Polly Dickey is an African American woman on mission for Mormonism for twenty-two years since she converted. She is one of the earlier African American converts to the church in New York City and helped to start the Mormon congregation in Harlem.
She has also served as the house mother for most of the young missionaries that came to the city from around the country. She trained, organized and initiated them into a place that intimidated with its high skyscrapers, tough neighborhoods and unfamiliar languages. With them, she has canvassed the streets of Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. She was and is always a friendly face for the young missionaries poised in a tough religious regimen in a tough city.
The Mormons operate a pretty tight regime for their young adventurers. The orderly lifestyle looks like the McDonalds’ way of training newbies step by step on how to smile. The missionaries have a strict dress and fraternization code along with measurable evangelism goals that could use a little loosening at times. That is where Dickey the surrogate mother helps. For example, the field workers are only allowed to call home on Mother's Day and Christmas, so Dickey helps them to work around the system by calling on the youngsters’ behalf their families with holiday greetings.
Consequently, she gets personally close to the missionaries who often maintain contact with her over the years. They telephone and send her Christmas cards with photos. Many now have families with whom they reminisce about their time with “Polly in Harlem.”
Dickey collects each token of remembrance into albums filled with photos and holiday note cards. Her favorite photos are displayed on a large cork board hanging on her living room wall. Name tags are treasured too; some are in Spanish. These type of remembrance collections are typical of Mormons. The photos show Dickey in her 50's and 40's, dressed in professional attire with a great smile on her face, surrounded by happy young men.
Her smile is still there years later. Getting to know Polly is like getting to know a wise sage. She's a righteous yet gentle woman in her mid-60s with smooth chocolate skin and short dark hair. She smells like milk and honey. Her words are thoughtful and frank. Her advice is a mix of Mormon pieties and wisdom from the school of hard knocks.
Early years of hard-knocks
Dickey moved around the city a lot while growing up. After she was born on June 26, 1946, the first of 11 children, she lived in Midtown as a child when the area was filled with prostitutes, peep shows and crime. Then, her father died from a brain tumor when she was very young. When she was eight or nine, her family relocated to 89th Street on the Upper West Side. The family kept moving: next further uptown to Harlem at 110th street and Lenox Avenue and then to the Bronx. When she was 18 years old, her family relocated to 175th Street between Morris and Burnside Avenues. Their household was close and enjoyed “family home evenings” together.
Her parents weren't religious; still, her mother always told her, “I don't care what church you attend, but you have to go to church.” Dickey attended a Catholic church on the Upper West Side for many years. She said it was around 110th street, but she can't remember the name of the church.
Later, as an inquisitive young adult, Dickey thrived working in a coffee shop in the Village hanging out with the beatniks, writers, and poets. She had a refreshing carefree spirit and contemplative mind. People called her “Philosopher Polly.” Even now, she giggles her relish for the nickname.
A spiritual thirstiness led her to join a convent at the age of 19. The church tested her vocational choice by sending her to work at a home for wayward girls, Villa Loretta in Peekskill, for two years. When it was time for Dickey to take her vows, Father Ronin, the priest in charge, took her into his office and suggested that she spend some time in the city to see if becoming a nun was really what she wanted. He thought Dickey was too worldly for the nunnery. She loved joking around, socializing and playing softball. His advice insulted her at first, but she listened to him and traveled back to New York.
Back in city life, her desire to become a nun dwindled. The priest seems to have rightly read Dickey’s unsettled heart. Her spiritual life went down the rapids of sexual relationships that produced four children out of wedlock by her 20's. She lived with her mother who represented a steadying force of family togetherness. Then, there came a series of life incidents that caused traumatic shock.
One night in the Bronx when Dickey was 23, her mother retired to bed early for work. That would be the last time Dickey would see their mother alive.
The next morning, Dickey's little brother called her into their mother's room. “I looked at her and she had a smile on her face. That was the end of it,” recalled Dickey. Their mother had slept through a heart attack. Even though she died peacefully, the death made a lasting impression on Dickey’s life. Suddenly, Dickey was left without any parents and an economic crisis with four kids and no help from her mother’s income. Dickey spiraled into a deep depression. Unexpected comfort came from Utah.
One night, while watching an evangelism program from the Mormons, Dickey impulsively called the number on the television screen. To this day, she is still not sure what compelled her to call the number. She even quickly dismissed the incident from her mind though the Book of Mormon did arrive a couple of days later.
The desperate woman fled the Bronx for Brooklyn. She imagined that a change of environment was what was needed. Dickey packed her bags, took her children, and somewhere along the way the religious impulse as well as the holy book got lost in the shuffle. Brooklyn didn't work out either, Dickey moved back to Manhattan where she has lived ever since.
The year might have been 1986, if Dickey's memory is correct. Her dilapidated apartment on West 133rd Street desperately needed repairs but her finances were too tight to imagine that. Yet, Dickey remembers Harlem of that time as a homely place to live if you stayed away from the conflicts. “If you got into a fight, you caused it,” she said. What Harlem had was a network of survivors that acted like family toward each other.
“Harlem was very neighborly,” she fondly recalled. “You can knock on your neighbor's door for sugar or eggs.”
Still, Dickey was barely making ends meet. She felt that she was in a low moment. She needed comfort and reassurance. Religion was not done with her. The help came in the form of two young white kids from Utah, the same state from which the TV evangelism program had come.
There was a knock on the front door. Opening the door, Dickey came face to face with Elder Jefferson and Elder Herndon. She let them in. “They came, they sat down, they talked to me about the Book of Mormon.” Dickey remembered that she used to have that book. “Before I knew it, I was baptized within a two week period, and I've been with them ever since,” said Dickey proudly. A month after her baptism on June 2, 1989, she became a missionary.
Dickey now sees that her youthful fling with Catholicism prepared her for a religious life. She reflected, “I didn't belong to the Catholic Church, but I had to be prepared for the missionaries. I truly believe it was meant to be.”
She attended service at the New York City Mormon headquarters on the Upper West Side for over 5 years. The most transforming activity for her were the missions. “My life changed because it opened my eyes to different situations and people,” said Dickey. She assimilated the pioneering mindset of Mormons who live in memory of the early frontier days of Utah.
Dickey herself became a Mormon pioneer. She was one of the first members of the church in Harlem when the congregation had less than 15 members gathering at Sylvia's Restaurant. She recalled that time as a trial. The friends whom they invited to church complained about the bad smells and used liquor glasses still laying around. “It was getting difficult. They have a business to run, and there were remnants from the night before, it reeked like alcohol,” said Dickey.
Dickey served a term as the branch President of the Relief Society, the women's group in the Church. It was a position she disliked. She stated, “I don't like telling others what to do, I like to be told what to do.” Yet, it was an opportunity for her to flex talents that might have disappeared into the backwaters of her life.
Dickey plans on carrying her pioneer spirit into heaven with plans to baptize her deceased parents into the church. According to Mormon theology, this will give her parents a chance in the after-life to decide whether they want to enter heaven or not. Also, her grandson just finished a mission in Idaho, where he evangelized for a Spanish congregation. For Dickey his faith is a like a fruit of her frontier efforts in Harlem.
Dickey says that the source of her faith and happiness is well described by the Book of Mosiah, which tells the story of King Benjamin who bestowed the throne to his son, Mosiah. Gathering the Nephite people together, King Benjamin taught them about the strength of leadership based on the laws of God. Such godly leadership always produces hope. “People have a tendency to get depressed and ready to give up,” said Dickey. “King Benjamin was reassuring people that heavenly father is behind them.”
The pioneer woman is not in the best of health. She has run the race and is getting a little bit tired. However, whenever she works with the young missionaries, she gets new energy. “The missionaries keep me going. I don’t know what I would without them. They keep me alive.”