It was a simple act of service that Elder James Pickard, from Lindon, Utah, and Elder Jeffrey Kerr, from Mesa, Ariz., had planned, and it turned out to be a success not only in Harlem, N.Y., but also across social media channels.
The two young men serve as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the New York New York North Mission under President Tom Morgan. After a meeting with other mission leaders, the elders and sisters decided to come up with an effective way to share the gospel through a group activity.
"We knew this time of year would bring a lot of opportunities to serve," Elder Pickard said. "We decided to get together and set up a few shoe-shining booths and a hot chocolate stand so that we could not only serve people of Harlem, but that we might also have a few minutes to teach people about Jesus Christ and the spirit of Christmas."
While Elder Kerr and Elder Pickard believed it would be a good idea, other missionaries questioned the effectiveness of the activity.
"I would say there were some doubts, but we felt like it was going to be successful so we decided to do it," Elder Kerr said. "But as soon as we got it set up, we were super excited about it, and basically just started up and down the streets talking to everybody, and the zone (group members) just really caught the energy. ... Everyone caught the energy and was supper happy about it and took the opportunity to serve and teach the gospel in the middle of Harlem and have fun."
While some of the elders shined shoes, others greeted people on the street and handed out hot cocoa with sister missionaries and one senior missionary couple.
"There were a lot of people who they would walk past, and they wouldn't necessarily take a hot chocolate or a shoe shine, but they would just stop and watch what was happening," Sister Crystal Diehl said. "One woman took a picture on her phone and walked away, but you could definitely tell that even though she wasn't a part of it directly, it really touched her."
Elder Kerr also shared his interaction with a man who didn't end up using the free service but became interested in learning more from the missionaries.
"There was a man named Darell who came up to us and was really trying to get us to do it again because he didn't have his shoes on that could be shined," Elder Kerr said. "So that was the reason he came over, and then he ended up talking to some of the sister missionaries for about 30 minutes and got super interested and really happy.
"It was really cool to me, just the whole idea that the shoe shine brings in the people, and then hopefully their hearts are touched — and that was just one example of that happening."
The missionaries also had success in talking with people while shining their shoes.
"We noticed as we were shining people's shoes, we had a lot of time to talk with people, and as the conversation began we started talking about how people's days were, and it led in to a more gospel-centered conversation, which is exactly what they needed," Elder Pickard said.
Preaching the gospel through service is a common missionary method exemplified in the Book of Mormon.
"In the scriptures, some of the best missionaries, that's the very first thing they did was serve people," Elder Kerr said. "Through that, opportunities came to preach the gospel. I feel like when you're doing service, Heavenly Father blesses you with opportunities to share the gospel and helps the hearts of those we are serving to be softened."
During the service project, one man spoke with a senior missionary, Sister Mary-Joe Christensen, about how their service project reminded him of Christ. Following the event, Sister Diehl, from Salt Lake City, posted this experience on Facebook.
"Today was a very inspiring day for me in the mission field," Sister Diehl wrote. "While it was a wonderful experience to talk with so many wonderful people, my heart was touched in particular when a man who stopped by one of our tables and had a profound insight and said, 'I get it, this is like when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples to demonstrate we are all on the same level, we are all equal and we are all here to serve each other.'"
Having not made this connection previously, Sister Diehl expressed her appreciation for her opportunity to serve.
"Just when I heard that he said that, I don't even know how to describe it in words. It just really put it into perspective," Sister Diehl told the Deseret News. "Service really is the closest thing we can do to get closer to the Savior."
Since it was posted on Facebook, Sister Diehl's photo has been shared on other social media sites and blogs.
"It's quite incredible, I think," she said. "I think as a missionary, you hope that efforts aren’t going in vain. You never know exactly who you’re touching, and I think that project we did, it definitely let you see just how much you are affecting people," Sister Diehl said.
In addition to facilitating service and gospel discussions, the experience had a positive impact on the missionaries.
"When Elder Kerr and I were doing this activity, it was like riding a roller coaster," Elder Pickard said. "We had so much energy doing this. It's probably some of the most fun we've ever had together."
According to Elder Kerr and Elder Pickard, this won't be the last time they join together in service to spread the spirit of Christ.
"We probably will do a second shoe shine at some point," Elder Kerr said. "I'm kind of a relaxed person, but when we were doing that shoe shine, I've never had that much energy as a missionary. ... It was pretty amazing, and I think it was definitely Spirit-driven. I was talking to every single person I saw on the street and just had an absolute ball."