Sunday, March 15th turned out to be only a prelude of things to come. We had received word that we were not to meet together in church, but could minister and have small group meetings at our homes. We had a delightful Come Follow Me lesson using internet video conferencing with Malory and her family, Ancsi and Gareth, and our parents. Poor Malory had to have her laptop on mute most of the time so we could hear each other over Kennedy’s delightful, disruptive chatter. We were not completely tech savvy, as we held up one computer in front of the camera of another to share some videos, but everyone felt good about “being together” if only via microphone and camera. Afterwards, we picked up the missionaries and took the sacrament to two elderly sisters in the Pagedale Branch that we have grown quite close to considering the short amount of time we have been here. Then, we came back to our little apartment and taught a temple preparation class to Sherri Cullen and shared dinner with Sherri, her husband, and the missionaries. It all seemed pleasant and somewhat sociable. Little did we know it would be our last sacrament in a social setting for a while.
On Monday, March 16th, it started to feel like the coronavirus was causing the Church to take steps that would affect us in important ways, but that would not radically change the work of the mission. That morning, we were told to give Elders that had been out for 21 months the option to end their mission early if they had some physical or emotional vulnerability. The president called those who might qualify for early release, but he had few takers. Before the day was over, the option had turned into a mandate. Now, many of our most senior missionaries would be going home early. We assumed that this might be to make room for foreign serving missionaries who were apparently coming home for their protection. But it was all a little blurry.
On Tuesday, a new communication came out that mandated the departure of all missionaries, regardless of tenure, that might be physically or emotionally vulnerable. We met together with the Mission President and Sis Bell and the mission nurse to evaluate our missionaries and make a working list of who might need to return home in response to the communication from the area presidency. It is hard to express how difficult that discussion was, realizing that these decisions would affect lives in real ways.
On Wednesday, we left work early to go to Sherri Cullen’s delightful, old, small house to share a meal with her and Dan, her husband, and the Pagedale missionaries. After a yummy pasta dinner, we had another temple preparation lesson. We went back to the office afterwards, trying to keep up with our work. Somewhat humorously, we mimicked what the missionaries do—we made a short video and posted it on the mission Facebook feed, exclaiming energetically that we had we had “someone on date!” which means for the missionaries that someone had committed to a baptismal date. In our case, we had a member who had an appointment for receiving her endowment in the St Louis temple on April 18th. We were excited to be a part of her preparations.
Thursday, March 19th was strange. We held zone conference by video link. Ordinarily we hold 3 zone conferences on 3 consecutive days in 3 different stakes, rotating around the mission. This time, we had 1 zone conference on 1 day by video. So it was effectively a mission conference, with missionaries meeting in their local churches to participate. That way, there wouldn’t be more than 3 companionships in a building at one time. On our end it was difficult, because we set it up from Pres Bell’s office in the mission office. But it is too small for all the staff to get into all at once, at least comfortably, especially with screens, cameras, etc. It was the least participation I’ve had in a conference since we’ve been here. And of course, there was no feeding or eating with the missionaries. They simply ate their sack lunches they brought at a break. We missed the fraternization with the young missionaries. Instead, we conferenced during the lunch break further discussing which missionaries were candidates to return home.
Maybe it was just as well that I couldn’t easily participate in zone conference. That morning, Pres Bell came in and asked me to call the senior missionaries and let them know that they needed to return home on instructions of the Church. That was challenging in some cases where the seniors had been out only a fraction of the mission they had planned to serve. Many of them really had no place to go, having sold, rented, or put family in their homes. Moreover, they were asked to self-isolate themselves once they got home for two weeks. Pres Bell also asked me to contact stake presidents so that they would be prepared to greet missionaries coming home. He couldn’t preside at the zone conference and quickly contact everyone that needed to know of the decisions to send missionaries home. That same day, we received word from the church that the missionaries should no longer go into anyone’s home. This was really going to change what the missionaries could do to contact and teach.
Saturday the 21st, I spent a good part of the day greeting senior missionaries that were departing that day and collecting apartment keys. I did my best to express my gratitude for their service in the MSLM and encourage them to be safe and find alternative ways to continue to share their valuable talents. I also cleaned and readied an apartment for turning over to management. Sending so many home, I wonder if there will be a lot of this in coming weeks and months.