Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Lessons from the Beggars of Shanghai

I've learned a lot from the beggars of Shanghai. I have had a few painful lessons but also some sweet spiritual experiences in connecting with the ones that are really in need.

A few nights ago as I walked out of a restaurant I wanted to try but just didn't feel right about eating at, I was approached very quietly by a young girl, perhaps 18, but too thin and definitely poor. Timid, shy, sorry to bother me, she explained in Chinese that she and her mother needed help to get back to Nanjing. My "shake down" alarm went off, as usual, and I was going to just give a token amount and walk away, but as I looked at her, and then her mother who was also there, it just seemed obvious that she wasn't used to this and really was in a tight spot. I gave a large bill and they lit up and I walked away. Then there was a tug on my arm. They were following me, gently, but persistently, for the daughter had more to say. I supposed they found someone gullible enough and didn't want to lose out on trying for more. But it seemed they really did need a little more, and perhaps I could help. I did. I doubled what I had given before and apparently exceeded their expectations. They seemed so relieved and glad. They followed me some more, not asking for more, but glad to have someone that was friendly to them. What cemented my trust for them was their expression of gratitude and an offer to welcome me in Nanjing if I ever come there. I do go there, I told them, and would be glad to introduce me my wife to them. So they wrote down their phone number and appeared happy at the thought of being visited there. I then gave them some more cash. They were OK with that and extremely gracious.

OK, maybe it was all a con job, but I also know that there are truly needy people who don't want to beg but really need someway to ask for help. The girl was awkward, timid, inexperienced, humble, and so relieved to get the help they needed. The mom was sweet and seemed like one of the hardy good people of China that I love so much. It just made me glad that I was able to be there and help, and not just blow them off. I hope I successfully distinguished an appropriate and legitimate need from a con job. I skipped the fancy dinner I was going to eat that night (I was a lone bachelor then with my wife in the U.S.) to partially make up for the cost of helping them, and was glad to just eat some food from the refrigerator. I really hope I made a difference. I did follow up a few days later and they were in Nanjing and seemed to be managing OK, and didn't ask for more money. As far as I can tell at this point, they were legitimately in need and are good people. If I'm right, I am glad I was able to help. I can't do this for everyone, but I could for them.

Another lesson came a couple of weeks ago with a man who approached me on the street. He seemed to be acting like he was hungry and like he couldn't talk well. He pointing to his mouth, grunting or moaning for food and holding out his hand for money. Yeah, right. Unconvinced, I said, “OK, let me buy you some food.” He looked confused. I pointed to a little convenience store nearby, sort of an open kiosk, and told him to come over there with me and I would get him some food (unspoken thought: "as if you're really hungry, you scammer!"--I was really feeling about that skeptical). I walked over to the store and naturally, he didn't follow.

I gave him another chance and pointed at the food there. Then he got it. He cautiously walked over and looked. My goodness, he looked at the food as if he might really did want to eat something. I said, "If you want some food, I'll buy some. Go ahead, pick something." He cautiously pointed to some instant noodles. Yes, I'll pay for this. More? Then some chicken feet or something weird and cheap like that, and a drink, and another snack. Sure, I'll pay. Then he seemed really excited and got another item, looking at me like a child looking to see if it was OK to add it. I gave a nod and he was glad. I paid for it as the storekeeper and his friends laughed at the whole situation. High comedy, this weird American in a suit buying snacks for a beggar. It was only about $8. When it was paid for and handed to the man, that son of God that I had distrusted was so happy. Tears came to his eyes and he smiled with his rotten, disgusting, damaged, missing teeth and thanked me with words he could barely utter with his speech impediment and then hugged me, twice. We were brothers, united for a sacred moment. I need to go back and feed him again as I remember this event.

And then there are crooks and thieves and con men who spoil the joy of helping the needy and make it hard to give where it matters. Thank goodness for the Church welfare program and for all the other good charities around the world that work directly with the needy and try to help in the right way, but these are never enough and we must do our own hand-to-hand combat with poverty from time to time, when possible. Someday I hope I can develop ninja-like skills in that regard. And it’s one of the things that energizes me about my work, the idea that I can help create jobs and wealth for others in a part of the world that truly needs more prosperity.

As for the problem of poverty, I’ll share my most recent story with beggars. On my way back from loading up on cash a nearby ATM, I walked past a woman clearly in need of help. A poor woman who was digging through a garbage can and pulling out some food items that I guess she was going to eat. I think she was looking for recyclable plastic as well. I walked past and felt bad for just ignoring her and wondered what to do, since she wasn’t asking for help. With a prayer in my heart, not wanting to offend her or embarrass her but just wanting to help, I approached her and discreetly held out a bill and said something like, “Here, you can buy some food.” She looked up at me with beautiful, intelligent eyes set firmly in her tight, skinny face. There was a gracious smile and a polite bow but then a firm shaking of the head. “No, no,” she insisted and waved the cash away. She wouldn’t take it. She didn't seem offended and I think she understood my intentions and smiled kindly, but was firm in turning me down.

There was grace and dignity in that smile from an impoverished woman who wouldn’t take unearned cash. I could do nothing more, smiled back, and walked back to the luxury of my simple apartment. A few steps later, I stepped over a trampled, flattened white flower on the cement and recognized it as a painful symbol of that woman. She had flattened by economic burdens, with potential unrealized under the pressures of life. What would her life be like if she had the blessings of education and did not need to spend her days digging through garbage to survive?

How great the need is to lift people and nations from poverty. This is why I’m passionate about innovation, about new products and the jobs that can be created in healthy markets and the lives that can be enhanced with economic development. This is why business matters to me, at least somewhat. Economic development can lift the poor in ways my little handouts never could.

On the other hand, those in poverty may have wisdom and spiritual strength that the wealthy will never know, unless they repent and humble themselves in serving others. It’s wrong to think that the woman digging through garbage lives a less meaningful or precious life than mine and that her mortal sufferings can’t be used by God to refine her for great and wise eternal ends. But I think the world would be much better if she had enough for her and her family, and could spend more of her time developing new skills and gaining new knowledge in other ways, ways that are difficult for the poor. God can certainly use poverty, but I think the world could use a lot less of it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Volunteerism: The Spirit of Service is Brooding Over China

One of many factors that makes me hopeful for the future of China is the spirit of service and volunteerism among this great people, especially in the rising generation of college students. For example, one magical young lady named Hermione (a name she chose based on the Harry Potter novels) was inspired by the principles of leadership she learned in a class taught by a remarkable LDS woman at her university. She realized that she does not have to wait for government or others to solve problems, but that she can take steps herself now to make the world better. When she learned of the severe poverty in the remote town of her ancestors, she decided to make a difference. She went there, learned of the needs, documented the problems, came up with a plan, organized other students and in cooperation with international sources began raising significant funds to help the students in an impoverished school lacking so many basics. She formed a charitable organization, got it properly registered, and even went before a government body with a specific proposal for what actions they could and should take to complement the volunteer work underway. She prevailed and obtained significant help from the government. A school that had only an abacus or two as educational tools now has a computer lab, books, and other items needed for better education, along with newly constructed and safe classrooms. 

This young lady is CEO material--what a leader! Yet she is so humble and sweet. But when I look at the fruits of her work and the extensive attention to detail, I just marvel. I was also glad to be able to connect her with the large charitable foundation that my employer has--one of the most significant such organizations in China--and with another foundation that I encountered through my LDS-related networking in Shanghai. Both foundations are interested in her work and with luck there may be additional funding for her project (definitely in the works, in fact).

Her organization was one of many represented at a volunteer fair I attended recently at a campus of Nanjing University celebrating youth service on Global Youth Service Day, the largest service event in the world.  I'm not quote sure why (because I was wearing a suit?), but the TV crew covering the story asked me to comment on the event and on why volunteerism is important. (If you saw a tall funny-looking foreigner on TV trying to speak Chinese, maybe that was me.) At this event I met one inspiring and selfless student after another with various service projects aimed at helping others in China. These are the leaders that will change the world for good.

There has been some bad press from unusual incidents in which people in China seemed to ignore victims of accidents. But in my experience, I see a healthy amount of compassion on the streets--people quietly helping beggars and doing other small acts that show they care. I'm not saying they are the majority, but there are many of them. When two or three or several hundred are gathered into volunteer organizations like those sprouting at many universities, and when they get a little mentoring on how to lead and serve, they are a potent force for good.

Here are some photos from the event. Included are some of our wonderful Young Single Adults from the Nanjing Branch, my wife, the woman who teaches leadership and other skills, and some of the future leaders of China.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Checking Out City Creek Mall: What Was All That Fuss About?

After all the grumbling and accusations I've heard from critics of the Church over the City Creek Center (the big new mall in downtown Salt Lake City), I put on my spiritual flak jacket and went to downtown Salt Lake City during a brief visit to see the tragedy for myself. My testimony somehow came out unscathed. OK, it helps knowing a little about the purpose of the Mall (giving back to the community to create jobs, reducing urban blight, and making the downtown Salt Lake City area hosting Church headquarters more vibrant and healthy) and the facts about the money (not tithing money). But there's nothing like seeing, and tasting, for one's self. I really enjoyed the visit, though I'm not into shopping and mall scenes. But this is much more interesting than just a mall. It's a beautiful, innovative, artfully landscaped and designed center that makes the downtown much more of an attraction.  I asked an ex-Mormon friend who is a successful and highly connected businessman what he thought of the Mall. He gave it a thumbs up for having a strong positive impact on the economy. Looks like the mission is being accomplished. Lots of people having fun and lots of employees having good work. Not bad.

Here are a few photos. More photos are on my webpage at www.jefflindsay.com/salt-lake-city-photos.html.  Click to enlarge.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Appreciating the Restoration of Ancient Christian Concepts: Baptism for the Dead and Related Doctrines

Sometimes we Latter-day Saints get too caught up with out day-to-day activities or with our own personal discontents and fail to appreciate just how marvelous the Restoration has been. Some aspects of the Restoration demand much more contemplation and study to realize how majestic and miraculous they are, but too often we take them for granted and see them as more human or random than they really are. Baptism for the dead is one of those unique fruits of the Restoration that really deserves a lot more respect, admiration, and contemplation. Toward that end, here are some great resources that can help us better appreciate the big picture and strengthen our appreciation of the marvels in our midst. Baptism for the dead is nothing to be embarrassed about (and nothing to fear, for those of you outside the Church), but is actually something to celebrate and marvel at.

Recommended readings:
Are there other resources you would recommend? Besides my LDSFAQ page on baptism for the dead, of course.

Monday, May 07, 2012

17 Miracles: A Film About More Than Just a Handcart Company

While visiting family in Salt Lake City yesterday, I was able to view the film 17 Miracles. First, the camera work was outstanding as was the acting and directing, IMHO. The movie helped me to better appreciate why the story of the Willie Handcart Company gets so much attention in Church lore. It really is a compelling symbol of our mortal journey, highlighting the human goodness that can be found in the midst of trouble, and the tender mercies of the Lord that we can experience on a trail of tears. Further, the humble faithfulness of Levi Savage illustrates so much about the Gospel that we need to know in our day. How does one deal with the failings of mortal Church leaders while yearning for the perfection that only God has? Levi's example is one we should discuss even more that we have in the past.

I know the frustration of working with well-meaning leaders who make what decisions that surely seem to be wrong. I wish I had always exhibited the graciousness and humility and true leadership shown by Levi Savagte who knew that the late departure of the Willie Handcart Company would result in tragedy. Though rebuffed for his wise counsel to wait until spring and even publicly criticized by his priesthood leader, Levi refused to walk away, refused to give in to his pride, and humbly stayed on to support the group and sustain his errant leader in faith. He was not of a mind to belittle others in their mortal failings, but to build up the Kingdom of God and render relief to those who would suffer. My soul rejoices that there have been and still are such men as Levi Savage, and I encourage all of you to ponder the example depicted in this movie.

The problem of pain and suffering is also beautifully addressed in the true story told in 17 Miracles. We are here on a mortal journey where death and suffering are inevitable. God could have prevented the tragic late departure of the group and whisked them all safely to Zion. But our journey must go forward, and though we may suffer, He is still there. Though we may die, He is still there. His tender mercies may come in surprising ways--an angel-baked pie for a woman about to go mad in despair, a miraculous stranger offering dried meat jerky, a rescue squad at the final moment when all hope seemed lost, and Levi Savage himself wondering, as my own father did once in the midst of battle in Korea, who it was at his back pushing him forward, turning to find no one there.

In my father's case, it was while desperately seeking to protect his men under a savage attack, picking up a 75-mm recoilless rifle and rile mount, a load normally meant for 4 or 5 men, and running with that load up a steep hill to get the rifle in position to repulse an attack As he climbed the hill with his great burden, he thought it was the men in his squad pushing him forward, but when he reached his destination and turned around, he saw that the men in his squad were still yards away, delayed by the time they needed to strap on backpacks to carry the shells for this massive weapon. He was puzzled, and only later appreciated that this was one of many miracles he experienced in the midst of war's horrors, miracles that softened his heart and helped a rebellious young man find God. I owe my own life and a part of my own testimony to the miracles that he experienced, though the price he paid in experiencing war was a great one, coupled with many tender mercies. So it is for many mortal journeys. May we not forget the lessons of those who went before us to bring us to Zion.

Ugly TSA Episodes: Does China Have More Freedom Than the United States?

After living in China and traveling to many parts of Asia this past year, it was a real shock coming to the United States a few days ago. The feeling of helplessly facing unbridled power was greatest when encountering the TSA gang in the land of liberty. Going through security in China, an officially Communist nation, is a pleasant breeze. They are fast, friendly, and respectful of personal privacy, in my opinion. Not so TSA in the United States. Not only are lines longer and slower than in many Asian nations, so it seems to me, but the procedures and attitudes seem more like what one would expect from a totalitarian power.

After flying from Shanghai to San Francisco, TSA caused me to miss my connection to Salt Lake, resulting in an 8-hour delay for the next available flight. After waiting through a long line, I had the choice of doing the objectionable "nude scan" or having the objectionable personal pat down. I would have preferred the pat down as a matter or principle, but could see that time was running out and so, to save time, submitted sheepishly to the nude scanner. Unfortunately, I still had on a simple knee brace and a money bag. I offered to take them off and go through again, but they refused to consider that option. I wait to wait a long time for a personal pat down, and then that wasn't good enough, so they took me to a private screening room once it became available for a more invasive pat down. They had to thumb through my cash in the money belt and ask me questions about it. America is safer, but I missed my flight. Ugh.

And then this morning, the pat down in Salt Lake was way too personal. Offensive, invasive, abusive. Just an ugly experience. It was more invasive than the TSA group in San Francisco. Did you really have to prod and touch like that?