Mormon food bank a private welfare system

San Francisco Chronicle/march 8, 2009

Unemployed for a year and with an ailing wife at home, Mike Hammer stepped out of his truck in a Concord strip mall and walked into the heart of one of the most sophisticated private welfare systems in the country.

Here, in a plain white box of a building, Hammer and other Mormons come to get groceries - everything from produce to meats, much of which comes from Mormon-owned farms and cattle ranches.

Others come for counseling, employment help and a self-canning facility, where observant Mormons can up to a year's worth of food supplies in the event of an emergency. All services in the building, known as a Bishops' Storehouse, are intended to promote Mormon self-sufficiency.

"I'm not asking for money or somebody to do things for me," said Hammer, 36, a Brentwood father of three who carried away bread, milk, eggs, cheese, fruits and vegetables. "It's eased up finances a little bit."

The breadth and sophistication of Mormon social networks was glimpsed during the Proposition 8 campaign. But the recession and the increased demand it's putting on Mormon storehouses give a unique look into the elaborate organization of a religious group gaining influence in America.

"They're damn sophisticated people, for sure," said Rodney Stark, professor of sociology of religion at Baylor University and the author of "The Rise of Mormonism."

What makes the 110 storehouses around the country remarkable is that they are part of a system run almost entirely by volunteers. They grow the food on Mormon-owned farms, and package it at the storehouses. Volunteers drive trucks and deliver the food to distant wards - what Mormons call their sanctuaries - if recipients live more than 30 miles from a storehouse. As the recession has deepened, the church says it has seamlessly kept up with demand that increased 20 percent over the past year. But the intensely private church declined to say how many people or how much food that represented.

The volunteers include Wayne Bishop, 65, a retired electrical engineer from Pleasanton who is on an 18-month stint, spending roughly 20 hours a week co-managing the Concord storehouse.

"It's part of our dedication to the church," said Bishop. A calling

Volunteers are "called" to their roles. Callings, in religious terms, are often thought of as inner motivations. But for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is formally known, someone actually calls.

The volunteers are selected by bishops, the individuals who oversee wards, or stake presidents, who oversee clusters of wards. Bishops and stake presidents are themselves volunteers, creating a lay priesthood that defines the grassroots nature of the faith. The actual president of the entire church, currently Thomas S. Monson, is considered a divine prophet.

Some volunteer as a way to pay back the help they've received. Others volunteering at the Concord storehouse said they feel no pressure - and that they always have the choice to refuse. The motivation is religious.

"We really feel and believe 100 percent that our church is led by a prophet of God," said Diane Pergrossi, 61, who is on an 18-month calling to stock shelves and fill food delivery bins in the storehouse. "The people he has helping him are also inspired. It comes down to faith."

With 5.9 million members nationally and 750,000 in California, the church has a lot of volunteers to choose from. Observant Mormons are expected to volunteer some of their time regularly.

"The local bishop has all sorts of people for whom he's got to find things to do," said Stark, the sociology of religion professor. Stark has known elderly Mormons who get taken to doctors' appointments or have their houses painted. "They've got this enormous firepower to do all sorts of things."

In addition to tithing 10 percent of their income, adherent church members fast for two meals a month and contribute the cost of those meals to the church's welfare programs, which include the storehouses.

Lay leadership gives the church members a more personal and mystical connection to faith, Stark said, and it also means the church is run with the professional expertise its members can bring from successful business careers.

Church officials say those who've served on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church's highest leaders after the president, have included an airline industry executive, a Utah Supreme Court justice, an attorney and a heart surgeon.

This dynamic, Stark said, "makes for a very strong church." A long story

The origin of the storehouses stretches back to the church's early roots. Fleeing persecution, church members in 1847 began a series of journeys to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah. They created storehouses of grains and other goods along the trail to ease the journey for later groups.

During the Great Depression, the current concept of storehouses was formally established. The then-president of the church, Heber J. Grant, said that he had a revelation from God about the welfare system created by the New Deal.

"Our primary purpose was to set up, insofar as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self-respect be once more established amongst our people," Grant said, according to church officials.

The faith community's self-reliance has been invaluable to people like Laura DeVoe, whose husband, a general contractor, has had only sporadic work for three years. The Castro Valley family of three has come to the storehouse for food for the past four months.

"We're not able to pay bills or buy food," said DeVoe, 36.

She said what they get from the church goes beyond food. Their landlord, who is also Mormon, has let them do work instead of paying rent. She said he told her to "pay what you can, but pay your tithing first."

DeVoe, who supplements with food stamps what the church doesn't provide, said the help has eased much of the stress during this difficult time.

"I know that when we go to church and do what we're supposed to be doing, the Lord blesses us," she said. "We're able to be a tight-knit family."

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