The central theme of Christianity and Mormonism is that the worth of every single soul is great. There’s not a person alive that is not of value. The sole point of religion is to help each of us recognize the worth of others, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they look like, or what they do. Christianity really emphasizes the message through the life of its central figure, Jesus, whose life was anticipated in Old Testament scripture as someone coming from a place of little consequence.
2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
The story of Christ’s birth and life is obviously well known. A virgin birth in a manger, in poverty and obscurity to a people subjected to Roman rule who came not to bring political deliverance but rather living water with a promise that those who drink will never thirst again. Consistently, he hung out with the poor, the underclass, the sick, the afflicted and the sinner and saved his most severe condemnation not for those who are weak, but for those with power, authority and money. His theology is both hyper-personal and revolutionary, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first last. This is a challenging example to follow. To take it seriously means we need to take every single person on this planet as individuals with worth.
With that as a backdrop I recently finished the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”. Here the author describes individual lives in an Indian slum situated near an airport in Mumbai. The author goes out of her way to bring to light the poignant, beautiful lives of the people struggling to survive under severe poverty. Thousands of people crammed between a sewage lake and an airport, neglected, ignored and dismissed by the broader society.
This quote from the book is typical, but also remarkable in how it echos the story of the Good Samaritan only without the Samaritan and with the miserable backstories of each person passing by the injured man:
“One dawn in July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying in the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little; he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile a way. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.
Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed by this way every morning.
Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. ‘This one is even drunker than your father,’ one of Rahul’s friends teased him. ‘Drunker than your father,’ Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbor dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man on the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.
When Zehrunisa Hussain passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell far across the city in the Arthur Road jail.
Mr. Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of business and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had once been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one.
When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly. At 2:30 P.M., a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend in the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children. At 4 P.M., constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the disease that trash-pickers were known to carry.
Unidentified body, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.”
The nameless scavenger who lost his name and significance from birth. Shutoff from education off from an education and eventually even a home – his life is not told in this story. As an old man, he’s hit by a car and left to die on the side of the road. But then, even after death, he’s severed from all ties to whatever family he may have had, discarded and forgotten to history, forever.
And I get why this is so difficult. It’s easy to race on by a homeless man pushing a shopping cart slowly on the sidewalk. In India, more so. I spent three and a half weeks there, in 20001 and felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people and especially the masses of poverty. How do you consider the one individual when there were so many.
I’ve already described Christianity’s core mission. To offer hope, significance and worth to the poor, forgotten, diseased and sinful. That was Christ’s core message and mission. Mormonism came along much later, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, an American Christian church. Among Mormonism’s innovations is its emphasis on familial relationships. Joseph Smith taught the eternal nature not just of our lives but of our relationships and built temples in which Mormons perform sacred ordinances and make sacred covenants to remember our dead – all of our dead. It’s one of the core missions of the church to bind and seal the entire global family to each other. Not one person forgotten, not one person lost.
But the only way for this to happen is if each one of us noticed just a few more people. And this is why Mormons are asked to do family history work. To bring out of obscurity those in our family tree who would be forgotten otherwise.