Another Newport Beach attorney might have been power-lunching. But Whitney Clayton spent his noon hour on a recent day grocery shopping for the sake of The Principles.
As a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the Mormon equivalent of a parish priest--Clayton had heard that morning about a church family in crisis. Told that an out-of-work Bolivian widower and his son were desperately hungry, without money or transportation, Clayton drove immediately to a Fountain Valley warehouse.
His goal was the “bishop’s storehouse"--an unmarked 10,000-square-foot market and warehouse open only to those deemed worthy by bishops like himself who watch over 60,000 Mormons, next to Catholics the second-largest church constituency in Orange County.
Asked to Work
There, as a few needy believers with requisition forms filled their carts with meat, flour, bread and household items, Clayton ordered $100 worth of groceries to be delivered to the family. In return, he said, they would be asked to work for the church.
One of 100 facilities nationwide, the storehouse is filled with not-for-sale items mostly labeled “Deseret,” a word derived from an ancient term that symbolized industry and thrift. It means that the items have been produced by Mormon volunteers working in Mormon feed yards, orchards, dairies or canneries for Mormons fallen on hard times.
Combined with an adjacent Mormon workshop/thrift store and a Mormon employment office, the storehouse represents only the “tip of the iceberg” in the Latter-day Saints’ vast internal welfare system. Church guidelines called The Principles embody love, hard work, self-reliance and eternal reward, officials said.
The system is “one of the things the church is famous for,” said church spokesman Glen Waldron of Costa Mesa. “They take care of their own.”
Unlike other food banks in Orange County that rely on the vagaries of supermarket donations, the Mormon storehouse supply remains constant. Currently, other sources of food supplies for the estimated 400,000 county residents at risk for hunger are down significantly due to fewer donations as a result of drought and store mergers that have cut into profits at some markets, said Dan Harney, executive director of the Food Distribution Center in Orange, which distributes surplus supermarket food through 223 local agencies to 120,000 people.
“It’s a big problem,” he said, “And it’s getting worse.”
But the Mormon storehouse maintains a small but steady volume worth about $300,000 in order to fill 3,000 orders annually. Recipients include corporate vice presidents as well as poor laborers and a few non-members, storehouse manager Keith Barnett said.
Inside the small store, classical music provides background music and impressionist prints line the walls; volunteer clerks ask no questions of the shoppers whose identities are known only to the bishop and a men’s committee known as the Quorum of 12.
‘A Traumatic Thing’
“We want to make it as positive and benign an experience as possible,” Barnett said. “Sometimes they come in tears. It’s a traumatic thing to say you can’t feed your family.”
The Mormons’ focus on temporal well-being originated with church founder Joseph Smith, who believed that “the religion that doesn’t have the influence on how we live day to day might not have much appeal for the hereafter,” church spokesman Jerry Cahill of Salt Lake City said.
To critics who contend that the church should use its powerful system to help others besides their own, Cahill said, “Our concern for those not touched by our system is very real.” But he acknowledged that “we give our greatest attention to those among us. It’s a system of keeping track of them to assess their needs and minister more effectively.”
Some, like Lloyd Richmond, Southern California manager of Deseret Industries, see the system as part of the Mormon plan of salvation. “The role of church is to proclaim the gospel, redeem the dead and perfect the saints. It’s like preparing your children to exploit their talents. . . . We believe the decisions we make now affect our options in the future. Taking care of one another is one of the most important ingredients of life. We hope to gain blessings of eternity.”
A believer’s rank in heaven is determined by how faithfully he or she follows the commandments, Cahill said.
The present system, which asks members to provide resources and requires able-bodied recipients to work in return, was set up in 1936 by then-church President Heber J. Grant, who sought to “re-enthrone work as the ruling principle of the lives of our church membership” and abolish “the curse of idleness” and “the evils of a dole.”
About half of the church’s members volunteer in the system, and most in Orange County work at a cannery in Los Angeles, officials said. Clayton said he has volunteered at orange ranches and wheat and hay farms in different areas of the country where he has lived.
One day a month, members are encouraged to fast and donate the money they would have spent on food to the storehouse operating fund.
(Figures generated by “fast Sunday” are sacred and not available to the public, church spokesmen said. But in 1985, church officials acknowledged that they raised $11 million in tax-deductible contributions from two special fasts for aid to Africa.)
Aid Based on Principles
Criteria for assistance are based loosely on principles of temporary help for those whose individual and family resources have been exhausted. But members believe that bishops are “inspired” in their decisions, Waldron said.
In addition to groceries, bishops may order furniture or clothing from Deseret Industries, the thrift store/workshop modeled after Goodwill. Sometimes, a bishop will deny aid if he believes that the struggle will benefit the individual more than charitable assistance.
In reality, Clayton said, he rarely turns down anyone from his 455-member Santa Ana ward, one of the county’s poorest. “Orange County, even Santa Ana, is an expensive place to live. They’re almost always families with kids who can’t get by.
“I try to make sure the need is sincere, that they are not hoarding things or on a dole. We try to avoid accustoming people to permanent assistance. If it looks like that, I’ll try to trim it back and train them for a job to be self-reliant.
“We try to get them out of this store into a regular market,” he said.
Clayton said he would ask the father from Bolivia to volunteer at Deseret Industries and seek paid work through the adjacent Mormon employment center, which last year placed 1,000 people.
In the case of recipients who don’t catch on to the work-for-food system, a bishop might ask a church member, “Would you sit down with Brother Jones and help him understand these Principles?” Waldron said.
Abuse of the system is not uncommon, from “professional welfarees"--transients who get as much as they can and then move on--or from those who hoard supplies, Waldron said.
A former bishop, Waldron said he once unknowingly gave a church-owned car to a single woman with four children who had joined the church only for its welfare system. “She committed to me she would pay me back every month, no interest. I never got the first payment. She disappeared.”
Other recipients, he said, “have more detergent and things like that in their home than in our storage.”
To guard against fraud, the church has developed several strategies. Officials might flag a suspect’s records in the membership rolls if he moves or call a new member’s previous bishop for references.
Home teachers, pairs of men or women assigned to bring spiritual messages into members’ homes, watch for both need and abuse, and report to the bishop, Waldron said.
Errors in judgment, however, usually fall on the side of charity, he said. “I’d rather trust people and get hurt once in a while than not trust people and be bitter.
“Most people are honest. Most people are fair and have a conscience. Scriptures don’t teach you to go around suspecting people. Yet you have to be wise. We don’t put our heads in the sand.”