Probably no cohort of missionaries in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 190-year history has ever collectively experienced anything like the 2020 global coronavirus.
There have been times, like the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, when church meetings were suspended, General Conferences were canceled or postponed, and temples were closed. There have been times, as during World War II, when missionary calls were restricted. There have been times when political events prompted the faith’s proselytizers to be recalled or hurriedly moved.
But this year’s crop of missionaries has been quarantined, shuffled around, reassigned and released — many may be recalled at a yet-to-be determined future date, when the world returns to normal. And it all took place within just a few months’ time.
They have much in common, but their stories are as varied as the 67,000 men and women who enlisted to seek converts to the Utah-based faith. Why, where and how long they served. How they heard the news. What they did when they got home. How they coped.
Plan interrupted — in a hurry
Elder Benjamin Shumway of Las Vegas was oblivious to the swelling pandemic engulfing the globe when he arrived Feb. 18 at the Missionary Training Center in Mexico City for his mission to Cordoba, Argentina. During his nearly five weeks in the MTC, the only news of the coronavirus he got — whispered rumors mostly — came from other missionaries who heard it from their worried parents during regular phone calls.
Missionaries were being reassigned and the training center was slowly emptying, still without any official news. It and other Latter-day Saint training centers around the world would soon be closed.
On the morning of March 20, Shumway went to class, while others were scurrying around packing.
There was no teacher but a “random substitute” came in, Shumway recalls, and gave the trainees a “pep talk, uplifting message and a scripture,” the former missionary says, and then told them to return to their apartments and gather their belongings. They might be leaving sometime later.
Back in his room, Shumway threw some clothes in the washer, packed the rest and put on his suit. Less than a half-hour later came a knock at the door and a person telling him to go immediately to the front desk, where a shuttle bus was waiting.
He threw his “super wet clothes” in a laundry bag, shoved it in his suitcase, grabbed his passport from the reception desk, and was the last on the bus — no warning or time to say goodbye to fellow missionaries — still unsure whether he was bound for his assigned mission or for his reassignment in New Mexico.
Not until he arrived at the airport in Los Angeles did Shumway learn he was heading home to self-isolate.
For nine days, the would-be evangelizer continued to try to follow mission rules and finish his language training online (dressed with a white shirt and tie on the top, with pajamas on the bottom), but it was tough, he acknowledges.
On March 31, came the news that all missionaries returning to the United States and Canada from international locations, were released.
“The first few days I was sad about missing my mission,” Shumway says. “Now I’m trying to have a good attitude.”
Still, he says with resignation, “I don’t have a plan for my future.”
Three isolations, two languages
Protests and the virus have caused Elder Peter Sloan of Holladay to be reassigned four times — and quarantine three times during his just over eight-month mission.
Sloan entered the Provo MTC at the end of July 2019 to learn Cantonese for his mission to Hong Kong, but after 10 weeks in the flagship training center, massive political protests in that Chinese city forced the church to reroute temporarily the missionaries headed there.
In early October, Sloan was sent to Vancouver, Canada, where the Chinese population speaks Mandarin, so he began to learn that as well.
About five weeks later, the church decided it was safe for missionaries to return to Hong Kong, so Sloan went to his original assignment. By the end of January, however, that Asian metropolis was shut down due to the coronavirus, so Sloan was put in full lockdown with his companion in their apartment.
On Feb. 4, all the Hong Kong missionaries were shipped back home for a 14-day quarantine, says Sloan’s mother, Marta Sloan.
After that, the young missionary was reassigned to Vancouver, but the day before he was to leave, Canada closed its borders to any who had been in Hong Kong, so the 20-year-old was once again reassigned.
This time, young Sloan landed in San Jose, where he had to self-isolate for the third time, given California’s “shelter-in-place” requirements — and where he continues to labor in Mandarin.
“It’s been an adventure for sure,” says his mom, “but Peter has a great attitude and great companions to spend so much time inside with.”
One perk has been that his Hong Kong mission president’s wife, an American who is a native of that Chinese city, offered to make daily phone calls to those who had to be reassigned so they can practice their Cantonese.
“Peter is grateful for the extra time to study both Mandarin and Cantonese, since that was one of his goals when he got his call,” Marta Sloan says. “He had no expectation that he would be given the opportunity in this way.”
Elder Joshua Kirk of Fremont, Calif., fully expected to finish his two-year assignment in the Cavite, Philippines, Mission in August 2020. He knew of no coronavirus cases in the areas he served, nor was he ever quarantined. No one there had a cellphone with the internet, so they had not followed the news at all.
Then, on March 13, came a text from the mission president — all foreign missionaries would be going home immediately.
The Philippine government was giving them just 72 hours to get out, Kirk says. The country went from fewer than 100 cases to complete lockdown within a week.
“When we went to the grocery store, we were approached by some military guys who asked us what we were doing. We told him we were just looking to get some food.”
If you were seen outside, he says, “you could be shot.”
By the following weekend, he was on one of the church-chartered flights to evacuate more than 1,600 missionaries.
Driving to the Manila airport was eerily quiet. Streets normally clogged with traffic were lifeless, he says. “We did not see a single car.”
Kirk was left with a bittersweet feeling: happy that he was out as long as he was but sad he could not stay longer.
Still, he says, part of being a missionary is “learning to accept God’s plan.”
It took Sister Molly Day of Atlanta a year from putting in her missionary papers in January 2019 to getting her call to serve in Little Rock, Ark. She had “stuff to do,” she says.
But when Day opened her assignment at the beginning of this year, “it was the best thing ever.”
She could not have known that the coronavirus would consume her dream.
Day entered the Provo MTC on March 4 for three weeks of training. But she and her companion, who was going to Pocatello, Idaho, were sent home three or four days before they were supposed to report to their assigned areas.
Both had asthma.
“It was really, really hard to be home,” the 20-year-old says.
As far as she knew, Day was still a missionary, so she tried to maintain the rigid schedule she had in the MTC.
She got up at 6:30 a.m., dressed in her mission attire, studied scriptures, and prayed, then watched nature documentaries and helped her family finish a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle of DC Comics, Day says. “Watching movies felt so weird.
I tried to watch a rom-com, but said to myself, ‘I have to turn this off.’”
She wanted to be ready at a moment’s notice to go back out.
Eventually, she was released. She can’t serve in the Atlanta temple — it, like all temples, is closed — or work at the bishops’ storehouse, Day says. “I can’t do anything. It’s been a really tough situation.”
Her Facebook page now says “on hiatus.”
Follow the prophet, Elder
Day’s stepbrother, Elder Ronan Vish, spent 18 months and a week as a missionary in Fortaleza, Brazil.
On March 19, seemingly out of the blue, there was a one-week quarantine.
“Our mission did not have smartphones, we still had our Nokia bricks from 2005,” he quips. “Our first clue [about the virus] was when the church announced it was closing down [weekly services starting on March 15.]
The mission president told them to “buy food storage” and self-isolate in their apartments, and they had no online access to do virtual proselytizing.
“It was different for us,” Vish says. “We wanted to work and help people. Instead, we just stayed at home, talked to each other. It was hard to keep ourselves entertained.”
Four days later, all foreign missionaries who had served for a year and six months were being sent home.
He was released the day he got home and has since switched, he says, from “being quarantined in Brazil to being quarantined in Atlanta.”
Vish was “disappointed because I absolutely loved my mission,” he says. “But you gotta follow the prophet, you know?”
Finding purpose at home
Sister Elizabeth Stewart of Chandler, Ariz., always wanted to serve her 18-month mission in Brazil. While on a humanitarian trip to Africa in high school, she had heard Portuguese for the first time and fell in love with the language.
So when Stewart opened her call and it was to Cuiabá, Brazil, she was thrilled.
She left for South America on June 5 and served happily — except for the extreme heat — until the virus struck.
“I first started hearing about it from my friend in Hong Kong, the 20-year-old recalls. “I thought, ‘This will never hit Brazil. Everyone is so unworried about it.’ It became a joke where I was serving. They didn’t care about it. No one was taking any big action.”
On March 17, her city instituted a half quarantine, where residents could go to appointments, but a couple of days later, it was upped to a full quarantine.
“I got a little worried,” she acknowledges. “Why was this happening?”
A week later, Stewart was chatting with other sister missionaries for “P Day” (preparation day) about the church sending all foreign missionaries home from the Philippines, when the phone rang.
All foreign missionaries had to leave Brazil as well.
“It was heartbreaking to hear,” she recalls. “You spend your time on a mission, giving everything you have, loving the culture and humanity, and trying to make a difference.”
Leaving was “emotionally and spiritually taxing,” Stewart says. “It was my second home.”
Being back with her family, where she is the oldest of four, was lovely at first, but that eventually wore off and she wondered: “What is my purpose?”
Again in quarantine, she couldn’t go out. Couldn’t start anything. Couldn’t meet new people.
With her two brothers, sister and parents, Stewart says, there was a lot of “high energy” in the house. All the family members seemed to be going in a different direction — mom runs a choir, dad’s doing business, sister practices gymnastics — trying to continue their lives from inside their house.
She prayed for a way to continue being a missionary — but at home.
“My family is swamped with stuff, so I decided I can do things that are hard for them,” Stewart says. “I can write letters, do laundry and cooking and teach them Portuguese.”
What you do as a missionary is offer a listening ear or help others in any way they need, she says. “I feel good about my purpose now.”
Indeed, she feels lucky to have been a missionary during this pandemic, Stewart says. “No one in history ever expected this. We are all in uncharted territory.”
She hopes “no one is throwing this time away,” she says. ‘It can be used for so much good.”