Sunday, March 22nd had a delightful beginning. We had invited our grandchildren to join us in a video primary experience. They were not quiet, but they were interested and attentive. Grandma (Nanna) had arranged for Abby to say the opening prayer with her Dad’s help. We sang songs, and had some age appropriate storytelling, which at different times included Nanna falling over on the floor to make the point. We loved it, and I think the grandkids loved it too.
Then we had a video temple preparation class with Sherri Cullen. RaDene and I taught like traditional missionaries, taking turns teaching concepts, back and forth. I think we commented to each other on reflection that it was one of the best teaching experiences together we have ever had. We were two for two this day. I can’t help but feel like this sort of remote experience will someday be a very common tool in the missionary toolbox, even when this “social distancing” is a memory but not a current reality. It certainly is raising the awareness of the possibilities—and for now, the necessity—from the Missionary Department on down to missionaries in each teaching area.
Later that day we did a few other things that were important, if not pinnacles of spirituality. We delivered packages to our St Louis Zone missionaries in Lindell and Pagedale. Sometimes these ad hoc deliveries are crucial. But just as often they are opportunities to see some of these latter-day stripling warriors and deliver emotional care packages. RaDene is particularly good at this, and had helped me develop better practices of interacting with the young missionaries when I visit their apartments from time to time. That night, RaDene did some research to track down the actual texts of the Illinois Governor’s “stay home” order and the corresponding St Louis County order. Importantly, RaDene identified the St Louis characterization of religious work as “necessary services,” giving us a bit more flexibility to allow missionaries use the church building WIFI, while practicing safe social distancing practices. Unfortunately, 40 percent of our missionary force, being assigned to Illinois, did not have the benefit of this necessary services definition. One of the very difficult consequences of this is that the cellular plan was all the Illinois missionaries had access to for teaching, district councils, interviews, and other purposes. Which was not to say that the Missouri missionaries had adequate resources, even though they were periodically able to use church building WIFI.
Monday, March 23rd. This work week was easily the most stressful of our mission. Last week began the realization of the enormity of the work to begin sending missionaries home. This week was execution week. Missionary Travel, who ordinarily takes care of booking airline tickets, was so overwhelmed that we were asked to arrange our own travel for missionaries. This felt equally overwhelming to us. There is so much that goes into sending a missionary home, and a good deal of it ordinarily happens weeks, if not months, before planned departure. Now, we had days, at most, to communicate with parents, stake presidents, and missionaries, coordinate travel and accommodations to St Louis from the distant four corners of the mission, create release letters, certificates, and other documentation, print missionary letters, create travel packets, and so many other tasks I can’t even remember them all. And now, we needed to book flights in a chaotic airline travel environment. In exasperation, RaDene joked on a family thread, “would anyone like to help?” It was not altogether a joke when she asked Kamie, her sister, if she were available to help. Kamie, not knowing what she was getting into, said yes.
And so began and extraordinary team effort of the mission office staff, including Kamie Hubbard. To execute, RaDene and I were not home before 2 a.m. two nights this week, and not before midnight any night but one. Kamie was working right along with us 24-7. RaDene had some ingenious Google sheets going so she and Kamie could in real time identify and create flight plans. And with airlines losing cash by the suitcase full, flights cancelled about as fast as tickets were bought. Many, if not most flights were rebooked more than once. Smaller regional flights became nearly impossible. Families would need to go to drive larger airports in their states. In one case, after rebooking time and time again, a worried mother told Sister Hatfield they were getting in their motorhome in Colorado and would be here in 17 hours. Such were the levels of concern and uncertainty.
On Tuesday, March 24th, I had another task to wedge in. If it weren’t enough that we were sending home scores of missionaries this week, eight new missionaries were coming from the MTC. The MTCs were bursting with trained missionaries that needed to get out of the MTCs and into the field. As luck would have it, this inflow was happening on the busiest week of the year, as I saw it. And if that weren’t interesting enough, vulnerable medical conditions would not allow use of the mission home for incoming our outgoing missionaries as is the usual practice. On Tuesday we set up a makeshift dormitory for missionaries in a departed seniors apartment. We crammed the king size bed in the closet, and put down twin mattresses all over the apartment, together with pillows, covers, sheets and other bedding.
Thursday March 25th was new missionary arrival day. They would arrive about 4 pm that afternoon. It being the week it was, we learned while the President was traveling to the airport that the Salt Lake flight had been cancelled. No one seemed to know where the missionaries were. And it took a couple of hours to figure out that the airline had arranged for transfer to dinner and an airport hotel. Perplexed, we met together as a staff and ate the lovely lasagna dinner Sister Bell had prepared for them while we developed a new plan, while laughing and scratching our heads about the craziness of it all.
On Friday, March 26th the new missionaries finally made it. Not being able to congregate, we brought them to the mission office where the President and nurse interviewed them, using the supply room as an interview room. The APs provided training at the large table while feeding them Subway sandwiches, the substitute for the lasagna dinner. And then at the appointed time, trainers and others who had lost their companions this week meet in the mission office parking lot, observing social distancing but not coming in the office, staying in their cars, and parking with a spot between each car. It was an extraordinary feat, organized largely on the fly. It is a good thing that our mission secretary is a very organized, alert person. Meanwhile, I was taking yet another missionary to the airport. Strangely, this particular trip was to bid goodbye to a missionary that was at the end of his regularly scheduled mission. A rare condition this month.
Saturday, March 27th was new missionary orientation. Except instead of actually meeting with the new missionaries and their trainers, we had a Zoom conference. All the new missionaries and their trainers were at their apartments. Again, I was very impressed with the nimble adjusting everyone did. It went off very well. Perhaps another lesson of how things might be done routinely in the future with technology.
That afternoon, RaDene put on her work clothes and we trekked out to Warrenton to clean an apartment to turn it over to the landlord. I had simply run out of time to get it done, so Saturday afternoon, our P-day, was the day. In some ways, the physical labor was a welcome relief from the high stress office work of the week. As has become the custom, we stopped by the local dollar store, mostly to see if there was any toilet paper. There wasn’t. But, there was a great selection of Easter items. RaDene had all but given up on her hopes to provide Easter Week gifts to the family. The dollar store reinvigorated the idea. We loaded up with cute presents, goodies, cards, and colorful wrapping. We finally headed home, capping an absolutely remarkable week of effort to send and receive missionaries in the COVID-19 environment.