No full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have tested positive for COVID-19, and some 50 percent of the global missionary force of 67,000 are being impacted by returning home for reassignment or release in the Church’s adjustments to missionary service due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Church’s Missionary Department is seeing a reshaping of mission work as elders and sisters are reaching out, teaching, and being trained in new ways.
“The adventure of a lifetime” is the label used by Elder Brent H. Nielson, a General Authority Seventy who is executive director of the Missionary Department. That phrase aptly describes not only the recent impacts to individual missionaries but also the ever-updating adjustments the Church and its Missionary Department are making.
In his mind, the attention given to adjustments can cause missionaries, their families, Church members, and even Missionary Department personnel to overlook what has become a unique missionary experience.
“This is an adventure of a lifetime,” he said. “Our missionaries will be ones who say, ‘I was a missionary during the coronavirus pandemic. I served in the Philippines for awhile, and we flew out, and I served in Nebraska—it was a different day and a different time, and we were those missionaries.’”
With emotion, he continued: “When I see their pictures on the planes, they are today’s ‘army of Helaman’—they are very impressive. I hope everyone, in the middle of all this, doesn’t miss the historic experience this is for these young men and young women who were the ones who made it through the pandemic.”
Added David N. Weidman, the Missionary Department’s managing director, of the elders and sisters in self-isolation, awaiting reassignment in their home country: “How many missionaries will be able to say ‘I was assigned to serve two weeks in my home’? They’re not home as a released missionary—that call stays with them.”
Information and Insights
The two joined the Church News in a video-conference interview to offer information, insights, and anecdotes from the recent adjustments to missionary service.
Three things to know: Weidman singled out three points Church and Missionary Department leaders want missionaries, their parents, and Latter-day Saints to know.
First, “safety is the number one concern we have with missionaries, but very close behind that is continuing to help the gathering of Israel,” he said. “The Brethren, when they weigh decisions, weigh both of these, and their decisions are based on those twin priorities.”
The third thing to know is “gratitude on our part for their patience,” he said. Missionaries will need patience with timing on reassignments, new calls and training information.
No positive tests: To date, no missionary or mission leader has yet tested positive for COVID-19.
A few missionaries have shown similar flu-like symptoms, prompting the worry they have the virus, Elder Nielson said. For those tested, the results were negative.
Affecting 50 percent: The returning home of nonnative missionaries to home countries for self-isolation and either reassignment or release due to adjusted tenure lengths or health concerns is affecting about 50 percent of the Church’s missionaries, Weidman said.
“I’ve just been totally amazed at how awesome our missionaries are,” he said of the constant and ongoing global movement of missionaries that started in Asia last month.
He cited an example shown on social media—missionaries on a recent chartered flight returning to their home countries from serving in the Philippines, with one elder suggesting a pre-flight prayer to be said.
“They continue to be focused and committed,” Weidman said. “When they come home, they stay strong during their time at home.”
Returning home: Nonnative missionaries are returning from missions in many Church areas. For missionaries in some locations, it is better for them to stay in place.
“We don’t know what the future will bring. Eventually, maybe they will need to come home, or after this passes, they will continue doing what they’re doing in their mission,” said Elder Nielson. The Church is constantly consulting with security, local experts, and others for counsel.
“Our top concern is always the safety of our missionaries, and we analyze that in each situation—where will they be the safest, and what can we do to continue to maintain that safety.”
And missionaries waiting at home can have still have impacts, he added. “We get reports all the time—like a young elder who just came back with the big group from the Philippines, and his parents aren’t members. They were there to pick him up at the airport, and they expressed gratitude to the Church for taking such good care of him.”
International movement: While missionaries returning home to the United States and Canada have received more attention because of the masses, the adjustments are affecting equally those missionaries serving in North America or those crossing borders on other continents in returning to their home countries.
“Peruvians serving in Colombia, Brazilians serving in Mozambique, and Japanese serving in Brazil,” said Weidman, offering just three examples.
International and domestic travel cancellations and bans prove to be of great concern, Elder Nielson said. “That’s our biggest challenge. We are concerned about that every day.”
Mission leaders in place: No nonnative mission leaders have returned yet to their home countries.
Elder Nielson said all mission presidents and their companions have been asked to stay in place.
“They’re staying in their home homes,” he said. “We look at each of them individually.”
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