Sunday, February 14th, another holiday in the mission field. Meaning, we look past the commercialism, and quickly focus on what matters to our minds as servants of the Lord. It is bitterly cold. Two sets of sisters have let me know that their apartments are not sufficiently warm. I provide some portable electric heaters to take the edge off. I am not sure if furnaces are malfunctioning or if St Louis apartments are not built for this frigid weather. We are setting cold records. Pres Bell has added one last move to the transfer we thought was complete on Wednesday: the companionship of sisters in Mahomet, Illinois is being split up with one sister going to Champaign, and one to Belleville. Thankfully, the President will make the transfer effective on Wednesday, so we can make the housing changes, including leaving Mahomet fallow for the time being. After our Valentine’s dinner, we head to the office to get the Frontenac trio of sisters started on the laminating of zone conference documents. We don’t stay long, because we are not feeling our very best.
Monday, February 15th comes with a Missouri Department of Transportation “No Travel” advisory. I joked last night that it is too cold to snow, but today has proved that idea wrong. The snow is relatively light, in St Louis, only about 3-4 inches, but it is considerably deeper as you move south in the mission. Reports from Poplar Bluff are of a good foot. And the Arctic north wind is strong. The high is 6 degrees, which is a record low high by about 12 degrees, and wind chills are minus 20. Although I have sent out alerts and precautions to all the missionaries, I am having a hard time sleeping in fear of getting the call of frozen, bursting water pipes and apartment floods somewhere far away in the bitter cold. Consulting with staff and President, zone conferences scheduled for tomorrow are postponed.
Tuesday, February 16th was work move day for Sis Hatfield. I retrieved her monitor and hard drive from the mission office and set them up in our apartment office. She is just not feeling well, but no one is doing her work for her. So we set her up to do work from home. I also check for COVID tests in the deliveries. Sis Hatfield says we expect three to arrive today for missionaries being sent to their original assignments. The arrive, but one is for Elder Brooks in Effingham, a long drive from St Louis. Because there is no time to spare, I recruited the housing assistants to courier it up to him. Thankfully, the other two are within 30 minutes of metro St Louis. We made the right call postponing zone conference for today. I’ve been fielding calls and managing service calls for furnaces not keeping up with the cold most of the day. I’ve also distributed the few space heaters that I have around. While the housing assistants are on their delivery trip, I run out to St Peters to help the St Charles North sisters install curtains over their bedroom window. Later that evening, I made arrangements with the housing assistants and several companionships to leave the zone conference in Lake St Louis immediately at its conclusion to head for the Columbia zone. There is a lot to do out there, including signing some apartment move-out papers and planning a move of the sisters to the now empty elders apartment in Bear Creek.
Wednesday, February 17th is zone conference day, but Sis Hatfield is still feeling pretty poorly with some body aches and a low grade fever. I have some nasal congestion. She decides she is going to go get a COVID test. Meanwhile, I’m off to the conference and will be the staff presentation. In the confusion of the morning, I leave without my suit coat which Sis Hatfield finds on the bed when I am 15 minutes into a 30 minute trip to the stake center in Lake St Louis. Even though Sis Hatfield helps me by bringing my coat part way, I’ll be late for sure now, some thing the President has been preaching hard for the missionaries not to be. How embarrassing. I slip in quietly and sit in the back corner. Ordinarily the 30 minutes of zone conference presentation is divided among 3-4 of us, and this month, it’s the turn of the Jacobs and the Hatfields to present. But, Elder Jacob is not comfortable from his gall stone operation, and so with Sis Hatfield out of the rotation, I have 30 minutes to present on behalf of all four of us. Sis Hatfield gives me an outline of topics to cover for her, and I can ad lib a passable job for the Jacobs. For my part, I’ve got a video clip extracted from a missionary devotional given by Elder Gong and have built my presentation around it. It speaks to the pandemic teaching us by faith and creativity to do some things better. Elder Gong’s example is a video self inspection of their apartment by two elders in Singapore. I invite our missionaries to do a self inspection of their apartments, and to send me both a written worksheet and a short video. We’ll see how this goes.
At a break, I call Sis Hatfield to see how she is. At that moment, she is opening up her emailed COVID test results, and she reads to me that she has tested positive. What? Is this for real? Getting over the initial shock, I slip back into the meeting and alert the mission nurse of the situation and immediately gather my papers and head outside. I sat in my truck in some level of shock for a minute, and then head for the apartment. There is nothing to do but get into quarantine and figure out next steps. Sis Hatfield is already making some plans: she has called young Sis Atkins, an exceedingly capable, bright service missionary (that a mission president should pray to have assigned to his mission) and arranged for her to spend more time in the secretary’s chair and managing necessary tasks at the office. Now I need to rethink how my world will turn. I’ll need to rely on the housing assistants more than ever, I presume. I got a late call from a sister in Mahomet, IL that was assigned to a threesome there, but now will be reassigned to her former area in Belleville. But she has lost her house key to Belleville, so can’t get back in tomorrow as planned. She wonders if I can bring her a spare to the Springfield zone conference tomorrow. I’m not sure I have one, and the office is abuzz with missionaries until very late this evening so I can’t check possibilities.
On reflection, forgetting my suit coat this morning, which seemed like such an annoyance at the time, turned out to be a tender mercy. Not arriving until after the meeting had begun, and sitting alone in the back kept me from being anywhere near other missionaries that morning, limiting the exposure a great deal, I am sure.
Thursday, February 18th at 5 am, seven hours before anyone else will arrive, I go into the office to look for a spare Belleville apartment key, and finding one, I disinfect things, and tape the key with gloved hand on the Evertons’ apartment door for them to take to zone conference for me. Quarantine won’t be easy for the non-virtual housing coordinator. Later that morning, Sis Hatfield joins me for zone conference staff presentations—this time, by Zoom. We divide the time 15 minutes apiece today. Sis Hatfield and I spend the balance of the day fielding calls and messages, directing the housing assistants and Sis Atkins from our apartment. Sis Hatfield and Sis Atkins work to get three elders ready for flights to Argentina and Brazil tomorrow. We have carefully shuttled COVID tests to Salt Lake City for lab analysis as a part of immigration requirements and are now on the lookout for return reports scheduled to arrive by email no later than 10 pm. But we have waited in vain. The severe weather across the central US has stopped FedEx flights and the test kits never made it to Salt Lake. After talking to church travel, we finally go to bed discouraged that none of these missionaries will be leaving tomorrow as scheduled.
On Friday, February 19th Sis Hatfield awakes at 5 am with inspiration. Just three days ago she went through the drill of arranging a PCR (gold standard reliability) COVID test for $250 with results available in an hour. She realizes that for the two missionaries on afternoon flights to Argentina, there is a strong chance that if we hustle, we can get the local St Louis-based lab to report test results in time to register the results and still get them on their flights. Resourceful Sis Hatfield will ask Sis Everton to help do the shuttling to the lab, while she clears the process through Salt Lake. Then she turns her attention to the missionary bound for Brazil whose flight was early in the morning so the local test won’t save this day. She emailed the Brazil mission president to find out when he could pick up his new missionary, and with that information, calls church travel to reschedule the missionary’s flight for early next week, again, with a local lab test, obviating the need to FedEx a new test to Salt Lake, since results are only good for 72 hours. Brilliant. Elder Brooks and Elder Baggaley are off to Argentina after all, and Elder Gage will stay one weekend longer before he leaves, instead of rescheduling for days, if not weeks, as frequently happens when church travel needs to restart the process all over again. Sis Hatfield is almost too weak by now to present at zone conference today, so I’m prepared to pinch hit for her, but somehow she pulls herself together to join after an already exhausting morning. Late that afternoon, after early morning inspiration, followed by detailed travel reengineering, zone conference, staff meeting (which she leads as a matter of course), to say nothing of the endless calls with missionaries troubleshooting technology issues, she finally gets what she needed all day: a long nap. I think she is being sustained by the Spirit. Think of this: if Sis Hatfield hadn’t wondered if she had COVID and then done the research and had the experience of getting a rapid PCR test, she would never have been able to put the pieces together for these reassigned missionaries today. God performs miracles borne of our sickness. He is in the details. Amazing.
Saturday, February 20th brought a few tender expressions coming our way. Elder Reader, Elder Petty, and Elder Scheurman brought us chocolate chip cookies so good we actually ate them (we have been throwing away treats lately, trying to tame our mission waistlines). Sister Jarman, Sister Miller, and Sister Chambers heart attacked our front door. Sweet, thoughtful missionaries. That evening was the St Louis Stake adult session of stake conference. It was at this very meeting one year ago that visiting authority Elder Henry J Eyring of the Seventy stated about COVID, “I don’t know where this is going to go, but it could be important to be prepared.” I hardly knew what to make of it, because I had heard such very little news about COVID. Before the next weekend, church meetings would be cancelled for months. An ominous anniversary.