US members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wearing protective masks, gather at Toncontin International airport before heading home, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 29, 2020.

Religion

Latter-day Saints calls missionaries home amid coronavirus 

This isn’t the first time that missionaries have been called home in large numbers. It happened in World War II, when hundreds of Latter-day Saints missionaries left Europe. 

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US members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wearing protective masks, gather at Toncontin International airport before heading home, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 29, 2020.

Credit:

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters 

Connor Whitesides, a 19-year-old member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, returned home to Syracuse, Utah, from his mission in Peru recently. His neighbors came outside to their driveways to cheer and clap for his arrival — but from a safe distance.

It wasn’t the homecoming he had anticipated. Typically, Latter-day Saints missionaries are greeted at the airport by family and friends, who bring signs and balloons to mark an important rite of passage for many young people in the church.

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Instead, Whitesides met his parents in the airport parking lot, and then drove to his childhood home where he’s now spending two weeks in quarantine. “It’s a bittersweet kind of thing,” Whitesides said.

Whitesides was supposed to be gone for two full years, but he returned home after just 15 months as part of a mass evacuation of Latter-day Saints missionaries. Before the coronavirus outbreak, there were more than 67,000 serving around the world. Now, church officials say that tens of thousands have been sent home.

As of Monday, there were more than 1.9 million infections and 118,376 deaths worldwide from COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. The US now has more cases than any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

Peyton Graham, another 19-year-old from Syracuse, was on a mission in Argentina. Serving a mission was a goal of his from a young age. 

“I felt the love of my savior Jesus Christ, and I wanted to serve him and preach his gospel and share his love with those around me.”

Peyton Graham, missionary called back to the US

“I felt the love of my savior Jesus Christ, and I wanted to serve him and preach his gospel and share his love with those around me,” he said.

Missionary life is strict. Missonaries live in pairs, wake up at 6:30 a.m. and spend long hours proselytizing on the street and in peoples’ homes. They’re not supposed to read mainstream news or listen to pop music, and calls back home are limited to once a week.

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When the coronavirus hit, Graham and his missionary companion began taking extra precautions, like giving fist bumps instead of handshakes. But soon, Argentina sent them into full-time quarantine.

“Teaching a lesson over the phone about religion is not very effective without body language and being there in person and actually being able to talk to them.”

Peyton Graham, missionary called back to the US

They tried to continue their missionary work from their apartment, using an old Nokia phone to call potential and new converts, but it wasn’t easy.

“Teaching a lesson over the phone about religion is not very effective without body language and being there in person and actually being able to talk to them,” Graham said.

To pass the time, he made humorous videos of missionary life under quarantine. In the first one, he feeds a pair of friendly neighborhood dogs and shows off his sewing skills, having patched up one of his white missionary shirts. Now, he’s back home with his family, no longer a missionary — at least for the time being.

This isn’t the first time that missionaries have been called home in large numbers. According to Ardis Parshall, a research historian in Salt Lake City, it happened in World War II, when hundreds of Latter-day Saints missionaries left Europe. “Most of the missionaries received telegrams saying it was time to get out,” she said. Amid the chaos of their departure, church officials lost track of them and had to guess which trains they might be on.

This evacuation has been much more organized. In some cases, the church chartered planes for homebound missionaries, and gave open seats to stranded flyers trying to get home, too. “This would not have been possible during these unprecedented times without the support and cooperation of many governments around the world,” said Daniel Woodruff, a spokesman for the church, in a statement.

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Some church members have watched the exodus and wondered if it is the fulfillment of prophecy. Brigham Young, one of the first church leaders, predicted that the Lord would call missionaries back before the end of days. But Parshall, the historian, says she’s not so sure that’s what is happening now.

“It is a reminder of what we expect will come some time, but there is no reason to panic and believe that today is that day.”

Ardis Parshall, research historian, Salt Lake City

“It is a reminder of what we expect will come some time, but there is no reason to panic and believe that today is that day.”

Missionaries who have come home face uncertainty. The church is giving them an option for possible reassignment — maybe closer to home in the US. They can also sit tight, and wait for an opportunity to go back to the country where they served, in either 12 or 18 months.

Heather Goff just returned to Ogden, Utah, from Zimbabwe. She says learning that her mission would be cut short was really difficult for herself and her companion. “We both were physically sick when we heard,” she said. “It was unprecedented. We had no idea, we lost it for a while just because it was such a shock.”

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Goff says she’s still trying to decide what’s next, though she is leaning toward returning to the field sooner rather than holding out to go to Zimbabwe. Though the transition back was hard, she says she believes that everything happens for a reason.

“I know this wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t the best thing for the world at this time,” she said. “The Lord knew that this was going to happen, and he sent us all home for a reason and the work needs to go forward in a different way than it has been.”

Meanwhile, the church is still expanding overseas. At its recent annual conference, held without a live audience, church President Russell M. Nelson announced plans to build eight new temples. Five will be abroad, including one in Dubai — the first in the Middle East. 

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