How the coronavirus has reshaped LDS missionaries and members as they find new meaning in a new normal

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

Missionaries suddenly streaming home before their end dates. Weekly worship services being discontinued. Temples closing. Brigham Young University moving online last spring, and the campus evacuating its students.

Like so many worldwide disruptions last spring, COVID-19 was radically reshaping Latter-day Saint rituals and communities — and BYU folklore archivist Christine Blythe felt an urgency to document the transformations.

Many other universities and institutions — including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — also are tracking the way the coronavirus has upended normal life.

But Blythe, curator of the Provo school’s William A. Wilson Folklore Archive, had a particular interest in storytelling as someone who has spent her time collecting anecdotes about missionaries wrestling with Satan, “Dear John” letters, and the magical visits of the Three Nephites.

On top of facts and figures, the folklore archivist is interested in feelings, fears, rumors, legends and spiritual episodes; now she brings her expertise to the pandemic, hoping to provide a more well-rounded view of the Latter-day Saint experience.

To date, Blythe and her handful of eager student researchers have interviewed and collected more than 600 stories from across the globe, including Nigeria, New Zealand, Samoa, Canada, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, and, of course, the United States, especially the Intermountain West.

They asked interviewees such questions as what it’s like to go on dates or give birth during the shutdown; if they eloped instead of waiting for temples to open; what kind of masks they wear; what kind of traditions they’ve developed; and what worship has been like at home.

The interviews are divided into three categories:

• Missionaries — How the virus played out where they were in the first few months, how they got home, their feelings about being reassigned, decisions about going back, and new forms of proselytizing.

• Home church — What worship, especially the sacrament, or communion, was like and how it changed over time.

• Latter-day Saints at large — How parents, especially moms, cousins, couples, ward friends, online groups and “preppers” responded.

The coronavirus collection is creating, she says, a snapshot of this historic moment for future generations.

I’ll go where you want me to go

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Two missionaries who were serving in Brazil have been reassigned to a Portuguese-speaking congregation in Salt Lake City. Mauri Dobbs, left, and Hannah Davidson make a plan for the week in their apartment, Thursday, May 28, 2020.

The church cohort that was probably the most disrupted were the faith’s young proselytizers, more than 60,000 young people spread around the world for two years (for young men) and 18 months (for young women).

In COVID-19′s early days, their patterns of preaching were reduced and restricted — no knocking on doors, no approaching strangers on the street or on buses — but, eventually, the evangelizers were either sequestered in their apartments or returned to their homes.

Missionary stories were Blythe’s personal favorites.

• One missionary serving in Panama was evacuated with his peers on a cargo plane, where they were strapped to the walls.

“In my mind, I was imagining parachuting down in slacks and tie … but it wasn’t that type of plane,” he told Blythe. Amid the awkward seating and deafening noise, the young missionary pulled out his scriptures and took time to reflect on his service.

“For me, it was a very spiritual experience,” he said. “It was kind of surreal, there was a lot of reflection. … This was our last moment in this country we loved.”

• Missionaries in Paraguay had to get out of the country on short notice. They were told to meet at a bus station around 4 in the afternoon but got a call that the bus had broken down. It didn’t get there until midnight, and they were not supposed to be out after curfew at 8 p.m.

“I remember we were out in the street running to the bus with our suitcases,” Blythe quotes him as saying. “There were police cars patrolling. ... They have people on motorcycles with machine guns…. I remember missionaries running out with masks, helping us to get our suitcases.”

• One young female missionary contracted the virus while on a stateside mission. After experiencing some symptoms, she sought medical care but was told she was going to be fine, to go back to her apartment and rest. So she was quarantined in one room, while her assigned “companion,” another female missionary, was in a separate room. But she was in a great deal of pain and did not get better. After another doctor visit, she was told, “This is really serious. If you come back again, we are at the point where this is potentially fatal.” Then she couldn’t go home, because that would infect her parents. So she spent months alone in her room.

“When I interviewed her, she was still ill but on the upswing,” Blythe says. “She was the most positive person I have ever talked to. It was amazing to see how she maintained being a missionary.”

• A sister missionary in the Armenia/Georgia Mission found herself with seesawing emotions when she first was told that the missionaries would be quarantined. Some female missionaries then started going home, and next those remaining were told they all needed to leave. As she was packing, she received a call from the mission president, saying the Tongan border had closed so he needed her to stay as a companion with a sister missionary from that South Pacific country. Within a week, the two were the only female missionaries left in the mission.

“Many missionaries were sent home with the promise of reassignment, but, at least initially, the timeline was uncertain,” Blythe says. “This left many young adults in limbo. They discussed the hardship of not knowing what to do. Should they begin seeking employment, apply for school, or resume dating?”

And those who were sent home permanently because of a specific health risk, physical or mental, associated with the coronavirus, she says, “were devastated by the fact that their service had suddenly been cut short.”

The researcher spoke with one missionary “who cried through much of our interview. She had only been in the field for a short few months and couldn’t understand why she was not only being sent home, but being sent home with no hope of reassignment.”

Indeed, Blythe says, a number of her interviewees were tearful.

On the bright side, some found unexpected benefits to finding themselves in a new place.

• Three elders serving in Japan were none too pleased to be reassigned to Utah’s Provo Mission — one had been a BYU student before and the other was planning to be. But they were delighted when their new mission president took them to the Japanese ward in Utah County so they could serve in the language they were learning.

• A missionary named Theo, who was interviewed by student Brandon Merrill, was on a small Pacific island, where there were no virus cases. Yet, the mission and local members still experienced some chaos due to so many of the missionaries being called home.

Creative alternatives

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Elder Ethan Borg greets his friends and neighbors from a distance as he returns home from his Latter-day Saint mission in Thailand, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

Depression was the most prominent concern for those missionaries still in the field — quarantined and unable to resume service, Blythe says. “The first few weeks and months were particularly monotonous and missionaries played games, called home, exercised and studied their scriptures. Even as missionaries began to utilize technology [to proselytize], concern over mental health remained.”

The internet offered a renewed purpose, allowing them to share their message. Such online outreach continues to this day. Some also are teaching yoga or cooking classes, doing sports demonstrations, and producing music videos.

“I have been impressed with the content that missionaries are producing,” Blythe says. “These videos are breaking down stereotypes surrounding missionaries, allowing missionaries to share their individual talents and highlight their unique personalities. They also allow each individual companionship to reach a larger, even global population. It’s incredible.”

Rather than seeing these Latter-day Saint evangelizers as stiff preachers in shirts and ties, or longish skirts, all looking the same, she explains, “social media has disrupted that a bit, seeing them as normal people, using comedy, singing and other performances.”

“It’s great for the image of the church,” Blythe says, "to see they are individuals and from all over.'

It also has been intriguing to watch the birth of new missionary traditions, such as homecomings.

Instead of giving a speech before a congregation, these young people have come home to ward members decorating their homes or their streets or gathering in cars to offer good wishes from a safe distance.

Overall, the folklorist says, the missionaries she has interviewed have been positive in their accounts.

With few exceptions, they have repeatedly “testified of God’s plan for their individual lives and expressed their gratitude for being called to serve at this moment,” she says, “despite the hardships brought on by the virus.”

When church is at home

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A family in Johannesburg, South Africa, gathers for Sabbath worship to discuss the church's “Come, Follow Me” curriculum, July 19, 2020.

For many Latter-day Saints, going to a meetinghouse every Sunday to hear sermons, take the bread-and-water sacrament, sing hymns, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow believers has been a lifelong habit.

So how do they replicate that experience at home?

The church authorized members to do the sacrament ritual in their homes as long as they had a “worthy male priesthood holder” to officiate. But members had no instructions on what kind of bread to use, or glasses for the water.

“Sales of shot glasses rose dramatically in Utah,” Blythe quips, enjoying the irony of nondrinkers using the tiny cups for their sacred practice.

Some women participated, she says, by making their own bread, or using other wheat-based items like “holy crackers” or even pancakes. They have been able to participate in preparing for the ritual in ways they never could before.

• Student researcher Madison Sheldrake interviewed a 41-year-old female business owner and woodworker who has been making sacrament trays for people to use at home.

It has caused her “to reflect more on what our beliefs are, and in the end it actually helped make the whole thing more meaningful for me as I made them,” the member told Sheldrake. “There’s been a thousand moments of reflection while I’m working on these. Sometimes it’s as simple as watching the laser build Christ’s image line by line and what that could mean in my life. Sometimes it could be something like reflecting on Heavenly Mother and what roles did she have in building or creating the Earth that we just maybe aren’t aware of.”

Most customers who order our sacrament trays think her husband made them, the woman said. She feels like telling them, “Uh, it was me,” but settles for “thanks.”

The woodworking woman ponders the sacrament, while she’s sanding away.

“Everything seems like it’s an analogy. Everything. Even staining the boards. I mean, it’s almost like, have I allowed Christ to stain my heart and to change me, change my color of love towards the world?” she told Sheldrake. “There’s just so many things, I could just go on and on and on.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A young priesthood holder offers the sacrament to a family during a modified church service in the Carrollton Ward, Washington, D.C., Aug. 16, 2020.

Home sacrament looks different in each home, tailored to the circumstances of individual families.

“Some families are blessing the sacrament in their PJs, others are in full Sunday dress,” Blythe says. “Some have made makeshift podiums and use handcarved wood trays; others use medicine cups, shot glasses, or their grandmother’s china.”

Worshipping at home has been particularly difficult on single and widowed women who do not have men to perform the ordinance, or where women are the only members in their family.

• Kira, a 25-year-old Virginia member, told researcher Alexander Nielsen that she was “a little bit bitter at first” about not being able to bless the sacrament. “It was the first time I questioned why this is the way that it is.”

But later she read the sacrament prayers to herself and said her covenants are not in danger by not participating in the physical ritual. “I still felt strengthened to do the things that I was doing, and didn’t feel the need to ask for the sacrament (from the elders) because I felt fine. I don’t really feel diminished by not partaking of the sacrament.”

Many Latter-day Saint women have gone “weeks and months without regularly participating in the sacrament,” Blythe says. “Many others, men and women, without families have found this to be a lonely time, distanced from their church communities.”

Without attending services, Latter-day Saints have developed new Sabbath traditions.

• One family hiked into the mountains. They knelt at a large rock and broke and blessed their bread and partook of the water.

• Two young girls (16 and 11) play a violin and cello duet for their neighbors each Sunday from the driveway of their own home. They also arrange to visit anyone who may be lonely or in need.

As ward communities have been diminished by church closures, new boundaries have been established around family, Blythe says. “Families living in diverse cities, states and even countries are coming together to have services virtually.”

Humanity and end time rumors

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The statue of Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple lost its trumpet in an earthquake in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.

In general, Latter-day Saint experiences are no different than anyone else during the global shutdown.

Mothers and fathers are struggling to balance their responsibilities to work and family — and now home schooling. Many have lost their jobs and must deal with financial stress and depression. Loved ones are sick; some are dying.

Meanwhile, they also “are enjoying spending more time together and taking more walks,” Blythe says. “They have had memorable moments amidst the chaos. They are doing their best to bring light to difficult circumstances.”

And, like others around the world, they are finding ways to connect to neighbors — even while social distancing.

• A 45-year-old woman, who works as a strategic relationship manager for the church, helped throw a COVID-19-approved block party for a DJ, who has lost most of his work due to the virus.

The whole neighborhood came, she told Sheldrake, “and we were all spaced out very well, and he was in the middle of the street, and we had a 30-minute dance party.”

Another time, they served ice cream from golf carts, with appropriate spaces, she told the researcher. “We’ve tried to do things to help lighten the loads of different members in the neighborhood and just keep contact with them.”

What seems to be different from others is particular Latter-day Saint traditions and worldview.

Everyone seemed to hear from a cousin, neighbor, friend or Facebook post about young couples eloping rather than being quarantined. Or that the virus, Blythe heard, was “cooked up in a lab in China, which was one sign of [Christ’s] Second Coming,”

After the virus began sweeping the globe, missionaries serving outside their home countries reported that people stared at them because they were foreigners, she says. “People were more wary of them, telling them they shouldn’t be in the street, you need to get out of here.”

Two white missionaries in Africa were told “they must be carrying the virus,” she says.

Many interviewees shared their belief that the institutional changes — including the unveiling in October 2018 of “home-centered, church-supported” worship — were “revelatory and in preparation for the pandemic,” Blythe says. “For many, this is a testament that Christ leads this church.”

Some view the virus as a “dry run” for the apocalypse, she says, to see how well Latter-day Saints have followed instructions about food storage and other preparations.

With locusts in Africa and the Salt Lake Temple’s Angel Moroni losing his trumpet in an earthquake, interviewees noted, “all the pieces seemed like they were fitting together.”