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Growing force

First missionary from Harlem in New York City is called to serve

PROVO, Utah — To know Polly Dickey is to understand that not only would her grandson serve a mission, but, as circumstances unfolded, he would be the first to serve from New York City's Harlem.

She's not so much stubborn as she is determined to keep the commandments, said Elder Joseph Bosket, now studying in the Provo Missionary Training Center prior to service in the Georgia Atlanta Mission (Spanish-speaking).

"She has heart problems and sometimes goes to the hospital for treatment," he said. But in the decade since joining the Church, she's missed attending only two Sundays. Either she checks out of the hospital prior to Sunday, or she waits and is admitted on Monday, he said.

As recent as five years ago it seemed inconceivable that a ward could be organized in Harlem. Today, there are two that meet in a stately red brick edifice that has become something of a symbol on Lenox Avenue that the gospel is for all mankind.

Elder Bosket joined the Church shortly after his grandmother when he was 9 years old. He grew up in the Harlem Branch as one of only very few youth.

As he became a teen, he loved the happy feelings he had and learned to love the gospel. Each Sunday, he traveled alone to meet with his grandmother in the renovated garage where the branch met.

As the only member of the Church in his high school, he arose early each morning to ride the subway to the Manhattan stake center for seminary.

He attended BYU-Idaho for two years where his feelings to serve began to swell.

Now in the Provo Missionary Training Center, he's neither the tallest of the dozen missionaries in his district, nor is he the most outspoken.

But he is the first to serve from Harlem, evidence that the growing missionary force is emerging from areas that once seemed impenetrable by the gospel.

After answering phone calls in the referral center on a recent Saturday morning, Elder Bosket stood huddled with fellow missionaries recounting their successes to their district instructor, Brock Trejo.

"One lady is going to be a missionary for us," said Elder Vance Burbidge, Connecticut Hartford Mission (Spanish-speaking).

"She called for a copy of the Book of Mormon. I asked if there was anyone else who might be interested. She thought there would be others in her congregation and said she'd call back.

"That will be a great call for someone to take," he said.

For Elder Bosket, as well as the other 2,000 missionaries at the Missionary Training Center, experiences come in rapid-fire succession. In Elder Bosket's district, the miracle of language and spiritual training is taking place at a breathless pace. Young men and women who could scarcely order a taco in Spanish five weeks ago can now form comprehensible thoughts and expressions in that language.

Within a two-hour period they sang, prayed and taught the gospel in their new tongue. They created a mock setting of sharing the gospel on the bus, then met as a zone to consider how they might increase their effectiveness in learning the language and growing in the things of the Spirit.

Impressive as their leadership and language skills have become, their greatest growth may be in their testimonies.

"Why is it important to understand the true nature of God?" Elder Trejo asks the eight elders and four sisters that morning. "Think of the first lesson," he directs.

A moment of thoughtful silence gives way to an active discussion using scripture and the missionary booklet, "Preach My Gospel." To leave a lasting impression, Elder Trejo plays an audio recording of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's 2003 October general conference report, "The Grandeur of God."

President Gordon B. Hinckley in an October 1995 conference report told of a conversation with a reporter for BBC Radio Worldwide Service who was preparing a documentary about missionary work in the British Isles.

He had seen the missionaries and noted their youthful appearance and asked President Hinckley, "How do you expect people to listen to these callow youth?"

After defining "callow" as immature, inexperienced and lacking sophistication, President Hinckley smiled at the reporter and said, "The remarkable thing is that people do receive them and listen to them.... They are clean looking, and people quickly develop confidence in them."

President Hinckley continued, "'Callow youth?' Yes, they are lacking in sophistication. What a great blessing this is. They carry no element of deception. They speak with no element of sophistry. They speak out of their hearts, with personal conviction."

Concluding, President Hinckley said, "In terms of the individual missionary, the harvest is not great in most instances, but in the aggregate it becomes tremendous."

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