Missionaries take to streets to meet New Yorkers

In New York City, a large segment of the population lives in apartments that are inaccessible from the street - except with a key or by invitation. Doormen who stand guard and buildings locked at the entrance prohibit missionaries from entering.

But a group of four missionaries has been called to take to the streets - from Harlem to Grand Central Terminal to the Bronx - to find those ready to hear the gospel.This street approach is the result of observations made by Pres. Ronald A. Rasband of the New York New York North Mission. He was familiar with the difficulties of tracting in New York City, having served as a missionary in the area in the 1970s. He has returned many times since on business.

After being called as president of the mission in July 1996, he was troubled to see that the work was floundering in parts of the city - including those areas where missionaries were denied access to apartment buildings.

"I felt there had to be a better way for us to do missionary work in Manhattan," he said.

While pondering on these challenges, several ideas began to formulate that, after several months, grew together into an approach of bringing the gospel to those who are isolated from traditional proselyting methods.

On his frequent trips into the city, Pres. Rasband noted the many street vendors that have become a long-time way of doing business in New York City.

Everything from hot dogs and bagels to books and toys are sold as vendors peddle their wares from tables or carts. Pres. Rasband noticed how comfortable residents of New York City are with street vendors.

During this time, Pres. Rasband read the journals of Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt and other missionaries who served in this city.

"I was fascinated how their journals record that they would just go out on the street corners and speak from a soapbox, holding up a Book of Mormon and have a good old-fashioned street meeting," he said.

"All [these thoughts] came together for me one night" he said. "Why aren't we doing that again? Why can't we start having street meetings again here in New York?"

Over the next few months, after discussing the idea with missionaries, Pres. Rasband formulated the manner in which the program would be carried out. He felt a small group of missionaries should specialize in contacting individuals on the street, by handing out pamphlets and copies of the Book of Mormon and answering questions about the Church.

Pres. Rasband also felt strongly that the finding-missionaries should be directed by prayer and decide by inspiration which areas of the city to proselyte.

"I thought of Abinadi," Pres. Rasband added, remembering the picture in the Book of Mormon depicting how Abinadi stood in the court of King Noah with his hands outstretched delivering his message without fear.

"That gave me the feeling that this ought to be called the Abinadi District."

Wanting to assess the program and to learn whether the Lord approved of it, Pres. Rasband attended one of the first street meetings after the Abinadi District began proselyting March 17, 1997.

It was a sunny afternoon at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. The missionaries set up a vinyl sign illustrating Christ's appearance to the Nephites and a portable table where copies of the Book of Mormon and videos were stacked.

As the missionaries spoke with those passing by, Pres. Rasband watched a tall, slender man approach the table and begin perusing a copy of the Book of Mormon.

He introduced himself to Pres. Rasband and said he wanted to receive the missionary discussions.

"I had that marvelous experience of the Lord putting someone there to confirm to me that this was the right thing to be doing," Pres. Rasband said.

Since then, the Abinadi District has become the core of missionary work in the city and a rich source of references for missionaries throughout the mission.

In the first months, 209 referrals were received. Of those referrals, 69 percent received one discussion, which led to 27 investigators and several baptisms.

As the missionaries move their street meeting from place to place, they are sometimes joined by Church members in the area.

Twenty members of the Spanish Branch in Harlem accompanied the missionaries one Sunday afternoon. Shy at first, their confidence grew as they introduced their neighbors to the missionaries. They now ask the missionaries to return every Sunday to their area.

In Grand Central Terminal, where Elder Emery Knudtson stands in a corridor holding a copy of the Book of Mormon, more than 500,000 commuters will pass during the day.

Speaking to people face-to-face in the Abinadi district has been a spiritually rejuvenating experience, he said.

Elder Russell Pratt, descendant of Parley and Orson Pratt agreed. "It gets young missionaries into the thick of things, it motivates missionaries who have been out a while to talk to people, and it provides references for companionships all over the city."

"Unfortunately, the elect don't wear little badges," Pres. Rasband said. "So the missionaries need to be spiritually in tune to find them, or the elect need to find us. Having the Abinadi District on the street gives those who are inclined the opportunity to hear the whispering of the Spirit."

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