Jana Riess: Mormons, submit your COVID-19 stories

Members of various Mormon traditions are being asked to upload their stories, photos and social media posts about what life was like during the pandemic.

(File photo courtesy of Chad Mourino) Chad Mourino teaches new Latter-day Saint missionaries Mandarin remotely. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, prospective proselytizers are learning new languages and studying their religion via technology.

One of my callings at church is to be the “history specialist” in my ward, which basically means I compile a digital scrapbook of our congregation’s annual doings. It’s one of my favorite callings over the course of my life as a Latter-day Saint (and the only one I’ve ever actually trained for professionally). I love the folks in my ward and this gives me an excuse to ask them about their lives.

For 2019′s scrapbook, I took photos at potlucks, reported on a baptism and two baby blessings, and shared the thoughts of the presidents of our various organizations. I’m compiling 2020′s scrapbook right now … and it is primarily a series of screenshots from Zoom calls and meetings. (The Adorable Award goes to the screenshots from our children’s Primary program in December.) That’s how we’ve been a community for the last year — hunkered down in our own homes, soldiering on.

It has been a fascinating time to chronicle. Lots of challenges and also bursts of joy.

Writ large, this effort to mark Mormon life in a time of COVID-19 is the driving force behind a new effort at Claremont Graduate University, which is to collect personal stories from around the world.

“We are gathering photographs, texts, social media posts, stories,” Matthew Bowman, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont, wrote in an email. “Any religion is more than just words on a page; it’s how people live, and we want to use these stories to make their lives feel as tangible as we can.”

To that end, Claremont is seeking stories from people of the various “restoration traditions,” the largest of which is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but which also include the Community of Christ (formerly known as the RLDS), the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (known as FLDS) and others. The effort springs from Claremont’s larger “Mormonism and Migration Project,” which looks at the globalization of Mormon traditions and gives members “greater awareness of what their faith looks like around the world,” said Bowman.

One story comes from Mahana Kodza of Ghana, a Latter-day Saint who acknowledges it can be tough to maintain a strong spiritual life without the regular habit of going to church with other members. Before the coronavirus, teaching Relief Society or giving a talk in her ward would push her to study the gospel to prepare for Sunday. But when COVID made gathering together impossible, “it was a tug of war” to keep up with her usual spiritual practices.

“My mom would always say that we are being lazy. We need to do the ‘Come Follow Me’ [curriculum]. At least our morning devotions … [but] it was a struggle for us to maintain that. We’d do them but not as we were supposed to. And so our faith was lacking — a lot. My faith was lacking a lot.”

One thing that has galvanized her has been regular communication with ward members through WhatsApp and the telephone.

“It was … AMAZING,” Kodza said. “The way sisters called, the way the bishop called to always check up on the family. And so I think that is a plus for us — the ministering, the new way of ministering that we are doing.”

The team at Claremont that is collecting these stories from around the world includes scholars Melissa Inouye, Farina King, Caroline Kline, Spencer Greenhalgh and Heather Burrow, as well as translators for several languages.

King has had her own experience with COVID, which she submitted to the website for posterity.

In early March 2020, King was rushing to the airport for a flight when she had “a strong impression” to stop at an area nursing home to visit her Aunt Florence. Reason said she should wait — catch her flight now and return in a couple of weeks for a longer visit. “But the spirit continued to usher me to see my aunt. I nearly passed the exit to her nursing home, before I abruptly changed my mind, realizing that I had to see her, even if just for a moment.”

They shared a brief, beautiful reunion, where they embraced and told each other “I love you” in English and Navajo, the language of their shared heritage — “Ayóó ánííníshní.”

She is grateful she heeded a spiritual prompting that day.

“I never would have expected that an outbreak of COVID-19 would have forced a lockdown of the nursing home,” she wrote in her account. “I never imagined that she would get the coronavirus and pass away only a couple months later, and I never thought that that moment with her would be my last time to embrace her.”

King hopes to collect many people’s COVID stories, “as many as we can,” not only to record what members of Mormon movements were doing and thinking during this time, but also to better understand what each faith looks like around the globe.

If you would like to submit a COVID reflection (150 to 2,000 words), the site has provided a list of questions to prompt reflection, and also asked for photographs and links to social media posts.

You can also help the project by becoming a volunteer, soliciting and uploading other people’s stories (with their written permission).