When Merrit Drucker, former Clean City Coordinator for Washington D.C., talks about the missionaries who rolled up their sleeves and did the work that nobody else wanted to do to clean up the city, he refers to them affectionately as “My Mormons,” as in “My Mormons were my iron back bone.”
“I’m not a Mormon,” he said, “but I’ve anointed myself as a friend of the Church. I think they are doing wonderful things for the country.”
This effusive praise is heartfelt and a response to a unique, mission-wide outreach program initiated by President Bill and Sister Sid Price of the Washington D.C. North Mission.
“There are two kinds of service that missionaries engage in. One type is best described as ‘do a good turn daily,’” said President Price. That is the” help your neighbor move, carry grocery bags, plant flowers” kind of work, which is important, easy to get involved in, and fits the guidelines that mission presidents are given to allow missionaries to give no more than four hours a week of service. Most people like us, who are leading missions, don’t know or haven’t considered how to interface with cities and other agencies to give service on a broader scale.”
Yet the friendship built for the Church through service for the community is incalculable.
Determining the Community’s Needs
Sister Price said, “One of the problems we learned soon after we got here was missionaries were being mistreated in some areas of the city. Sometimes people would throw things at them. Most of our missionaries were white, and they were in the nation’s capital, which is a racially diverse city. We wanted to see if we could change the image the society had of us, especially after we got a call from a missionary who had had an egg thrown at him.”
The Prices said that too often as Latter-day Saints, we want to do service and we are well-meaning, so our church units decide on a project and go out and do it, with no connection at all with the needs of the community we are seeking to serve.
“We determined that we had to start with the leaders of the city to see what they wanted and what their needs are,” said President Price. “That means the service we give is not necessarily what we might choose to do, but we are doing what they see needs to be done. It has gone much farther than if we followed our own agenda.”
So the Prices went to the Washington D.C. city officials, taking the assistants to the president with them. “We wanted them to see the caliber of young people we were talking about. It hadn’t entered their minds that they would have competent, well-educated, confident young people to help them.
An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse
“We also had rules for ourselves, which we made clear to the city,” said President Price. “We were not seeking publicity. In fact, we would do whatever we could to avoid publicity. If there was any credit to be had, we wanted it to go to the city. We also didn’t want to interfere with any work that a union was doing, and we didn’t want to compete with any religious organization that was already working on a project. We just wanted to help.”
It was a proposal so good, the city fathers almost couldn’t believe it. “It was hard to get them to believe that we didn’t want credit and we would do tough jobs. So the missionaries started on a pressing need for the city, and a difficult, dirty job — clean up.
Malcolm Jordan, a new member of the Anacostia Ward, identified the first project for the missionaries. As he walked his daughters to school down a ravine each day, he was appalled at the condition of a beautiful area, filled with trash. The city had been unable to do much because they just didn’t have the manpower. The missionaries stepped up to the plate. For the project, 75 missionaries and about 20 ward members showed up and accomplished in about three hours what the city officials had been wringing their hands over for a long, long time.
While the missionaries toiled, Rufus Mayfield, the Director of the Office of Human Services, drove up as he “just happened” to be taking his shirts to the laundry and was a little agitated, when he saw all these “white boys, Hebrew slaves” doing a project he was responsible to accomplish. However, once he saw what the missionaries accomplished in such a short period of time, he became their advocate, and with President Price began a fruitful two-year relationship.
Nobody Will Show
A funny thing happened at an early clean-up project. The Prices told the city they would have about 100 people to help at a big project, and the city, in turn, said it would provide gloves, trash bags, and rakes. “We got enough gloves,” said President Price, but the city provided a little, puny pile of trash bags. We were there at 8:00, but all the missionaries hadn’t arrived yet. Only about 25 people were there.
“’This is about all I expected,’ the city official shrugged. He didn’t know us yet,” said President Price. “Most of the missionaries were coming together on the same train.
“All of a sudden, about a block and-a-half away you could see this wave of humanity coming. Someone asked, ‘Do you know those people?’”
President Price answered, “That’s God’s army.”
A hundred came, as promised, and the city ran out of trash bags in 20 minutes. The Prices had to scour several stores to get enough for the trash collected that day. “We collected enough trash to fill two trash trucks,” he said.
At first the guys with the trash trucks weren’t sure they liked the missionaries putting stuff in their trucks. One of them started to object, but the other said, “Shut up. We’ll be all day if we don’t let them help.”
In the two years that followed, when the missionaries were available, “the city came out in a big, big way,” said President Price. The city saw the missionaries’ service as an opportunity to invigorate the people to help in their own neighborhoods, so for the projects, they sent a truck from the food bank and brought in a portable stage and blasted music.
“I complained that only grandmothers, mothers and their children came to help,” said President Price, “but that is a reflection of the reality of these neighborhoods. Still, the city worked hard to involve the young men of the inner city.
The Hardest Work
Sister Price said, “We were invited to participate to clean up the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Way in the heart of the city. We used one zone, about 20 missionaries, and we put them in a companionship with a youth from the neighborhood to work for about three hours.
It was the sweetest thing for these young men to see really positive role models.
After the clean ups, sometimes the missionaries and the young men of the neighborhood would join in shooting a few hoops, all of which created camaraderie and trust.
“It is great to live in a tidy neighborhood,” said President Price, “but it takes some effort to keep it tidy. Toward that end, we did some awful jobs. We cleaned up baseball fields that were covered with weeds and couldn’t be used. We literally went from front porch to front porch painting in these public housing projects that had been allowed to deteriorate.”
Merrit Drucker noted, “We have quite a few groups that do cleanups, but what is unique and different about the Mormon groups, is that they are more than willing to go into any low income and minority community and the toughest situation.
“I would have been hard pressed to find any group willing to scrub hallways in housing projects. The Mormons were there for the hardest, the most onerous stuff that had to get done fast and quickly.
“There was a lot of friendliness going on,” said Drucker. “The neighbors came out and talked to them. In fact, the missionaries became such a known and trusted group, they we gave them another project.”
Packets of Information
The city had packets of information they needed to get to the residents, but no funds to deliver them. This was a big stack of paper for each household with important information for the inner city — material such as how to get rid of an abandoned car, how to get shoes off of electric wires when an unsightly pair has been tossed up there and dangles from their tied laces, how to take care of rat problems, how to take care of street lights that have been shot out by drug dealers.”
The missionaries assembled the packets, and then went door to door in their suits and name tags, delivering these goods for the city. The rule was that they couldn’t proselytize while on the city’s errand, but they could make appointments to come back and talk to the people later.
Sister Price said that the missionaries became highly visible in lots of different areas of the city, and it has changed the way they are treated. She said, “People call and say, when are those nice boys going to come and brings those papers to our place?
Drucker said, “We distributed material door to door in thousands of homes. When the missionaries came up to the mayor’s office, it was a no-nonsense operation. We’d create an assembly line, and put a thousand packets together in no time. Then, typically, within the next day or two, we’d have a different group of missionaries handle the door-to-door distribution. We’d meet at an intersection, they’d get the materials and bang, we’d have five or ten blocks finished in no time.”
He said that the missionaries’ work “has had the effect of getting the city cleaned up and to help our communities know what services are available.”
“We created an environment and got so many people involved, that now many neighborhoods have task forces to solve their problems, one issue at a time,” said President Price. Abandoned cars are being hauled off, sneakers are coming off of utility wires and lights are being replaced. Neighbors are seeing a real impact. I’m not saying we caused that, but we helped raise the consciousness of what could happen with just a little concerted effort. Problems are being tackled by the people and public services in these neighborhoods in a more organized way.
Sister Price said, “They are always amazed at how much we can get done, and we try to give them more the missionaries more than they can do in the time that is allotted to them. The city knows that we only have four hours and then are going to have to leave. They’ve learned to live with those rules. They’ve learned about the church structure and organization, and it has brought great friendliness toward us.
Outreaching to the Community
Bishop Rich McKeown of the DC Third Ward has taken a page out of the same book in actively reaching out to the community. He noticed that our missionaries were attracting many young men from the city neighborhoods to the Church, first by basketball, and then by testimony. He wondered how he could help these teenage boys, who thought it was cool not to be smart in school and cool to abandon their families, to have a better outlook.
He wondered if single adults in the Church could help tutor them, and so he reached out to the institutes and single adult wards and got 75 volunteers and chose 15. Two nights a week the teens from the community come to the church, get a hot meal, and then are tutored in math and science by the Church volunteers. “Now,” said President Price, “these kids are getting A’s and B’s in their classes.”
In addition, the Spanish-speaking missionaries are holding classes in English and are reaching a small, but growing number.
The Feast of Sharing
Washington D.C.’s Salvation Army has also felt the benefit of service from the LDS missionaries. Each year, they sponsor an enormous Feast of Sharing at Thanksgiving in the Convention Center. Those who would not otherwise have a Thanksgiving feast are invited, along with people of many different faiths.
This is not just soup kitchen atmosphere with a long line waiting for cafeteria service. Instead, the people, some of them homeless, most of them poor, come in their best clothes and sit at long tables, decorated beautifully, and are served and treated with solicitousness and kindness. It may be the only time of the year when they are treated with such respect.
At first the Salvation Army was a little cool to the idea of help from the missionaries, but finally agreed. They expected that like all the other casual volunteers, the missionaries would serve for two hours and disappear.
Not so. On the first Thanksgiving Day that the missionaries helped, when 1:30 came, and the meal was finished, according to President Price, “virtually all the people had been served and all the people who were serving them were leaving.” He said to the Salvation Army leader, “We don’t know what you need done, but we are prepared to stay as long as you need us. His jaw dropped and he asked, ‘Are you serious?’
President Price said, “We started helping them clean up, and we were through in two hours. One woman who had worked with the program for many years came over and gave us a hug. I’ve never left this event before 7 at night, and now it is 3:30 and I can go home.”
The next year, the missionaries, now a trusted group helped prepare for the feast, starting a week in advance. They helped unload the trucks and open cans. They roasted the turkeys and cut them up.
“We had more than 100 missionaries involved in four-hour segments,” said Sister Price.
By Christmas, the missionaries were an integral part of preparing 10,000 bags of toys for children who weren’t going to have Christmas. They went over to a Salvation Army warehouse for two weeks, sorting through toys and bagging them. Then the Salvation Army reciprocated and came and played a concert at the Visitors’ Center. “It was just wonderful,” said Sister Price. “They were just bowled over with the lights and the facility and asked, ‘Can we come again next year?”
When a dangers heat wave came to Washington D.C., the Salvation Army turned to the missionaries again, to pass out free water bottles at the subway stops.
The Dialogue Begins
“You don’t do any of this,” said Sister Price, “because it is going to translate into baptisms. You do it for open dialogue. What we use is the model of Ammon with King Lamoni. He didn’t preach the gospel until the king said, ‘Who are you?’ Then the dialogue begins.”
“There is so much more and so many bigger things that we can do,” said President Price. “We can take service to a more meaningful level and change the perception that citizens and civic leaders have of us.”
In the heart of Washington D.C., people smile upon the missionaries because they know that these young men with badges are there to really help.