After spending 19 years as a prisoner, Jean Valjean, one of the lead characters in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables, is released from jail.
“Exhausted by a long voyage and dying of hunger and thirst, he arrives in a small town seeking a place to find food and shelter for the night. When the news of his arrival spreads, one by one all the inhabitants close their doors to him.
“Not the hotel, not the inn, not even the prison would invite him in. He is rejected, driven away, banished. Finally, with no strength left, he collapses at the door of the town’s bishop.
“The good clergyman is entirely aware of Valjean’s background, but he invites the vagabond into his home with these compassionate words:
“‘This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door does not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. … before you told me [your name], you had one which I knew.’
“[Valjean] opened his eyes in astonishment. “‘Really? You knew what I was called?’
“‘Yes,’ replied the Bishop, ‘you are called … my brother.’”
Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, in his conference talk, “Ye Are No More Strangers,” shared this story of Jean Valjean and said: “In this Church, there are no strangers and no outcasts. There are only brothers and sisters.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/10/ye-are-no-more-strangers?lang=eng)
Today, Valjean, the dirty, homeless, ex-convict outcast, might be labeled one of society’s marginalized.
This term comes from the word margin, which, of course, is the blank space surrounding the text in a book. It means to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.
The term includes a long list of cultures and populations including people of color, those living in poverty, those who are homeless, people with mental illness, those suffering with addiction, refugees, those who are or were in prison, the sick and those with disabilities, LGBTQ+, veterans, senior citizens and more.
They are often victims of discrimination, violence, social stigma, and assault. Sometimes they are abused or exploited and mistreated, even by people they know and love.
Some of our current apostles have spoken recently on the marginalized.
Discussing youth suicide prevention, Elder Ronald A. Rasband: said: “To those who feel alone, rejected, or marginalized or who feel, for any reason, that taking their life might be the solution to their problems, know that you are loved, valued, and respected. Talk to someone. You don’t need to suffer alone. We love you and we need you.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/elder-rasband-highlights-suicide-prevention-resources-for-members-and-leaders?lang=eng)
Elder M. Russell Ballard taught: “We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism. We truly believe the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/10/the-trek-continues?lang=eng)
Elder Dale G. Renlund said: “Reach out (to) those … who feel marginalized in any way. We need to reach out with love and understanding.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/reach-out-in-love-elder-renlund-says-in-new-suicide-prevention-videos?lang=eng)
In speaking about the LGBTQ community, President Dallin H. Oaks said: “Regretfully, some continue to feel marginalized and rejected by some members and leaders in our families, wards, and stakes. (They) should be treated with the love our Savior commands us to show toward all our neighbors.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/35oaks?lang=eng)
Let me repeat that. They should be treated with the love our Savior commands us to show toward all our neighbors.
Are we doing that? Am I doing that? Are we loving those who feel marginalized as the Savior would love them?
Today I want to dig into the Book of Mormon a bit on this subject, examine some thoughts from a couple of conference talks and BYU devotionals, and share how studying these things has helped me grow closer to Jesus Christ.
So to begin, let’s take a look at who He was.
In a BYU devotional last year, Phillip Rash, a psychologist and dean of undergraduate education, called Jesus a Marginalized Savior. (https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/phillip-d-rash/looking-to-the-margins-creating-belonging/)
“I believe it is critical for us to remember that Christ Himself lived on the margins and that his own marginalized status was intentional and foretold by the ancient prophets.
“Perhaps Christ had to live a life of marginalization and rejection because the Father knew that those two things would be both pervasive and painful to many of His children during mortality.”
In Alma chapter 7, we read: “And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind … he will take upon him their infirmities, that (he) may be filled with mercy … that he may know … how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”
Rash continued: “When the Savior visited the inhabitants of this continent, He … provide[d] us with a robust blueprint for discipleship.”
In 3rd Nephi chapter 17, addressing the multitude, he said:
“Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you…” (verse 7)
“… all the multitude … did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and … (all) that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one…” (verse 9)
In chapter 27, it says: “…this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that – shall – ye – also – do.” (verse 21)
Today, “age-old prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities, against the poor, against women, against our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters have left long-lasting scars. Similarly, religious differences continue to engender deep division and hatred, even within families.” (Rash)
President Oaks, during the “Be One” celebration, said: “Racism is probably the most familiar source of prejudice today, and we are all called to repent of that. But throughout history, many groups of God’s children are or have been persecuted or disadvantaged by prejudices, such as those based on ethnicity or culture or nationality or education or economic circumstances.”
I’ve seen a couple of experiences recently that shows racism exists within the church today, one with a member of Brother Wood’s family at a church event this past summer and just this week at a BYU Black History Month event. I heard several other stories well. As true followers of Jesus Christ, and especially with our history of persecution, this is beyond my comprehension. And yet, church leaders keep calling us to repentance because it’s still pervasive.
Pres. Oaks continued: “As servants of God … we should … abandon all prejudices.”
Even though many of us share a common church membership, Rash said there are different ways to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
BYU professor of ancient scripture, Eric D. Huntsman, addressed this in a devotional given in August of 2018. (https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/eric-d-huntsman/hard-sayings-and-safe-spaces-making-room-for-both-struggle-and-faith/)
He said: “Without diluting the doctrine or compromising the standards of the gospel, we must open our hearts wider, reach out farther, and love more fully.
“We should never fear that we are compromising when we make the choice to love.”
He shared the story of Tom Christofferson, a gay member of the church and brother of Elder D. Todd Christofferson. “Accepting others does not mean that we condone, agree with, or conform to their beliefs or choices,” he said, “but simply that we allow the realities of their lives to be different from our own.”
“Whether those different realities mean that they look, act, feel, or experience life differently than we do, the unchanging fact is that they are (ALL) children of loving Heavenly Parents.”
Huntsman continued: “We have been commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and when it comes to neighbors, there are no outsiders. Perhaps even more importantly, even when our fellow Saints find themselves outside of formal church fellowship or membership, they should never find themselves outside of the fellowship of our friendship and the circle of our love.”
So, if we are to do what the Savior did … “Perhaps we (should) begin by opening ourselves up to the idea that there are, in reality, people who feel as though they do not fully belong.” Rash said “instead of working to bring about an immediate change in behavior, belief, or attitude, we can listen with love and seek to understand.”
He said: “Often the factors that place and keep individuals on the margins … are extremely complex and usually have very deep sociological and historical roots.”
So, “when we are tempted to respond (that) ‘they just need to try harder,’ we (should heed) the warning given by King Benjamin” in Mosiah 4:
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, . . . for his punishments are just.” (verse 17)
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth … he perisheth forever…” (verse 18)
This applies to all who do not feel fully accepted. King Benjamin reminds us, “Are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have …?” (verse 19)
“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are … O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.” (verse 21)
“And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you … I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.” (verse 26)
This is the way our Savior showed us.
In his October 2018 conference talk, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said: “Jesus walked among the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the ashamed. He ministered to the powerless, the weak, and the friendless. He spent time with them; He spoke with them.” He loved them. (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2018/11/saturday-afternoon-session/believe-love-do?lang=eng)
“(This love) isn’t a gift-card, throwaway, move-on-to-other-things love. It isn’t a love that is spoken of and then forgotten. It is not a ‘let me know if there is anything I can do’ sort of love.
“(This love) … is endless compassion that allows us to more clearly see others for who they are. Through the lens of pure love … we cannot discount, disregard, or discriminate against anyone.”
So let me share a few more examples from the Book of Mormon … first Jacob, then Alma, then I’ll circle back to Nephi before a few thoughts from Elder Holland on the Zoramites.
Jacob, speaking to the people of Nephi, says:
“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.
“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
“And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.” (Jacob 2:17-19)
The problem for the Nephites – and for many today – “is not necessarily that they sought after wealth, but that they did so with the intention of lifting themselves up over their brethren.”
There’s a phrase in that first verse that I’ve always just glossed over until I was reading a book by Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming. And that is: “be familiar with all.” (The Book of Mormon For the Least of These – https://www.amazon.com/Book-Mormon-Least-These/dp/1948218232/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=)
Look around you and see what people need. This goes back to Elder Uchtdorf saying that it isn’t a “let me know if there is anything I can do” love. It’s us really knowing a person or community and recognizing needs.
“This is (having a) relationship with those around us in order to know how to give of our substance. Be familiar with all, without discrimination or limits.” (Salleh and Olsen Hemming). Are there members of the LGBTQ+ community here amongst us? How are they doing? What do they need? How can we better love and serve them? Are there homeless in our community? How are they doing? What do they need? How can we better love and serve them?
During Alma’s time, he saw “great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with pride, despising others, turning their backs on the needy and the naked and those who were hungry … athirst … sick and afflicted.” (Alma 4:12).
“Yea, will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another; yea, will ye persist in the persecution of your brethren…
“Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?” (Alma 5:54-55)
We can insert any group of marginalized people into this, not just the poor and needy.
Will you persist in turning your backs upon: refugees or those seeking asylum?
Will you persist in turning your backs upon: ex-convicts or those suffering with addiction?
Will you persist in turning your backs upon: people with mental illness or other sickness?
In 2 Nephi 26:33, it says: the Lord “doeth that which is good among the children of men … and he inviteth … all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
In the story of the creation, Biblical scholars point to the use of merism, where two ends of the spectrum are named as a way to encompass the entire spectrum in between. This means God created the light and the dark, but also every point of dawn and dusk in between. (Salleh and Olsen Hemming).
Here in Nephi, “God welcomes not just black and white people, but also every (beautiful) shade of pink and brown skin in between. He welcomes slaves and those who are free, but also every person who lives in conditions like poverty and debt that make them only partially free.” (Salleh and Olsen Hemming).
ALL are alike unto God.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in his conference talk, “A Handful of Meal and a Little Oil,” said: “There is a particularly reprensible moment in the Book of Mormon in which a group of vain and unchristian Zoramites, after climbing atop their Rameumptom and declaring their special standing before God, immediately proceed to cast the poor from their synagogues, synagogues these needy had labored with their own hands to build. They were cast out … simply because of their poverty.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1996/05/a-handful-of-meal-and-a-little-oil?lang=eng)
“A penetrating scriptural line that forever speaks to the real plight and true pain of the impoverished … reads, ‘They were poor as to things of the world; and also they were poor in heart.’ Indeed they were ‘poor in heart, because of their poverty as to the things of the world.’”
“Directly countering the arrogance and exclusivity which the Zoramites had shown these people, Amulek gives a stirring sermon: ‘if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance … to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.’”
Alma and his brethren “did receive all the poor of the Zoramites that came over unto them; and they did nourish them, and did clothe them, and did give unto them lands for their inheritance; and they did administer unto them according to their wants.” (Alma 35:9).
Elder Holland said: “I know that the gospel of Jesus Christ holds the answer to every social and political and economic problem this world has ever faced. I know we can each do something, however small that act may seem to be … May (God) bless us to hear the often silent cries of the sorrowing and the afflicted, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, the poor … to hear the whispering of the Holy Spirit when any neighbor anywhere ‘is suffering, to ‘drop everything and come running.’”
Elder Gary E. Stevenson has taught: “The Book of Mormon is the engine that powers conversion and a change of heart, leading us closer to Jesus Christ.” (https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/gary-e-stevenson/the-ongoing-restoration/)
I believe that to be true. It has happened to me. As I’ve read the Book of Mormon and learned more about the Savior’s marginalized life, how he lived and how he loved, my heart has changed.
It’s led me to a greater desire to love my neighbors and to ask some tough questions of myself. Who are the marginalized in our community? In our ward? Who have I been turning my back on?
This is something I thought I was doing pretty well. But has it been enough? Are we doing enough? I’m not saying we should run faster than we have strength. But are there changes needed?
How would we react to a dirty, homeless, ex-convict outcast like Valjean who comes into our community? How can we listen with greater love and seek to better understand? How can we better love as the Savior loved?
There are no strangers. There are no outcasts. Only brothers and sisters. All are alike unto God.
Jacki wrote and presented this on 2/9/20 at her church in Missouri (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) which has no paid clergy so members take turns speaking to the congregation.
Thank you, Jacki, for sharing this wonderful talk!