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LDS senior missionary serving in Ghana builds pulpit for paralyzed branch president

Elder Gary Parke and his wife, Helen, sat before an LDS congregation in Tema, Ghana, waiting to speak about temple preparation, when several men entered the building wearing suit coats. The uncommon attire for the tropical climate suggested this was no ordinary sacrament service.

One of the men, the stake president, walked to the pulpit and announced the names of three new branch presidency members.

“Two brethren stood up, and I thought, 'OK, so maybe the counselor didn’t make it today,' " Elder Parke said. “From where we were sitting, we could not see President Azumah. ... The next thing I saw was him coming around the corner, around the podium."

Ike Joseph Azumah, the new branch president, approached the stand on his hands, using one knee for balance and flip-flops to protect his palms. President Azumah took his place on the stand, and using a wireless microphone, bore his testimony.

"I just went up and shook his hand, and when I shook his hand, I knew that there was something special about this guy," Elder Parke said. "I got the impression that I needed to figure out how he could conduct the meeting from the pulpit just like any other branch president would do."

President Azumah contracted an illness when he was 4 years old that paralyzed his legs and stunted their growth. The father of three has been serving as the New Town Branch president for the past year, and his assignment helped the Parkes, a couple from Centerville serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Accra Ghana Temple, understand the purpose of their call.

On the 18-mile drive home that Sunday afternoon, Elder Parke, a contractor, brainstormed ways to help the new branch president serve despite his physical challenges. With the help of people around the world and divine intervention, Elder Parke completed a project that President Azumah calls "a total miracle."

"The interesting thing about this is the Lord knows my abilities, what I’ve done for the past 35 years. He knew I could do what I needed to do to make that work," Elder Parke said. "By the time I got back to our apartment, I knew exactly how to design and build what was needed for him, except one minor part."

Elder Parke's plan consisted of a set of stairs that President Azumah could climb and reach a cushion at the top, where he could sit while using the microphone at the pulpit. But designing something President Azumah could operate and that wouldn't have to be moved for other speakers was challenging.

"I could not figure out how to make the pulpit and the steps work so that they did not have to move the steps out of the way every time he went to the pulpit and came back down," Elder Parke said. "Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways sometimes. So that night I asked him to help me figure it out, and at about 4 that next morning, I had my answer. I knew it would work, and (the Lord) knew it would work."

Elder Parke’s new design allowed the seat to slide over to the pulpit when President Azumah was speaking and back into the stand when he was finished. The next day, Elder Parke presented his idea to the stake president.

"He just sat there for a minute, and he looked at me, and he said, 'Elder Parke, we have been praying that we could finally figure out some way to allow President Azumah to be able to conduct the meetings like anybody else would,' " Elder Parke said. "I knew then, without any doubt, that the Lord was mindful of this branch president, and not only the branch president, but mindful of (me)."

Elder Parke spent all of his spare time creating the special stand. Because his robust collection of tools sat thousands of miles away in his Centerville garage, Elder Parke turned to local resources. A cabinetmaker began building the stairs while Elder Parke looked for drawer slides that could support President Azumah's 95-pound frame while suspended. Eventually, he found a company in California that made the parts.

Originally, the company denied Elder Parke’s purchase request because he was not a wholesale supplier. Disappointed, Elder Parke turned to his daughter in Utah for help.

While he awaited a response from his daughter, the Accra Ghana Temple closed for two weeks, and Elder and Sister Parke received permission from the temple president to visit friends in Paris. The couple went to the airport and waited for their flight, but it was canceled.

"There was a divine purpose that this flight got canceled in our behalf," Elder Parke said. "When I got back, I just pulled up the computer, and my daughter had emailed me and said, ‘Dad, they worked out the possibilities, but you need to send a set of professional-looking prints so that they know it is being used accordingly, that it’s not just some joke.' "

An architect from Elder Parke’s Centerville ward had created professional drawings, and while at home that night, Elder Parke scanned the plans and sent them to the company. Elder Parke's daughter then helped him negotiate with the company and purchase the drawer slides. The parts were shipped to a California home where a member of the Parke's Ghana ward was visiting, and she brought the slides back.

"As I looked at all the people involved in building this cabinet for President Azumah, it’s just amazing to me that it all came together, plus a canceled plane flight to make it so we wouldn’t miss the deadline," Elder Parke said. "It’s just too many things to not think that Heavenly Father is ever mindful of how things work."

When the drawer slides arrived, Elder Parke purchased several tools to complete the construction of the stand. He also helped build a new pulpit so President Azumah could reach the microphone while sitting. When the stand was complete, President Azumah, who had no knowledge of the project, was told that a new pulpit would be delivered to his chapel on a Saturday.

"I was at school when I had the call from the company that they are bringing some pulpit to our branch," President Azumah said. "We already have a pulpit, so when they say that they are bringing a pulpit, I was like, ‘Why two pulpits?’ I was not informed, but I say, 'OK, I will come.' So I quickly organize myself. I took a taxi, and I get to the church premises, and I open the place, and they brought it, and I say, ‘Hey, this is for me! This pulpit here is for me.' "

Following sacrament meeting on Sunday, Elder Parke put the finishing touches on the pulpit and the stand and brought President Azumah to the chapel to use them for the first time. Although only Elder and Sister Parke and President Azumah's wife, Godslove, were in the audience, it was a memorable moment.

"I see it to be a total miracle in my life," President Azumah said. "People think that miracles is about getting material things. Or maybe you are sick, and all of a sudden, you are well, and you are moving. Well, that is a miracle. Or maybe myself, especially with my disability, all of a sudden, my legs are OK, and I am walking. People would see that to be a miracle, but I don’t see it that way. I see this to be the total miracle in my life that I can access the pulpit and speak to my people."

Elder Parke, who will return to Utah with his wife in the fall, said that being in the right place at the right time so he could help President Azumah will be a highlight of his mission.

"I found myself with tears in my eyes and a feeling of deep gratitude in my heart to realize that I was a small instrument in the Lord's hands in helping this young branch president in accomplishing this great work he was called to do," Elder Parke said.

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