This week in Mormon Land: Post-pandemic forecast, coronavirus updates and General Conference buildup

(Mike Stack | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) In this 2014 file photo, missionaries talk to a shopkeeper in Accra, Ghana.

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Post-pandemic predictions

(Courtesy photo | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sacrament meeting in Africa.

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, some wonder how church growth may be affected?

Independent researcher Matt Martinich tackled that question by revisiting previous disruptions.

The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak cut growth rates in half in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Martinich notes in a post at ldschurch.growth.blogspot.com, but they gradually rebounded afterward. In fact, he writes, those West African nations have since enjoyed “unprecedented” congregational growth and higher retention and activity rates.

A big reason: Without foreign proselytizers, locals had to shoulder more of the missionary and leadership loads.

“My prediction is that the church in countries with a solid leadership base and seasoned church membership (i.e., the United States, Canada, Western Europe, industrialized East Asia, Oceania) will likely not experience long-term negative consequences from the current crisis,” Martinich writes. “...Growth trends in countries with developing church leadership, a sizable body of church members, and more dynamic growth (i.e., the Philippines, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa) appear more unclear, but past experience has indicated that growth rates usually significantly decrease during the crisis, and then rapidly increase after the crisis.”

‘Mormon Land’ podcast: Coronavirus and conference

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Patrick Mason speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast on Oct. 4, 2019.

It has been several weeks since our latest “Mormon Land” podcast. Thankfully, not much has happened in that interval.

OK, scratch that. Let’s just say the world has turned upside down.

The church’s fundamental operations, programs and plans have been upended by the coronavirus. Services have been canceled. All temples are closed. And tens of thousands of missionaries have been recalled, released or reassigned. All of this coming in front of an online spring General Conference that will mark the bicentennial of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” but will have no public attendance.

Sorting through these astonishing developments and looking forward to this weekend’s conference is Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University.

Listen here.

Conference special

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake Second Ward at 704 S. 500 East features this stained-glass window of Joseph Smith's "First Vision."

Once again, The Salt Lake Tribune published a pre-General Conference special section that highlighted a range of topics within and about the faith, including:

• How a kneeling Joseph Smith worried more about his standing before God than which church was true in a story that explores the various accounts of the “First Vision,” including the only version written in the church founder’s own hand.

• How teenagers, from youths in scripture to Joseph Smith to Jane Manning James and the likes of the Osmonds and David Archuleta, have played parts in the Mormon story.

• How the church’s reported $100 billion in “rainy day” funds for the future (though possibly worth much less in these pandemic-plagued markets) could be used toward building a better world now through “impact investing.”

• How Latter-day Saints may sing about choosing the right but sometimes get the lyrics, even to their most beloved hymns, amusingly and wildly wrong.

• How a previous flu epidemic delayed the 1919 spring General Conference, including the sustaining of a new church president, until nearly summer.

• How columnist Ann Cannon would observe Lent — if the church ever embraced the Christian practice.

• Why humorist Robert Kirby is relieved — and other members should be, too — that there will be no public attendance at this conference.

• Why columnist Gordon Monson is urging members to hold onto the iron rod — but only after it’s been wiped down by Clorox wipes. “God be with you till we meet again, whenever that may be,” Monson writes. “Meantime, stay healthy, brothers and sisters, but stay away.”

Coronavirus updates

• In his second video addressing the coronavirus crisis, church President Russell M. Nelson invited the world to fast and pray “for relief from the physical, emotional and economic effects of this global pandemic.”

“As a physician and surgeon, I have great admiration for medical professionals, scientists and all who are working around the clock to curb the spread of COVID-19,” said Nelson, who 65 years ago performed Utah’s first open-heart operation. “I am also a man of faith, and I know that during these challenging times, we can be strengthened and lifted as we call upon God and his son Jesus Christ, the master healer.”

The 95-year-old leader, appearing healthy and strong, said “the Lord understands the feelings you are experiencing. He loves and cares for you, as I do, too.”

The video racked up more than a million views on YouTube.

• Nelson also offered reassurance in a social media post days later, acknowledging the fears posed by the pandemic, inviting people to watch this weekend’s General Conference, and emphasizing that the light of Christ “shines ever brighter” amid the “gloomy darkness of a troubled world.”

• Senior apostle M. Russell Ballard, in an interview with the Church News, also assured Latter-day Saints that there is “a light at the end of the tunnel” and encouraged them to “be happy and keep going forward and do the best we can.”

“These circumstances,” he said, “will change.”

The 91-year-old acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, second in line after First Presidency member Dallin H. Oaks to take the reins of the faith, also urged members to care for others.

“There has been some wonderful, wise, careful ministering being done through social media, through phone calls, through notes of concern,” Ballard said. “…We are coming to realize how precious our families are, how precious our neighbors are, how precious our fellow church members are. … There are lessons we are learning now that will make us better people.”

• The church reported its first two cases of COVID-19 among its full-time proselytizing force — and they probably won’t be the last.

On Friday, an elder serving in Mexico City became the first Latter-day Saint missionary to test positive.

The young man, who is from Guatemala, was being treated for mild symptoms. He and his companion are self-isolated.

On Monday, a second case, this one involving a female missionary in Australia who is self-isolating at home, became public.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses throughout the world, we recognize that additional missionaries will unfortunately contract the virus,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff wrote in a news release. “... Gratefully, young missionaries are not generally considered to be at high risk of complications from the illness.”

• Thousands of missionaries returning to the U.S. and Canada who were serving internationally will be released. They can go back to their original or temporary assignment “as soon as conditions allow” or resume full-time proselytizing service within 12 to 18 months with a new end date.

“The ability to reassign these missionaries — even on a temporary basis,” top church leaders wrote in a letter to members, “has now become more limited by changing conditions.”

See graphics of how various missionaries will be released, reassigned or recalled.

When your home is the MTC

(Photo courtesy of Martha Sloan) Sister Anna Sloan enters the "Missionary Training Center," in this case, her house.

Hundreds of Latter-day Saints are beginning their missions not at a Missionary Training Center, surrounded by unfamiliar classrooms, cafeterias and companions, but rather at home, encircled by familiar rooms, foods and faces.

But the usual intense scripture, gospel and language study for all missionaries-in-training is in full force — along with the required attire, the demanding schedule and virtual companions.

“We see her briefly throughout the day; other than that, she’s busy,” Martha Sloan told The Tribune of her missionary daughter, Anna. “...When we do have those moments with her, you can tell she has that light with her.”

Improvised sacrament

Wilfried Decoo, a retired Brigham Young University professor, revisits the time when Martha, a faithful Latter-day Saint woman in his branch, suffered a debilitating stroke and found herself relegated to a gloomy “social hospice” in Belgium.

Decoo, then her 23-year-old branch president, tried to meet with her in her room, he explains in a reprised Times and Seasons blog post. But only the parish priest could do that.

“She should have thought twice before becoming a Mormon,” the priest told Decoo.

Cut off from the saints and Sunday services, Martha yearned for the sacrament and told Decoo she could scrounge up the bread and water, but who could bless them in her room?

“I held her hands tight,” Decoo writes, “ … and whispered, ‘Martha, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Priesthood, I give you hereby the authority to bless the sacrament.’”

For Decoo, the new reality, given the coronavirus, brings new resonance to this remembrance.

“Would the Lord mind if a secluded woman (or women) read the sacrament prayers from D&C or from Moroni, with bread and water on the table and then partake of it?” he asks. “Whether it is ‘duly’ blessed or not seems besides the question: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’”

New handbook chapters

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Young Women in Ohio cook together. The church’s new program for children and youths encourages personal development through gospel learning, service, activities and personal development.

The church’s emerging, one-size-fits-all handbook has three newly updated sections.

Chapters 10 through 12 cover Aaronic Priesthood Quorums, Young Women and Primary, respectively. All three include information about the new Children and Youth program.

Readers also will see the new Aaronic Priesthood Quorum theme and the revised Young Women one.

The gender gap evident in the first lines of the two themes made headlines last year. While a 13-year-old deacon, for instance, recites that he is a “beloved son of God,” his 16-year-old sister states that she is a “beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents.”

Missionary dies in crash

A fatal car accident Saturday claimed the life of a 20-year-old missionary serving in the Dominican Republic Santiago Mission.

Israel Emmanuel Ramírez Díaz, of Ecatepec, Mexico, was killed, a church spokesman said in a news release. He had been on his mission for nearly a year.

Two other 20-year-old elders — Jonata Maia Oliveira, of Fortaleza, Brazil, and Brigham Darian Tovar Noriz, of Atotonilco de Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico, were injured and are receiving medical attention.

“We express our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones of Elder Ramírez who have witnessed his valuable contribution among those whose lives he touched,” spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in the release. “ … We pray sincerely for Elder Oliveira and Elder Tovar as they recover, and the church is working to ensure they receive the best care available.”

Temple renovation

All Latter-day Saint temples are closed until further notice in the battle against the coronavirus. And even if they reopen in the coming weeks, the Columbus Temple will be shutting down again Aug. 15 to undergo “extensive renovation,” according to a news release. Ohio’s only temple, which debuted in 1999, won’t reopen until late 2022.

Quote of the week

“This is a rare time of enforced solitude when we don’t have a lot of trivia or superficial busyness distracting us from considering the truly important things in life. Such times invite us to look into our soul and see if we like what we see there.”

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland in Church News interview

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.