Alleviating Poverty through Service and Scholarship

Michael Hubbard MacKay and Andrew C. Reed

Michael Hubbard MacKay ( and Andrew C. Reed ( are associate professors of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University.

Mentoring and Experiential Learning in Religious Education

Brigham Young University prepares students to engage in the world around them with faith in Jesus Christ. This is not by chance. In fact, educators across the university help shape students morally, ethically, intellectually, and spiritually through experiential learning and careful mentoring. President Kevin J Worthen explained, “Some of the most important inspiring learning opportunities occur outside the formal classroom setting through experiences that are, in that sense, extracurricular.”[1] In its effort to meet its missional aims and charge, BYU must not only be a place for listening and lecturing; it should be a place to foster community and positive relationships through modelled and experiential mentoring. Faculty and staff have essential roles to play in creating environments where our students reach their full educational potential while here at BYU.

As professors, we have seen the value and revelation in this guidance and shape our coursework around the idea of Latter-day Saint formation through experiential learning and mentoring. Teaching World Religions (REL C 351) has been an important space for us to mentor students and get involved in the local community. This includes participation in the Interfaith Student Association and the Council for Interfaith Engagement, both of which require experiential learning and explicit projects for student mentoring. This ranges from weekly projects, visitors, and meetings to long-term projects and yearly plans to help the poor and maintain positive relationships with faith leaders and civic organizations. Not a week goes by where we are not actively engaged in extracurricular work with our students.

Mentoring requires more than parlaying information about a discipline to students or helping them fulfill an arbitrary task on behalf of faculty. Mentoring requires the heart and mind of disciple-scholars who seek to expand students’ capacities and experiences, ultimately helping them find confidence to act well in the world as a person of immense potential and faith. The weekly efforts combine to enrich students, of course, but in turn have blessed us in our sincere efforts to build faith and the kingdom on campus.

Interfaith Leadership and Ethics

This university emphasis to mentor students in practical and spiritual ways led us to design a course called “Interfaith Leadership and Ethics” (REL C 393R) for the Department of Church History and Doctrine. We sought to design a course that fostered love of God and faith in Jesus Christ and offered practical leadership skills that enabled cooperation with neighbors. As course designers and as teachers, we felt that the combination of academic rigor and civic engagement is all too often one-sided toward academic discussions. In the middle of the two extremes, there must be a place where the two meet to create unique and meaningful experiences and knowledge. The imperative for skills of negotiation, cooperation, and generosity of spirit that are noticeably absent from much of society today can be addressed by introducing students to interfaith practices and methods. Undergraduate students who engage in positive relationships with those of other faiths experience a profound shift in disposition toward other religions and the communities that compose them. Students who have positive experiences with dialogue rather than debate develop more favorable views of the good that other religions offer society. As part of this process, they also see methods and examples of civic cooperation, religious devotion, and faith-filled service that simply are not experienced in other settings.

Our course was designed to foster inspired learning. We designed every lesson to include experience as the medium that we learned from, including dialogues with evangelical students, visits with faith leaders, reading and experiencing sacred texts, and especially case studies. One of the most important activities that we designed was a partnership with Catholic Community Services (CCS) in Salt Lake City. The students organized each other and other students across campus to volunteer for nearly an entire month in the semester. In the winter 2023 semester, BYU students contributed over seven hundred hours of service to CCS by preparing meals, serving dinner, and other projects. This work continues and has expanded to include work with other organizations that are serving local populations who seek assistance with housing and food scarcity.

The students enrolled in the Interfaith Leadership and Ethics class wanted to take seriously President Shane Reese’s call to make “our ‘service and scholarship’ and resources available to the Church in other important areas, such as alleviating poverty.”[2] Courtney Schriever, volunteer coordinator for CCS, came to our class and taught us about homeless care and the needs of the community she serves. This experience was a catalyst that motivated students to do more.

Interfaith and Homeless Care in Boise

Our most potent assignment required students to design their own interfaith trip. They worked to combine civic responsibilities with education and homeless care with the activities of Latter-day Saints. They wanted to learn from other faiths how they could care for the poor and how their compassion changes the world. Since they needed to find funding to carry out the trip, they looked locally for the best place to learn about interfaith and homeless care. They decided on Boise, Idaho. Boise is currently experiencing a growing homeless population, but it is also home to an extremely strong religious response to the homeless. There were two purposes to this proposed trip: (1) to create educational opportunities for BYU students to learn from interfaith organizations and leaders about how to build networks of cooperation, and (2) to create opportunities for students to develop an interfaith, service-oriented program that enhances their experiential learning. By seeking to understand and learn first, our students were better equipped to serve with awareness of existing problems and solutions. Further, learning to hear from people at every level, from those in shelters to those at the highest levels of state government, students gained a broad perspective of how people understood the challenges and also how they were seeking to care for those who needed shelter and food.

Students used leadership principles, ethics, hard work, and especially care as they planned and coordinated the trip to Boise. On our drive to Boise we stopped in Cache Valley to visit Cache Refugee and Immigrant Connection to learn about rural refugee care. We learned about nonprofit efforts and the value of language training as refugees find themselves in a new country. Once we arrived in Boise, we joined Temple Beth Israel and the local reformed Jewish community in Shabbat services. Sacred time became less theoretical and intellectual to our students, and our Jewish friends offered hospitality to us at the temple and within their rituals. We also joined them for dinner and spent hours learning from them.

In the morning we split up into two groups. One group went with a small group of Bahá’í from Boise to see how they offer service to their community every year, by cleaning a mile lone stretch of the highway. They had lost a member of their community to a car accident and were determined to keep her memory alive. They taught us about service and love. The other group went to two separate Seventh-day Adventist congregations, the first of which was an African immigrant congregation that honored us by singing to us and welcoming us with hugs and friendship. The second congregation feed us a vegetarian meal and taught us about nonviolence and the practice of vegetarianism, while the pastor then offered us a lesson on the value of the Sabbath and Christ’s mercy for his children. Later on in the day we went to Boise State University and examined sacred texts and important artifacts from their archives, including a piece of the first blue turf from the football stadium. In the evening we went to the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist to attend a Roman Catholic mass, in which each student was blessed by the priest.

On Sunday we went to the Boise Young Single Adult Second Ward. This included a visit to the local temple before we attend many other services. In smaller groups we went to the Hyde Park Mennonite Fellowship, Hill City Church, the First Presbyterian Dialogue service, and the Euclid Nazarene Church. We discovered the love and power of each of these wonderful congregations and made friends that will last for years. We also experience the spirit at each place that we went.

One Monday one of our main visits was the father of Ravi Gupta, a religious scholar from Utah State University, who taught us in our interfaith class the previous semester. As we arrived, it was like we already knew and loved him. At the Boise Hare Krishna Temple and Vedic Cultural Center, we learned that Arun Gupta and his family were the first family in Boise to build and temple and unite the Hindu population in the area. He taught us about their efforts to build faith and community in the area and also taught us about Hindu worship and belief. We also met with the First Presbyterians to unload and organize their weekly donations for the local homeless. We were met by a group of devoted older gentlemen who met at the church each week to make sure the donations were cared for and delivered. Their food pantry is one of the oldest in Boise, and their service has been done for nearly a century. Once we finished, we went to the Interfaith Sanctuary to learn about their efforts to house the homeless. They provide a building full of bunkbeds, helping families and individuals have a place to stay free from the cold and the heat. The director gave us a tour and expressed compassion for the people he helps. Then we learned about the clothing program before we helped organize and fold all their donations. We learned about the importance of housing and also legal IDs and their importance for getting jobs.

On Tuesday we started at Corpus Christi House, where we learned about how they serve the community. They taught us about donations (food, clothing, and cash) and how they can be best used in homeless care, but they also taught about human dignity. They helped us understand that humans need love, maybe even more than they need money and possessions. We spent half the day in various services, but most importantly we spent the day with the homeless. Our students conversed with dozens of people asking them about their experiences. They listened to their stories and hoped for their futures. We learned so much about the human condition and power of friendship. In the second half of the day, we learned from Allie Reuscher, one of the directors and founders of the Nesting Place Maternity Home. They run an interfaith home for pregnant women who need the love of God in their lives. They provide social and medical care, housing, education, and coaching for homeless mothers who are pregnant or recently had babies. We met one of their mothers, who happened to be a Latter-day Saint woman whose life was complete changed by this organization. She shared her story of struggle and faith, leaving us with gratitude and plenty of tears. At the end of the day, a Jewish woman from the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights gave a tour and history of the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. She inspired us to be better and warned us of the dangers of exclusive behavior. She taught us about antisemitism in way that could have come only from that site and her testimony. We also went to the Cathedral of the Rockies (First United Methodist Church of Boise) to learn from Senior Paster Duane Anders about their homeless care before we ended the night in contemplative vigil with the congregation, singing and praising Jesus Christ.

Wednesday we were blessed to travel to McCall, Idaho, and start the day out with a devotion from associate dean Gaye Strathearn. Her message on Christ was touching and so relevant to our experience on the trip. This was followed by visit to Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church and a sermon from Pastor Joseph Eisenbrandt, who had just returned from a visit to the hospital. He told us about his ministry and his care for his parishioners. For years they worried about families who freeze during the winter, so they organized a wood-chopping event that happens every fall. They then deliver wood to every house that has a shortage of money. They expressed how difficult this act is, but it is worth it to know that people are warm in the community. We finished by contemplating our visit so far while we worked at sewing quilts for the local homeless population.

On Thursday we continued to learn from the local religious population about rural solutions to poverty and homelessness. This time we met a group of Methodists who meet every month at food pantry. We first helped them weed and clean up their garden plots built for the local community and then spent the day creating baskets for families suffering from food scarcity. We couldn’t help but learn from this group that service was something we needed to do all the time and the community needs people who care enough to give up their time.

Own final day we went to the Idaho State Capitol Building and met with state senator C. Scott Grow. We first went to public hearing of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, then spent the afternoon with Senator Grow asking him about the role of government in homeless care and interfaith engagement. This opportunity helped us see the connection between the civic and religious worlds.

There were many experiences and takeaways that our students brought home from Boise as part of the educational process. Importantly for faculty and students, the deep impressions of human capacities to care and comfort, to truly mourn alongside those who need to feel God’s love in devastating circumstances, changed lives on this trip. As educators, learning to allow students to put their learning to use in real ways that are intended to make a difference is filled with risk. We may fail and they may fail. But when students learn that they are trusted, they have the confidence to accomplish something important in the world.


[1] Kevin J Worthen, “Inspiring Learning,” University Conference address, August 22, 2016,

[2] C. Shane Reese, “Becoming New Creatures,” University Conference address, August 22, 2022,