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December 13, 2012
In The Village
The King Benjamin Society
by Orson Scott Card

During my mission in Brazil, we were forbidden to give money to beggars.

There were a lot of beggars. But whatever money we carried was intended to sustain us as we served the Lord by teaching the gospel. And, as our mission president pointed out, “Most of these beggars are professionals. They look pitiful as part of their trade.”

But each time I read the Book of Mormon, I got stuck in King Benjamin’s sermon, where he told us not to let the beggar put his petition to us “in vain.”

Perhaps we’ll tell ourselves, this man has brought his misery upon himself; I won’t share with him, because he deserves his suffering. But King Benjamin said that such people have “great cause to repent,” and unless we repent, we perish forever, and have no part in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:16-18).

Are we not all beggars?” asks King Benjamin. “Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches we have of every kind?” (v. 19).

Those words, and the verses that followed, struck me to the heart. I obeyed my mission president — because he was right — but I also made a vow that once I got home from my mission, and for the rest of my life, no beggar would put up his petition to me in vain.

The exception would be when I truly had nothing I could share, as King Benjamin allowed (4:24-25). I have to meet the needs of my own family; I have to pay my debts; nor can I give away the money my employees expect as their salaries.

I do allow myself another exception. In Greensboro there are teams of traffic-light beggars who are driven to their corners in the morning and picked up at night. They get rotated around, but I know them all now, and I figure that, having given to them once, and having ample evidence that this is their trade, years on end, I don’t have to believe their sad little signs any more.

I have given to them more than once; I don’t have to keep pouring God’s money into the bottomless well of professional beggary.

Because that’s a circumstance that King Benjamin didn’t mention: What if the beggar is lying? What if, in fact, he is not in need at all?

Among the Nephites of that time, anonymity was not possible. Everybody knew the people of their village, and nobody could get away with pretending to be in need.

But in our towns and cities there are so many people that liars and pretenders can usually get away with their cons and scams.

And you know what? I’m willing to be scammed a little, on the chance that I might be wrong and the person might be needy after all.

I’m pretty forthright about it. For instance, I was walking with a friend along a street in DC when a beggar accosted us with a high whining voice, exaggerating his southern-black accent, like a parody of the stereotypical Negro of 1930s movies.

So I said, cheerfully, “I’m going to give you five dollars, but I really don’t need the performance. You’re very good at it, but talk to me in your real voice, so we can do this man to man.”

Immediately his voice dropped into a normal range. “Fine with me,” he said. And then, because I kept my word and gave him the five, “Thanks.”

He got what he needed, and we were able to shed a layer of deception. But I would have given him the five even if the deception had continued.

I figured that by King Benjamin’s standard, and by the standard of D&C 104:15-18, that money did not belong to me. It had always belonged to God, and now it belonged to the man who asked me for it; the question of whether he was honest or deserving was not mine to judge.

But for bishops, administering the welfare funds of the Church, the question matters very much. Bishops are called to be judges. They are required to be wise stewards of the funds donated by the Saints, and there are rules, strict and wise, about how those funds are to be disbursed.

Welfare funds are not to be used to maintain well-to-do people in their lofty lifestyle. When a family in a fine house with fine cars suffers a loss of income, then they are responsible first to adjust their expenses to the change.

I have watched several bishops over the years, and I admire and love their justice and their mercy. They help people understand their own responsibility first, and then provide help even as the recipients do all that they can to earn their own way out of their dilemmas.

That is right — for the official Church, for the ordained Judge in Zion. Just as my mission president was right to forbid us missionaries to give to beggars during our mission.

But most of us are not bishops. Nor has the existence of the Church welfare system exempted us from the personal requirements laid upon us in Mosiah 4 and D&C 104.

So in our ward — as in many other wards and branches throughout the Church — there are many Saints who form an unofficial King Benjamin Society. And their bishops and branch presidents know about them.

Thus when gas prices rose suddenly in the summer of 2008, our bishop had a fistful of gas station debit cards, which did not come from Church funds, that he could give to struggling families. Cars have found their way to people who had lost their means of transportation. A mortgage or rent payment has been made to help tide someone over.

None of these needs met the standards for receiving Church welfare. But they met the standard of King Benjamin.

Many Saints have taken the law of consecration to heart. Blessed with more of the world’s goods than they have need of, they know that their surplus belongs to God.

Nor do they think their stewardship of these surplus goods gives them the right to judge others. They are eager to say to the bishop, “You know who is in need better than I do.”

Nothing goes on the books. There is no thought of tax deductions or other benefits to the giver. It isn’t their money, it is God’s, and they set that money free to do the work of mercy.

I know about these people because I have, from time to time in my life, been the beneficiary of their generous help. I have also followed along in the tracks of people doing such good works, for when I offered to help, I found that the help had already been given; by whom, I did not know, I was not told, I did not ask.

I knew this: The help was given by someone who believed King Benjamin.

This past week, I happened to be in a position to observe as the bishop relied on the King Benjamin Society to help a woman who had got the bishop’s phone number from the missionaries.

Just to give context, a few weeks earlier the bishop had been called twice by a person who claimed to have three hungry children in the first phone call, and five children in the second. The person insisted on cash instead of help in kind.

The changing story, the insistence on cash — both are red flags, and as a judge in Zion he determined that there was no actual need. He did not offer Church funds, and he did not call on the King Benjamin Society.

But then he got a phone call from this woman who had talked to the missionaries. She was being evicted from her home and was looking at two weeks of homelessness before she could move into her next place.

She claimed she had once been “a member of your church,” but from the way she talked, the bishop knew she had never been a Mormon. Nor did her name show up on any membership record in the stake.

But she was asking for housing, not money. The need was real.

Clearly this was a job for King Benjamin. The bishop handed the situation over to a Sister in the ward who had been known to take care of such matters before. The Sister arranged for a room at a Microtel in Burlington, where the needy woman claimed to have a job waiting for her.

From the moment the woman arrived, it was clear that she was taking advantage of the situation. She demanded a larger room, and the night clerk gave it to her. She had a friend with her — who then spent the night in a single occupancy room, though the woman denied it (the friend’s car stayed in its parking place all night).

The hotel manager and the Sister talked the next day. The larger room cost $20 a night more. And the manager knew the woman — she had stayed there before, her room paid for by another church. The woman always broke hotel rules by not allowing maids into the room. She left her phone off the hook and would not talk to management.

The manager and the Sister from the King Benjamin Society reached an understanding, and the Sister then talked to the woman on the cellphone she had used to call the bishop.

“We’re happy to provide this room for you,” said the Sister, “for the two weeks you asked for. We have paid for the smaller room, and that’s the only one being offered to you.

“You need to obey hotel rules, or we’ve authorized the management to remove your things from the room. That means letting the maids in once a day to clean. It means answering your telephone. If you can’t live with these rules, you can always choose to stay with the friend who brought you and spent the night with you.”

All of this was said with good cheer — and firmness. The woman had an answer for everything, of course. “The managers here are so rude to me!” “I’ve found a cheaper rate for a better room at the Econo-Lodge.” “I need the larger room because I have so much stuff.”

But the Sister, in the spirit of King Benjamin, did not argue. She merely said, “The room we’ve already paid for is the small one at the Microtel. That’s the only room we can share with you. I like working with the Microtel management. They’ve been completely honest with me about everything.”

The Sister knew she was being lied to. She knew that this woman was a scammer who had done this kind of thing before. The Sister didn’t get angry. She didn’t try to punish or confront or accuse the woman.

At the same time, she was able to say, “This is what you said you needed, and it’s what we’re offering. If you don’t need it after all, then that’s fine. No one is forcing you to stay.”

The Sister made it clear that she liked the managers because they hadn’t lied to her. She didn’t have to say to the woman, You have lied to us over and over.

This much was true: The woman really did need a place to stay. When the eleven a.m. deadline came, the woman changed to the smaller room and stayed. She grumbled the whole time about how she was being mistreated. Hotel management did not bother to point out that she was not paying for the room.

The King Benjamin Society helps imperfect people — because that’s the only kind they’re making these days. Just as I gave the whining beggar what he asked for, even though I knew his act was phony, so also this Sister helped the surly, ungrateful, lying woman — because she really needed a place to stay.

It was a transfer of God’s money from one temporary steward to another. It was handled kindly and firmly, with open hands and with open eyes.

The King Benjamin Society does not ask whether you brought your troubles on yourself.

At the same time, the King Benjamin Society only gives what it can, to meet a genuine need. It is perfectly fair, as steward of the Lord’s gift, to say, “This much is what we will share; if you need it, it’s yours. If you choose not to accept it, that’s fine, too; we will share with someone else instead.”

Here’s the strange thing about the King Benjamin Society. There are no dues. There is no membership list. Bishops know a few of the members, but there are many others that the bishop is unaware of.

Members of the King Benjamin Society can live in the same ward for years and have no idea that they are both part of that club.

All you have to do to join it is to share with someone in need. It doesn’t have to be a stranger — it usually isn’t.

Usually it’s a family member, or a good friend. Often it’s someone you hear about from a friend or family member, and you send your help along anonymously. “Just tell them a friend heard about their need and asked you to pass this along.”

There’s only one place where the roster of the King Benjamin Society is fully known, and where the record of its good works is kept.

When the keeper of that role meets each member (as he always does, eventually), he greets them the same way:

“Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matt. 25:23).

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