GREATEST HIT: ‘Today I Saw’ Revisited

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY TODAY I SAW two fresh faced white kids in almost military looking black overcoats, starched slacks and gleaming patent leather shoes canvassing a bleak stretch of 19th Street near Wingohocking, an area of North Philly pocked with crack markets and tiny row houses covered in flaking paint. They were standing under an awning on one of the small front porches that lined the block. One of the kids banged repeatedly on the door while the other peered through the blinds, trying to see if  someone was home.

After waiting a minute they moved on to the next set of steps and again one kid  banged on the door while the other watched. A heavy man in his undershirt opened it looking confused, not expecting visitors. I rolled my window down to listen. The kids said something I couldn’t quite hear and the man shook his head and closed the door in their faces.

As the kids were coming down the steps towards where I was parked, they stopped to talk to a passerby. He had on a green Boston Celtics jumper, baggy jeans, a knit cap and brand new Timberland boots. He had a Muslim’s thick beard. One of the kids called out to him, “Do you want to come to church this Sunday?” His voice was enthusiastic, full good cheer; it was as sincere an invitation as I ever heard. The Muslim boy took a quick glance at them and chuckled, threw them the deuce (a sign of goodwill, two fingers held up like a peace sign and given a little shake) and said to the boy who called out to him, “Nah, I’m cool, big man.”

The kids saw me watching them. As they came over to the car I saw they had black plastic tags attached to their coats, signifying them as elders with the Church of Latter Day Saints. The kid who did the door knocking came right up to my window, smiling a rosy cheeked, sparklingly white toothed smile less than a foot from my face. His voice was brimming with the enthusiasm of a small child inviting another child to play his favorite sandbox game. He said, “Would you like to come to church this Sunday?”

AFTERWORD: Mormon missionaries are ubiquitous in North Philadelphia; they are dispatched from the church’s main Philly temple at Broad and Wyoming and canvass the surrounding neighborhoods relentlessly. If you’ve done work in the communities near the temple you’ve surely seen them a million times, standing out like sore thumbs in their distinctive uniforms moving among the addicts and corner hustlers. For the most part they are what could be called excruciatingly white, and are thus pretty hard to miss. I used to strike up conversations with these kids from time to time and the ones I talked to were usually straight off the bus from Utah. At first I thought they all must have brass balls to do the work they do but most of them seemed blissfully ignorant of the risk, well known to social workers, associated with foot canvassing the Badlands on a Friday afternoon.

I tried to build some contacts among the missionaries in order to do a story on them. I wondered what the experience is like for a kid from a sheltered community out west to be dropped in the middle of North Philly. When approached on the streets the missionary kids were super friendly and always willing to talk, free with their cell phone numbers and open to the idea of a writer walking with them on their route. But then I would follow up to arrange a time to meet and would be told that the temple wasn’t okay with it. The kids also move around a lot from temple to temple, and their temple-supplied cell phones are often taken and given to another missionary, so maintaining contact with any one missionary proved difficult. I eventually moved on to other neighborhoods for my work, and dropped the story idea.

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