Apostles are reassigning Latter-day Saint missionaries who returned home due to coronavirus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints wear face masks as they walk down West Temple in Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 9, 2020

Tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint missionaries recently returned to their home countries due to the coronavirus pandemic and were released from their service.

They were given a month to decide whether they wanted to go back to their original or temporary assignment “as soon as conditions allow” or return to full-time proselytizing service within 12 to 18 months with a new end date.

Leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints set April 30 as the deadline for these young proselytizers to make a choice about their future service. And, though the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, the deadline remains, said church spokesman Daniel Woodruff.

Since that time, many have finished their imposed isolation or, for newly called missionaries, completed their at-home training online, he said, and “most missionaries have expressed a desire to begin or continue serving as soon as possible.”

The process of “reassigning these missionaries to missions in their home countries is underway, and they have started receiving their new assignments,” the spokesman wrote in a news release. “...Many missionaries throughout the world have already begun their new assignments, and some missionaries in the United States and Canada will depart for their new assignments beginning next week.”

By some estimates, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 missionaries from the U.S. and Canada, who will be leaving for new locales in the coming weeks.

Once in their new assignments, Woodruff said, “missionaries will take part in activities appropriate to the local communities where they will serve.”

They will “continue to strictly follow local and national public health guidelines,” he said, “relating to travel, personal interaction, and preventing any further spread of COVID-19.”

It is still unknown “how long missionaries will serve in their new assignments,” Woodruff said. “Any return to their original missions is dependent on conditions associated with the pandemic.”

All reassignments for “elders” (men who serve two-year stints starting at age 18) and “sisters” (women who serve for 18 months starting at 19), he said, are being made “by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”

Church leaders are “grateful for the missionaries around the world and those preparing to serve,” Woodruff said, “who have shown faith and resilience in the middle of this uncertain time.”

Elizabeth Stewart, of Chandler, Ariz, was a missionary for about nine months in Brazil, when she was quarantined due to COVID-19. She remained in isolation for a little more than a week before being returned to her home, where she’s been since mid-March.

The 20-year-old told her local Latter-day Saint leaders she wanted to return to full-time missionary service and two days ago was reassigned to Dallas. It’s English speaking, but she hopes to pick up some Spanish to add to the Portuguese she learned in Brazil.

Stewart leaves for the Lone Star State next week.

“When I got the call, it felt pretty normal and natural,” Stewart said Thursday. “I feel more grounded knowing about my future.”

She realizes she will probably be quarantined — again — for a while, she said, “but at least they have technology.”

Benjamin Shumway, who was barely a month into his mission to Argentina before being shipped home to Las Vegas, has decided to defer his mission almost a year, leaving in January 2021.

“If I go somewhere and am quarantined again, it won’t be the best mission experience,” said Shumway, who didn’t make it out of the Mexico City Missionary Training Center. “I know I would regret it."

In other action Thursday, the Utah-based faith announced that all pageants and pioneer treks planned for this summer will have to wait until next year. In addition, youth camps and overnight conferences in the U.S. and Canada have been shelved until further notice.

Church leadership suggests local lay leaders “consider technology-based experiences” as a substitute for camps and conferences “that would provide youth with fun and meaningful opportunities to connect with each other.”

Treks, meanwhile, are a popular event and rite of passage in which supervised teens re-create the 19th-century experiences of Mormon settlers, many of whom pushed and pulled handcarts from the Midwest to the Salt Lake Valley.

Two major pageants also have fallen victim this year to the coronavirus closures. The Nauvoo Pageant, in Illinois, will return for a run July 6-31, 2021, and continue in future years. The Hill Cumorah Pageant, which had been scheduled to end an 83-year run this summer in upstate New York, will see its final season delayed to July 8-10 and 13-17, 2021.

In fall 2018, the church said that it was dropping the curtain on most of its major pageants. After a run of more than half a century, for example, Manti’s popular Mormon Miracle Pageant gave its farewell performances last June in central Utah.

— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.