All that is needed is the religious will

Thabo Leshilo

Imagine walking into a supermarket, picking up what you want and going home to feed and clothe yourself and your family without paying a cent.

Pie in the sky? No. I saw this happening with my own sceptical eyes on a recent visit to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons, at Salt Lake City, Utah.

Many South Africans will be more familiar with the church's world-famous choir, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

This beneficence came to mind when I listened to President Thabo Mbeki at the opening of parliament when he implored us "to act in partnership to realise the happiness for all that comes with liberty".

In my book, nothing is uglier and more repulsive than human beings wallowing in poverty.

Though commendable, economic and social programmes to combat poverty such as the government's public works programmes, welfare grants and its promotion of small, medium and micro-enterprises are only limited measures that cannot eradicate poverty.

Civil society must roll up its sleeves and get to work if the 57percent of our population who live below the poverty line are to also enjoy the fruits of liberty and make sense of the ubiquitous talk of an economic boom.

For me the church, more than any other vehicle of social mobilisation, can play an invaluable role in the fight against poverty.

The gospels say that man shall not live by bread alone. But what is the value of a sermon about freedom from hunger guaranteed by heaven to a man battling hunger pangs and preoccupied with quelling the rumbling in his empty stomach?

The Mormons can teach our churches a thing or two about ensuring that the multitudes who look up to them do not live in misery while waiting for heaven.

I think we have a potentially potent force in the fight against poverty in the millions of faithful who belong to the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), Nazareth Baptist Church (Shembe), the International Pentecostal Church (IPC) and the myriad other charismatic churches in this country as well as in people of other faiths.

Money need not be an insurmountable problem considering the millions collected every week by these churches. All that is required is the religious will.

As my visit to the Mormons' welfare centre showed, volunteerism lies at the heart of successful mass mobilisation to combat poverty.

The Mormon church's humanitarian effort is based on the principle of self-reliance supported by the voluntary contributions of church members. Church members also fast one Sunday each month and donate the money they would have spent on food to the church's humanitarian relief efforts.

Those who fall on hard times can tap into the church's elaborate welfare system when referred to the distribution centre - the shop I referred to earlier - by their bishop as head of their congregation.

But so as not to encourage dependency nothing is granted mahala and welfare recipients are expected to contribute voluntary work.

Run by volunteers, the welfare centre at Salt Lake City looks like a modern production facility and the fresh produce and dairy products the facility uses come from church-owned farms.

The church also runs employment centres where out-of-work people, not only church members, are helped to cope with their stress and to find decent jobs.

I could not help comparing their situation with what we have at home. How successful has our volunteer programme, Vukuzenzele, which Mbeki launched two years ago, been?

We obviously have a long way to go before we grasp the true meaning of volunteerism, which entails giving of your time for the good of others.

Irvin Khoza, chairman of Fifa's World Cup local organising committee, hit the nail on the head recently, calling for people to volunteer to make visitors to the 2010 World Cup feel at home. He warned against the tendency for volunteers to toyi-toyi, demanding payment.

The Mormons are but one example of voluntary effort for the good of a community. Israel's kibbutzim are another.

But a model is unimportant; we just need to get off our duffs and do something here and now.