Risking Going Hungry, Whether You Pay Your Tithing or Not

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my mother when I was a child. As I sat in our cramped apartment, watching her fill out a check to the Mormon church, she looked up at me and said, “Tithing is one rule I refuse to break. I don’t care how poor we are.”

We were pretty poor. My mother was a high-school-educated single mother working more than full-time to make enough to keep my sister and I in daycare (so she wouldn’t lose that same full-time job). It was a vicious cycle, and I remember her being constantly exhausted, but working hard to provide for me and my sister.

We didn’t have it as bad as we could have. We had an apartment in Section 8 housing, and while I remember some of its less-than-savory qualities, it was still a roof over our heads. Our clothes were from the thrift store, but my mom always made sure they were clean and that our hair was done. Our food was from the church, but we never went hungry. Our Christmas presents came from one of those Christmas angel trees, but we were grateful we had something to look forward to. We didn’t have much, but my mom worked her ass off to give us enough, and the church and the government stepped in to help.

I didn’t understand until I was older how much my mom gave up in return for the occasional trip to the Bishop’s Storehouse, where the church’s poor can collect groceries, household essentials and some clothing items upon recommendation from their ward leadership.

She dreaded the visit from the Relief Society, with their long lists of items by which they’d write a number that signified how many cans of peaches or pairs of socks you were allowed to get. She hated knowing that ward members knew we were a “Bishop’s Storehouse family,” even though there’s nothing wrong with that. She was grateful, to be sure, but it hurt.

Worst of all, though, was what she told me years later: that she could have made ends meet had she not had to pay tithing. It was giving up 10 percent of her income that caused her the pain of feeling helpless. But she refused to stop. She’d sit at our table, write a check, fill out her tithing slip and put it all in that little gray envelope to be tucked away for the next time she made it to church, when she wasn’t scheduled for a shift. And she kept paying and listening to promises of blessings from heaven and having to ask for help, another vicious cycle designed to keep her in it.

Every tithing payment meant more promised blessings and another trip to the Bishop’s Storehouse, and every trip to the Bishop’s Storehouse meant another reassurance that the Lord had blessed her faithfulness: By paying tithing, she had allowed God to open the windows of heaven, pouring her out a blessing in the form of church food. She couldn’t afford not to pay, they’d tell her. Even if it meant not paying her bills. Not paying for daycare.

My immediate reaction when I saw the news this week about the whistleblower complaint alleging the church had misled members over it’s $100 billion investment fund was, “Of course they did!” The Mormon church has shown time and again that its leaders have no problem using spiritual blackmail to keep members obedient — what motivation would they have to tell the truth about anything, let alone about financial decisions?

“We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation,” he said. “That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing.”

-Russell M. Nelson, in Kenya

I’m not surprised, but 3 days later, I’m still upset. I’m upset for all the single parents out there trying to decide between God and feeding their children. I’m upset for all the members out there struggling to make ends meet, but still carving out a chunk of their paycheck for tithing. I’m upset for the broke college students, the minimium-wage employees, the members in developing nations who are literally being told that paying tithing to a church that has more money than the entire GDP of their country will break the cycle of poverty that has gripped them for decades.

The LDS church doesn’t need your money; it’s plenty adept at making it on its own. What it needs is for people to hold it accountable, to insist they deserve to see how the church hoards their hard-earned money while claiming to be a charitable organization. I’m not very tight with God these days, but I sincerely doubt he would ask the world’s poor to sacrifice so much while his representatives are sitting on enough resources to make a significant difference in the lives of so many, if they cared to. It’s just ever more clear that they don’t.

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