young Mormon missionaries to work in refugee camps under the auspices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, writes Maryan Shumway, one of the LDS missionaries at the time who worked at camps in Thailand, the Philippines, and, for a short time, in Palestine and Israel.
One rule: No proselytizing.
"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," Shumway recalls Hanks instructing them, "You are on a historical errand, and God is depending on you to give solace, comfort and love to our brothers and sisters who have gone through a refiner's fire."
The Mormons taught English as well as practical skills, like how to apply for a checking account or how to use a vacuum cleaner.
"Sometimes as I would teach, I unintentionally would say something that would open a flood of emotion, and then, just like dominoes, several rows of faces would be dripping with tears," writes Shumway on her blog, Opening the Sky, and reproduced at the Mormon blog By Common Consent. "They would talk, and I would listen, and my tears would stream with them. Most of us had not graduated from college yet, but we handled caseloads of psychotherapy every day."
Shumway, an expatriate living in the Middle East, heard echoes of Hanks in the LDS General Conference speech of general authority Patrick Kearon, a British LDS leader who talked about the need to care for refugees, and in the words of Relief Society General President Linda K. Burton, a Mormon female leader who announced the church's refugee-relief program, "I Was a Stranger."
"Elder Hanks' vision to rescue the Southeast Asian refugees altered my life, and has given them a refuge in my heart and homes all these years," she writes. "He was teaching the same principle 36 years ago [as Kearon and Burton] in the April 1980 General Conference, when he said, "There are others, nearer at hand, who struggle with problems with which we must also be concerned. ... We must have individual concern for the strangers among us, resident or passing through."
In other words, "refugees can be far away in remote places, but they can be in close proximity, too," Shumway says. "It is for us to discern how to help the strangers around us."
Peggy Fletcher Stack