President Boik (1 of 3)

Thirty miles East of Philadelphia geographically and a couple of light years away socioculturally, sits Chester County–an idyllic suburban embodiment of the 1950s American Dream.  Houses dot the quiet streets, trimmed by well-manicured lawns.  Unlike those in chaotic Philadelphia, the policemen in Chester County spend significant time waiting for speeders.  The air is cleaner there and the life calmer–it would be a good place to raise a family or to retire: Jim Boik was doing the former and preparing for the latter when the Stake President called him and his wife to an interview in the spring of 1999:

Jim, we’ve enjoyed having you as our executive secretary.

Thank you, President, it’s been nice to serve so closely with a good friend.  We’ve come a long way since having your family over for dinner when you first moved in–I remember helping you move your couches into your new house while Joey and Jimmy rode their big wheels in the driveway.

I remember that, as well, you and your wife were the first ones over to help us move in.  Listen, Jim, an issue has come before my counselors and I and we have taken to a lot of praying, fasting, and thinking.  As you know, we recently dissolved most of the inner-city Philadelphia language-specific branches.   Many members were absorped into other wards, but the dissolution also necessitated the formation of a new branch in South Philadelphia–a branch with an enormous mix of ethnicities and backgrounds.  We have a lot of youth there, but little adult leadership: it has been limping along for several months now, but it hasn’t been able to spread its wings yet because we simply don’t have the leadership there to get things going.

At this point, I imagine, the ensuing invitation began to crawl onto the skin and into the heart of Brother and Sister Boik:

Jim and Kathy, we need experienced leadership in the branch, we need people we can count on, people with experience in the Church, people who know the working of the Church well enough to help the local leaders learn their roles.  We have searched and searched within the Branch, but such leaders simply aren’t there.

Then, he paused, and eyed Brother Boik–greying hair, slightly crooked and hesitant smile, and eyes gleaming–and his wife–buoyant yellow hair and caring demeanor–and then continued:

President, I’m extending to you a call to serve as the President of the South Philadelphia Branch.  This is an unusual assignment, since you live no where close to that branch’s boundaries, but it is not without precedent.  You will not, I should tell you, serve a normal term.  In fact, church protocol dictates you can only serve for two years.  Even in that amount of time, however, I believe you will be able to make a significatnt impact for good.  I believe you will be a force in the Lord’s work–both of you will.  What do you say?

Speechless, Brother Boik looked at his wife, stammered, and looked back at President Smith; then back to his wife, with whom he exchanged a knowing and deep look and with whom he shared a deep breath; then back to the President:

We accept, of course.

I knew you would, Jim.  You will be blessed and you will bless many lives.  Thank you.  Please start the process of selecting counselors, we would like to announce the call as soon as we can.

And with that the meeting was over.

As routinely and remarkably happens with such unexpected callings, soon-to-be-President Boik began the soul-searching necessary to select counselors and to come to grips with the weight of a calling unlike any he had earlier received.  A string of early mornings and late nights found Jim on his knees and then awake in bed, wondering how, exactly, he would manage to lead a fledgling congregation of Saints who largely spoke no English and who, to a man, woman, and child, did not know him.

As the days wore on, Jim found the Lord answering, in private moments, many of his concerns.  In large part, of course, the answer was simply: when the burden becomes heavy, I will make you strong.  This assurance, as well as more specific guidance in some cases, settled like dew upon Jim’s soul, convincing him like a lullaby that everything would be alright.

Except for one nagging problem: how would he immerse himself in the work if he lived so far away?  First, of course, the distance itself was an issue: a forty-five minute drive would separate his home from the Branch House and the time required for meetings would almost certainly constrain his service.  More deeply, though, how would a suburbanite commune and connect with the residents of some of inner-city Philly’s tougher neighborhoods.  It just didn’t seem to fit; it was acceptable–no one but the general authorities moves to adapt to a calling–but it just didn’t seem right.

Jim continued wrestling with this issue, as if with an animal that wouldn’t calm.  Finally, one night he found himself alone and praying with an intensity reserved for pressing conversations with a friend:

Lord, how can I serve from so far away?

It must have been the hundredth time he had asked the question.  He knew enough now to wait and see if the answer might distill upon him and so he sat quietly, awaiting the Lord’s direction.  Moments later, it came:

You can’t.

A few minutes later, he found his wife in the kitchen:

Dear, the Lord wants us to move to South Philly.

She looked up, studied his face, and returned, simply:

Ok, if that’s what the Lord wants, let’s go.

In short order, the suburban house was sold, and they found an apartment that would house them, and their two children, for the foreseeable future, in the unwelcoming boundaries of South Philadelphia. 

(explanatory note for those unfamiliar with LDS terms:  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no professional clergy.  Members who hold jobs as bricklayers, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, truck-drivers, and in many other fields serve for a period of time as leaders and teachers in their respective congregations.  A member is generally “called” to a position, an invitation which he may accept or decline.

The smallest LDS congregation is a “ward” or “branch””–each of these units houses a few hundred people and the former is presided over by a Bishop while the latter is presided over by a Branch President.  Wards and branches are grouped into “stakes,” over which a Stake President presides.  These callings–Bishop, Branch President, Stake President–are also voluntary, staffed by lay clergy, and temporary (usually lasting from five to ten years)).

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Published in: on November 13, 2006 at 5:14 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good post. Thanks for the story.

  2. I’m looking forward to the “rest of the story.”


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