Mormon Helping Hands in Alabama Part 1

A while ago I posted a video on Facebook of the Tornadoes which ripped through Alabama on April 27, 2011 and on that post I made sure to let people know the video was not mine. As I gave credit I couldn’t help but say, “This video is not mine, but it is my state.” I didn’t think much about it until people started commenting on that one statement “It is my state.” Well I must confess without any reluctance I am falling for Alabama. This state has captured my attention, and for the present has captured me.

I often wonder where my love for this state has come from and I have narrowed it down to three things. My involvement in the experiences Alabama has to offer, the stunning beauty of the lush green landscape as well as the purified white beaches of the Gulf, and the people who live here. These three things have had a combined positive effect on my perception, my attitude, and my lifestyle. Thus help me change how I see the world, how I behave in this new world, and how I live in this world. One of the most important experiences I have had happened after the tornadoes passed.

Last weekend (May, 7-8 2011) I was able to be part of an organization known as the “Mormon Helping Hands” a group organized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If you haven’t ever heard of the Mormon Helping Hands they have an awesome website describing what they do. An excerpt from that website explains, “Mormon Helping Hands is a priesthood-directed Church program to provide community service and disaster relief to those in need.” That is exactly what this organization does. My whole life I have heard of the Mormon Helping Hands, seen pictures of them, and listened to statistics as they went out and offered relief to their communities, but I have never once had the blessing to be a part of this organization until last weekend.

Sunday May, 1 2011 I was sitting in our church meeting—which just so happened to be outside in the parking lot because our church had no power due to the Tornadoes passing 4 days previous—when I learned about the opportunity to go into the community and locate people who needed help removing debris. I was excited about the opportunity so I joined the growing group of volunteers after church to offer my help. As soon as I walked in to the room the Volunteer who had been put in charge (the Elders Quorum President) pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to be in charge of the northern portion of our ward (congregation) boundaries. A brief explanation about that: Our congregation is determined by geographic location meaning if you live in a particular geographic area you are expected to attend church in a building with people who live in the same geographic area as yourself. This geographic “grid” makes wards (congregations.) Several of these wards make a Stake, which covers all of those geographic boundaries combined in one. Being part of a ward means you live closer to people in your church, thus you are able to offer/receive help whenever it is needed. Not only does this organization provide efficiency in mobilizing people to help with temporal needs, it offers a support system to help you with spiritual needs as well. It is the most beautiful and inspired organization I have been a part of.

When I was asked to be in charge of the northern portion of my ward (northern Birmingham Alabama) I was instantly willing, but quickly realized the responsibility I had just accepted. I was going to be in charge of a large number of volunteers and not only was I going to be the leader of the northern part of our boundaries (the less fortunate section of town, and right next door to an area completely wiped out by one of the tornadoes) but I had two hours to get all of my volunteers to a location I didn’t know, cover all the area of a location I didn’t even know the boundaries of, and mobilize them in the most effective way possible. In addition to this, I have only been in Alabama for four months and only visited the northern portion of our ward to pick up a friend and bring him to church. I felt completely inadequate for the position yet was excited about the opportunity. Lest you think I was alone in leading this group of volunteers I was given an assistant leader, my roommate Laif who had been in the ward for about two weeks. We are both in our mid-twenties (myself being one of the youngest,) I am from Wyoming, Laif is from Utah, and neither of us knew the area very well.

We were the leaders of 1 of 4 groups which went out that day. Each group consisted of about 10-16 people. Our objective was to observe damaged areas and ask if the residents would like help in removing debris from their property. The owner would sign a waiver and we were to let them know help would come on the following Saturday and Sunday. A miracle happened that day as we mobilized our team. We were able to create detailed maps which showed the area we were to cover, and we were able to divide them into smaller zones where a team would be assigned to go and observe damage and collect waivers. The miracle came in the speed in which we were able to develop a plan, collect data, and organize/mobilize our teams. It was humbling to see those who we were in charge of because in our group were our four full-time missionaries, many wonderful and influential ward members, and our Bishop. This is the crew we were to lead in the area we didn’t know. The whole plan went off without a hitch and we were able to return and report our findings back to our leader who then reported them to his leader, who reported them their leader, and so on. It reminds me of Moses organizing the children of Israel when in Deuteronomy 1:15 he said, “So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among your tribes.” It was a privilege to work with and be a part of these captains.

As a side note when I was out collecting waivers my teammate and I were invited into a home for some water. The instant we walked in the smell of a southern fried chicken caressed my nose, and my stomach grumbled loudly.  We then told the family what we were doing and had a small chat with them. As we were leaving this very hospitable family I offered the compliment, “I feel I should let you know, someone in this house is an excellent cook and I don’t have to taste the food to know that!” I should have kept my mouth shut, because no sooner were the words out of my mouth than we were being barred from the door and forced back to the table where two large plates of  fried chicken, butter beans, biscuits, and creamed green beans were placed in front of us. There was nothing we could do to dissuade them from feeding us. So like a good boy, I dug right in! Honestly it was my first time I had ever been privileged to partake of homemade southern fried chicken and I have never tasted chicken as good as this chicken. After several pieces of chicken and many thanks we went on our way to finish out the day.

All of this organizing and data collecting was in an effort to create a way to disperse some 1,000 volunteers who were coming in to help on May 7-8. These volunteers were regular members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, the Carolinas, and other states. They left work, play, and responsibilities to offer help to those who had been plagued by the Tornadoes in Alabama. All of the data collecting we had done a few days before was placed in effect and the volunteers were divided into teams of hundreds, fifties, and tens. At my church there were about 300-400 volunteers, and we began to divide them into smaller groups. Once again I was asked to be part of a team of leaders who were in charge of the Northern Birmingham area and I was excited about the prospect of helping the people in that area.

Read Part 2 of Mormon Helping Hands in Alabama

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