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As far as we know, only two religious societies have successfully built Zion: the City of Enoch and the people in the Americas after Christ’s visit. There are good reasons for this paucity of perfect societies: building a Zionistic society of “one heart and one mind” requires sacrifice and a proactive attitude from every individual towards living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not for the faint hearted.

Every branch and ward in the Church is an embryonic City of Zion. While our members may not yet have achieved perfect unity, each ward is perfectly structured by the Priesthood to help its members live in “a manner of happiness.” [1] Skeptics might argue that if so, why do people “ward shop” when choosing where to live? Why do some wards seem to thrive when others are barely holding it together? How does a ward effectively run Zion from the trenches up?

The Church Handbook provides policy and guidance for leaders and members but leaves it to the prerogative of individual leaders to seek revelation. No handbook can address specific needs such as how to help the newly baptized member who is angry at society and calls to talk for hours on end or the sister who has spent years hoarding objects and wants someone to sort all of her possessions. No one person can have all of the answers to every situation, but the Lord has given us a doctrinal framework that can be practically applied. Three of these doctrines—acting upon revelation, creating covenant relationships, and working within the structure of the Priesthood—can be useful tools for creating a Zion society.

Seeking Revelation and the Gift of Discernment in Service

In our ward, we had a man who wanted to bring his sons from West Africa to the United States before they turned 18 years old so that they could become U.S. citizens through the family immigration laws. Members sympathetic to his cause collected enough money to purchase the boys’ airline tickets and furnish the man’s new apartment. Relief Society sisters cooked and prepared frozen meals to stock his fridge. Once the boys arrived, young men leaders worked with the boys to register for school, apply for financial aid, and learn bus routes.

Soon after the boys’ arrival to the U.S., the family bought a large screen TV, leased a new Jeep, and bought two latest model iPhones because “the boys wanted them.” Members helped the older son receive a full scholarship to attend BYU.

Unfortunately, this son failed all but one of his classes the first year because he refused to attend classes and do the assignments. After the family stopped attending church and various members of the ward received many phone calls and letters from collection agencies for debts owed, some of the members became discouraged about the behavior of this family.

People’s motivations are complex and what drives them to do certain things may not be the same as what we see in mind for them. This experience taught many of us that:

  1. You can’t help someone if you don’t really know them.
  2. You need to know what to request from the recipient in order to provide accountability for donations or assistance.
  3. Helping individuals understand Gospel living standards should be the most important part of providing assistance.
  4. There is no “one size fits all” to a certain problem because each person is unique.

Had someone taken the time to sit down and really get to know the family, we may have discovered that prior to sponsoring his sons to become American citizens, the boys attended prestigious private schools and had a driver and household help. The boys came from a life of privilege and upon moving to America, struggled to adjust to living the average middle class life. Having this background information would have informed us of the “necessity” for the big screen TV, the iPhones, and the Jeep. Both the givers and receivers did not account for the different culture of the family. Casseroles may have made for easy freezer meals, but the family found the food the ward had to offer unsavory and much of the donated food was thrown away.

Praying for revelation and discernment and being "quick to observe" enables us to triage immediate versus long term needs, allowing us to appropriate limited resources. Individuals and families needing assistance most often approach leaders when their problems are pressing. However, Elder Boyd K. Packer counseled: “If all you know is what you see with your natural eyes and hear with your natural ears, then you will not know very much.” [2] Oftentimes, the actual problem is much deeper than what is apparent. What we see might just be a consequence or symptom of the issue that first needs to be addressed.

The gift of discernment helps us “to understand or know something through the power of the Spirit … It includes perceiving the true character of people and the source and meaning of spiritual manifestations.” [3] Our goal in seeking discernment is trying to see through the eyes of our Heavenly Parents. Seeking the gift of discernment before going headlong into service benefits both server and giver. When we hastily throw money, time, or human resources into a problem without first analyzing the situation, our good intentions can backfire. Taking time to pray, learn, and receive spiritual inspiration is necessary to align the wills of the giver and server to God’s will.

Aligning ourselves with the will of God takes effort, creativity, determination, and perseverance. It comes after we listen and council carefully with the individuals in need of help, research the problem, carefully consider different ways to approach the problem, and go in faith to the Lord to humbly ask Him if we are headed in the right direction. Furthermore, crucial to seeking discernment is time invested in getting to know the individual we are trying to help. Knowing and understanding a person’s motivation and goals, their weaknesses and strengths, means taking the time to build a relationship. As the church website puts it, “Every child of God is unique; therefore, effective ministering must be highly individualized and led by the Spirit. What works for one may not work for another. Leaders have encouraged Church members to begin ministering with prayer, keep it simple, and learn what works best for those they are called to serve.” [4]

The obvious goal in providing charity is to uplift the down-trodden, but Christ taught us that conversion to His gospel is the ultimate antidote to all societal problems. Elder Boyd K. Packer’s said, “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior … That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel.” [5]

If faith in Jesus Christ is the hinge for improving our lives, it is prudent to ask questions such as: Do the individuals we want to help want to succeed/change enough to sacrifice a lifestyle, commit to the commandments, do what it takes to receive a temple recommend, accept a calling, study the scriptures, and/or seek the Lord through prayer, and/or work? Of course, providing service is not transactional. However, limited resources require prioritization of those who may be most responsive to self-reliance principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even the Lord patiently waits for those who might have received the gospel but are not yet prepared. [6]

Revelations often do not come to us as some magical answer from the heavens; God expects us to work for revelation. The story of the brother of Jared is a perfect illustration of this. In answer to his prayer of how to light the barges, God responds with the question, “What will ye that I should prepare for ye…?” God wanted Jared to consider the problem and first come up with the solution.

Enos’s struggle with the Lord was a matter of aligning his thoughts with the Lord’s desires, but it was also the hands on, feet on the groundwork which yielded his heart to be able to feel the love that the Lord had for his foes, the Lamanites. “And it came to pass that after I had prayed and labored with all diligence, the Lord said unto me: I will grant unto thee according to thy desires, because of thy faith.” [7]

When we lived in Bangkok, Thailand, our ward was comprised of expats and refugees. Missionaries taught and baptized some of these refugees. Their status of tottering between legality and illegality, however, made it difficult for these families to find employment. There was usually a long line to receive fast offerings outside the Bishop's office each Sunday and there were many tales of woe amongst the people seeking to be accepted to developed countries.

Serving in the Primary was a challenge since the children were multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and unused to reverent behavior. One set of twin boys from Congo would stab each other with scissors or punch each other in the face during Primary. Tamil speaking children from Sri Lanka usually came hungry. An Iranian family afraid of being identified for fear of punishment by Sharia law made us extra careful about activities. As a Primary presidency, we were able to identify the problems, but how were we to solve them?

Revelation comes to us as we spend time to work with people and their problems. Sometimes there are true needs versus perceived needs and at times, revelation teaches us how we can respond to the person’s view of his/her problem. Discernment through the Spirit helps us to see our role in that relationship. For instance, the main request made by refugee families was for members to loan them money. There was a temptation to collect money and help these families every month. But this did not seem sustainable. It also seemed to be going against the Lord’s way of using fast contributions to distribute to those in need.

As a Primary presidency, we began praying and fasting about these families’ and children’s needs. From these prayers, the first revelation we recieved was the Holy Ghost helping us feel and see Heavenly Father’s love and vision for these children. We could not do anything about their legal status, nor did it feel right to keep loaning them money. But, together with them, we could create a Zion society.

All Primary and Young Women’s leaders pitched in to provide rides to activities, where there was ample food for the children to eat and to take home. For those who did not attend school, we started English and math classes. Visiting the children’s homes on a regular basis helped us assess mental and physical health problems. Ideas of creating work for the refugee families—from making quilts for sale, scanning photos, to helping out with Primary sharing time activities—began to blossom. The ideas kept coming and all we needed to do was to follow the inspiration as it came. As these families/individuals became productive and contributing members in the ward, we noticed that more of the children and their families gained the self-confidence to interact with ward members despite language and cultural barriers.

The refugees still had their problems. In fact, some ward members were caught and held in detention centers because of their immigration status. But their sorrow was a collective sorrow. We all shared the pain of the families whose men were detained. During the week, people from the ward who had legal Thai visas visited these detention centers and brought them home-cooked food from their families to try and uplift their spirits. Primary children wrote letters and drew pictures for these men. There began to be a unity of feeling as this multicultural ward, with members of varied economic and social strata, all began working together to uplift one another in their troubles. Reliance on the Holy Ghost to guide us in how best to improve the lives of the children spilled over into their families. Acting on received revelations opened a path for both leaders in the ward and future leaders in the Church.

Committing through Covenants

The Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that ordinances, performed as part of covenants teach that “ … in mortality I will touch and be touched, that my spirit will encounter other spirits, that by design I am not alone, that my greatest successes in life will be the creation of durable and meaningful relationships with other members of the family of heaven.” [8] Our covenant relationship binds us vertically to our heavenly parents as well to everyone around us. And while ordinances commit God to us and vice versa, we commit to God and our fellow beings through our outward acts of service, kindness, and love.

When we consider all of our relationships through the lens of a covenant with one another, there is no giver nor receiver—or perhaps it is interchangeable. A covenant relationship puts all parties on equal footing in terms of our relationship with each other and our relationship with God. It operates from the groundwork of love for God and love for each other and wanting to uplift one another. The “giver” and the “receiver” mutually benefit from the blessings. Erasing status invites partnership in working together to alleviate the challenge that needs to be solved. An honest dialogue means that boundaries can be set and expectations laid up front. What is important in a covenantal relationship is that both parties are involved with planning the course of action and agreeing what those measurable goals are. The individual in need of help needs “skin in the game” to determine what that course of action is and what he is willing to contribute. Writing a prescription without the “lead, guide, walk beside” is a sure formula for failure and inaction. Concrete goals could include accepting a calling, being temple worthy, or attending sacrament meeting.

Is it fair to impose requirements on service? Not only is it fair, it is necessary. Jesus imposed requirements on those He served. He tells us that we need to participate in ordinances, preach the Gospel, attend the temple, pray, live the commandments, etc. Our Savior teaches these because the blessings that come include self-reliance, gratitude, mutual respect, and spiritual growth. These, in turn, change our attitudes toward agency and responsibility.

In a different ward primary, some of the children had learning disabilities, came from single parent families, and had little to no structure at home. Truth be told, some of these kids “scared” the other children because of their rough manners and lack of social skills. One family had just moved in from a rough neighborhood, and the boys would greet members with lines such as “You owe me” or “I’m going to beat you up.”As Primary leaders, however, we knew there was hope for these kids when the Stake President came to our ward and gave a talk on standing up for the Savior. He asked, “What would you say to someone who asked you if Jesus was our Savior?” One of the boys raised his hands and earnestly replied, “I would say, ‘Hell, yes!’” These children needed discipline, structure, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reading and math lessons, and lots and lots of love.

As an extension of Primary, our family began to hold “Dodgeball Nights” in the Cultural Hall every Friday to help the children mingle with one another. We invited the youth to come and direct the dodgeball games. We served meatballs and rice. We also invited various families with children to join. Slowly but surely, the children began to bridge the relationship gap with the other children in the ward. One father who had boys of the same age was wary of letting his children interact with our group of children. Eventually he began to soften and eventually became their Cub Scout leader.

My husband, who loves to teach math, started teaching these children addition and subtraction tables, then moved on to all and any math workbooks he could find, and began daily tutoring with the children. We realized illiteracy was a problem with most of the children because it embarrassed the children during Sunday school classes when they were asked to read. This, in turn, led to distracting behavior. We began to read with the children, but it required too much of our time. The fourth-grade children were barely reading chapter books and the second grade children could not read “Hop on Pop” without sounding out each word. Our recently returned missionary daughter recruited her former missionary companions to virtually tutor. I would frequently go to their house to work with the younger boys on math, but the bad lighting, lack of table and chairs, and the comings-and-goings of different strangers who watched loud, violent TV made it difficult to work. We soon moved the tutoring operation to our own home, even though it meant picking up the children and dropping them off. Oftentimes, it was during these drives to and from home that provided the best opportunities to share Gospel principles. We still continue these “car talks” with some of these children who are now middle and high schoolers. We discuss topics such as racism, how to be a good dad, goals, why education important is important, family relationships and how to love another, and how to respond to situations in the way that Christ would.

In between math and reading lessons, church, dodgeball, Cub Scouts, Activity Days, and rides home, we began to really bond with these children. Our goal was to help them feel loved, needed, and appreciated (or LNA—a term we used in our home when we wanted to take our own children’s emotional temperature).

What started as working with two boys has now grown to our family tutoring 10 children in various grade levels. Since schools have been closed, we are with many of these children from 7AM to 7PM. This is a covenant relationship. The youth know what is expected of them (they will eat high protein foods such as eggs and beans), they will be respectful or pushups will be expected, they will do their best at school, they will attend church every Sunday, and the young men will conduct their Priesthood duties. Conversely, they know they can expect us to provide scholastic or any other kind of help, rides to wherever they need them, and rewards for their good work (sometimes a covenant relationship even involves monetary compensation for hard work and good grades). There is trust in a covenant relationship that we can depend upon each other.

Before we started working with these kids, we set some metrics in advance. We wanted to see church attendance become regular, improved literacy, improved academic grades, and participation in church activities. In the past few years, all of these children’s academic grades have been raised from F’s and D’s to A’s and B’s.

While we have been able to measure grades, church participation, and other tangible marks of progress, we have also noticed intangible results from our covenant relationship with these children. At one Cub Camp, our boys, truly a motley crew of cubs, who were a bit unruly, overly loud, could not keep their uniforms unstained, and looked and acted differently from the other troops attending the camp, were mocked and derided. When a few of the Cub Scouts from the other troops came and started calling our boys rude names and saying things such as, “You don’t belong here,” and “Go away!”, our boys, who were used to throwing punches, geared up to fight. I reminded them that we are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we needed to emulate our Savior by showing kindness to our enemies. Shaking from anger and close to tears, the boys held their punches and walked away. This incident was not a statistic that could be measured, yet it could still be chalked up to growth and positive change. When we build covenant relationships with each other, Heavenly Father blesses all parties involved.

Power in the Priesthood

Service is effectively rendered when the ultimate goal for the individuals being served is to responsibly use agency to choose God’s ways and access His power. The Church’s Self-Reliance Initiative teaches that “If we are self-reliant we believe that through the power of Christ, and through our own effort, we can work for the spiritual and practical needs of life.” [9] Ultimately, any charity offered should have this end goal in mind: that the individual receiving charity will take responsibility for his time, faith, money, work, communication, integrity, etc., as it relates to his/her relationship with God, [10] as dependency on others gradually decreases.

The organization of the Church and Ward Council is a great tool for assisting in this process, and when used, has helps to spread out the burdens of serving within a ward that has many needs. Elder M. Russell Ballard has observed that “Of all the councils and committees in the Church, I believe the ward council can have the greatest impact in helping our Father’s children.” [11] Using the organization of the Priesthood will eliminate redundancy, create efficiency, and ensure the participation of many instead of the “same 10 people.”

While serving in a branch council in Beijing, China, our branch president created an open environment that allowed ideas to flow freely. One year, he felt impressed to find ways to share the Gospel in a non-proselyting way and requested we think of ideas. An idea was brought up to have a Messiah Sing-Along, since it could be advertised as a musical concert, and not necessarily a religious/proselyting event (which is not permitted in China). Arrangements were made, and though only the performers and a few of the branch council members attended, it was deemed a success. The next year, the branch used the same idea but advertised it widely and held it at a larger arena. People from the inter-faith and music community at large attended, and it soon became a tradition that required tickets! All of this came from a small branch council discussing how to better share the light of Christ in a country that did not celebrate Christmas.

Similarly, coordinating charitable service in ward councils helps to eliminate “service burn out.” Ward councils can carefully dissect problems and evenly distribute the responsibilities to members both inside and outside Ward Council. These burdens, when shared, become a source of joy for all who serve together. When our ward leadership decided to help the one sister sort out all of her worldly possessions and display them in a meaningful way in her tiny apartment, the Relief Society President wisely pulled men from the Elders Quorum in to help build shelves, move furniture, and move boxes from her storage unit, as well as sisters to drive the boxes to the apartment and help sort. She also enlisted a social worker to sit down with the individual to go through each item and decide the end result for the item. When this sister passed away, many who had been a part of serving her attended her funeral. We all felt unity and connection through our service to this particular sister.

Through ordinances of the Priesthood, many of us have covenanted to practice the Law of Consecration. Though it does seem that we have limits in resources, man power, energy, and time, our own experiences have shown us that whatever we consecrate to the Lord comes back ten or a hundred fold. It may not look like it when we are in the work, but I have seen miracles regarding replenished bank accounts that should have been depleted; families being prayed into our ward show up just when we needed them to help; skills that were needed for a calling develop quickly; and individuals who have found joy in sacrificing through living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Law of Consecration implies, “Where much is expected, much is given.”

Finally, the power of Priesthood organization relieves us of being perfect in our sacrifices and service. Because of the efficacy of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can put ourselves “out there” to try our best to serve, and practice forgiving and receiving forgiveness. We will, no doubt, make mistakes, but we can learn and improve from them. Growing together in imperfectness is part of the process of creating Zion. Ordinances of the Priesthood—from partaking the Sacrament to renewing our temple covenants—allow us to turn weaknesses into strengths. Because the Priesthood power’s purpose is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” any effort we make to lift another person will be added upon and blessed because we are fulfilling the Savior’s mission.

At the end of the day, we all want to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” [12] It might seem frustrating when there seem to be more problems than solutions, not enough people to pitch in and help, or when the people we help turn against us and resist our efforts. People are complex, and even the Savior, who reached out with perfect love to everyone He met, had a difficult time helping people see how they could live a more joyous and happy life. Nonetheless, the Lord has promised us that “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” [13]

Our faith and loyalty to Jesus Christ requires us to find effective methods to love and serve others. There may not exactly be a handbook to answer all of our questions, but we have been given enough knowledge for direction on how to approach feeding His sheep. Effective service begins and ends by joyously applying the doctrines of Christ. Building covenant relationships, actively seeking for revelation and discernment from the Holy Spirit, working and organizing through the Priesthood, and practicing the Law of Consecration make us more joyous servants when we build Zion on a ward level.


[1] 2 Nephi 5:27 [Back to manuscript].

[2] Bednar, David A. Act in Doctrine. Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 2012, p. 134.
[Back to manuscript].

[3] Guide to the Scriptures, “Discernment, Gift of,” scriptures.lds.org
--- [Back to manuscript].

[4] “What is Ministering?” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/ministering/what-is-ministering?lang=eng) --- [Back to manuscript].

[5] Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. (“Little Children,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 17). [Back to manuscript].

[6] See Mormon 5:19: “And behold, the Lord hath reserved their blessings, which they might have received in the land, for the Gentiles who shall possess the land.”
[Back to manuscript].

[7] Enos 1:12 [Back to manuscript].

[8] Brown, Samuel M., “First Principles and Ordinances,” p.? [Back to manuscript].

[9] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/self-reliance/course-overview-benefits --- [Back to manuscript].

[10] See 12 Principles of Self-reliance (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/self-reliance/course-overview-benefits) --- [Back to manuscript].

[11] Ballard, M. Russell. “Counseling in Our Councils,” Deseret Book, 2012, p. 110–111. [Back to manuscript].

[12] Doctrine and Covenants 81:5 [Back to manuscript].

[13] Isaiah 40:28–31. [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Quan, Alice (2020) "Building Zion: A Practical Approach," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 3 (Fall 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleQuanBuildingZion.html, accessed <give access date>.

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I. Jesse Fisher

“We could not do anything about their legal status, nor did it feel right to keep loaning them money. But, together with them, we could create a Zion society.... Ideas of creating work for the refugee families—from making quilts for sale, scanning photos, to helping out with Primary sharing time activities—began to blossom.” - Sister Alice Quan

Though providing employment was one small part of the author's approach to building Zion, it was a major part of the Church's efforts during the four decades that Utah was being settled. Few Latter-Day Saints are aware that during Utah's years as a territory of the United States, the Church made all sorts of efforts to provide employment to destitute immigrants. Those herculean efforts are outlined quite clearly in Leonard J. Arrington's book, “Great Basin Kingdom”(1).

To the leaders of the Church during the 1850s to 1880s, “building Zion” was more of an economic activity than anything else. How can I make this claim? Because I have gathered, read, and classified over 700 quotes by early LDS leaders on the topic of “establishing Zion” (in fact, I wrote a book containing all those quotes, “Champions for Zion”). They never used the word “economic” in the same way we do, instead, they spoke of “temporal matters” as seen in these quotes (and many others):

“The work of building up Zion is in every sense a practical work; it is not a mere theory. A theoretical religion amounts to very little real good or advantage to any person. To possess an inheritance in Zion... only in theory—only in imagination—would be the same as having no inheritance at all.... Then let us not rest contented with a mere theoretical religion, but let it be practical, self-purifying, and self-sustaining....” - Brigham Young, 1862.2
“We have to build up Zion, a temporal work here upon the face of the earth.... When I say temporal work, I speak of temporal things. The Zion of our God cannot be built up in the hearts of men alone.” - Elder Wilford Woodruff, 1867.3
“We have it to do, we can't build up Zion sitting on a hemlock slab singing ourselves away to everlasting bliss; we have to cultivate the earth, to take the rocks and elements out of the mountains and rear Temples to the Most High God; and this temporal work is demanded at our hands by the God of heaven.... This is the great dispensation in which the Zion of God must be built up, and we as Latter-day Saints have it to build. ” - Elder Wilford Woodruff, 1873.4

I was as surprised as you are now that their Zion-building efforts were mostly economic in nature. What really blew my mind was that John Taylor, upon becoming prophet, picked up the Building Zion Banner and ran with it. Even though Brigham's United Orders had just failed during the previous two years, John Taylor, instead of giving up, organized the Zion Central Boards of Trade5. I have never met another Latter-Day Saint who has heard of this remarkable project! Instead of letting the Saints drift back into Babylon's style of doing business, President Taylor organized these boards of trade in every stake. Each board's job was to assess local human and economic resources, local needs for goods and services, and then to create cooperatives to use those resources to generate the needed goods and services.

Over and over again, as I organized and sorted all 700+ quotes I found on the topic, I came to see that to the early LDS leaders, Zion was the economic organization of God's people in the same way that the Church is the organization of God's people in spiritual matters. So, Sister Quan's efforts to help the poor by giving them work was right in line with early-Utah's Church leaders' efforts to build Zion – the economic organization of God's people. There is much we could learn from their efforts.


1 - Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900.
2 - Journal of Discourses. United Kingdom: p.284, 1862.
3 - Journal of Discourses. By B. Young [and others]. Reported by G.D. Watt [and others].. United Kingdom: n.p., 1867, p.370
4 - Journal of Discourses; volume 16, Discourse 37.
5 - Tullidge, Edward (October 1880). "Zion's Central Board of Trade". Tullidge's Quarterly Magazine. 1. 1: 418.