Faith to Go and Courage to Come Home: Returned Missionaries Share Unexpected Blessings of COVID-19 Mission Changes
Contributed By Church News staff
Editor’s note: This is part one in a series sharing the stories of missionaries returning home during the COVID-19 pandemic. More responses will be published in the coming days. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Read part two.
In the coming years, when Cody Myers’s children ask about his missionary service during the COVID-19 pandemic, he already knows what he will tell them.
“I had the shortest mission, but the best mission,” Myers said.
The Parma, Idaho, resident’s full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lasted just under a month, from February 26 to March 23, with three weeks in the Missionary Training Center and one week in the Washington Vancouver Mission, where he experienced “three little miracle moments.”
The day after Myers arrived in Washington, the young missionary learned that because of a minor health condition amid the spread of COVID-19, he would be counted among many missionaries sent home and released.
Initially he was shocked and saddened by the news, then recognized it as a blessing. The previous year, his mother had suffered a stroke and needed special care. Before receiving his mission call, Myers wondered if he should leave his mother and family under those circumstances. Now it was clear what the Lord wanted him to do.
“I think the Lord wanted to test my faith,” he said. “Now he’s sending me home to help take care of my mom.”
But before going home, Myers and his companion, Elder Jace Rosenhan, of Midvale, Utah, who was also heading home, “put their whole souls” into the work.
They were assigned to work with Elder Jacob Olsen, of Garland, Utah, and a few other missionaries for the week.
Missionaries from the Washington Vancouver Mission set a table in the park. Left to right: Elder Jace Rosenhan, Elder Cody Myers, Elder Lewis, Elder Harline, Elder Jacob Olsen, and Elder Helm. Photo courtesy of Jacob Olsen.
At the time, Olsen was heartbroken by the news that his mission would be three months shorter than expected. He shed tears in prayer at what he would miss. Then he met Elders Myers and Rosenhan, and his perspective changed.
“Knowing they would only have one week in the mission field, I felt a great sense of urgency to do my part in providing them with experiences and opportunities unique to full-time missionaries,” Olsen said. “I wanted to help them have experiences that would impact their lives forever.”
The day before normal missionary work was suspended, Olsen and Myers went street contacting together. They said a prayer on a quiet corner, asking for divine help, then talked to five people, including a college student who accepted a copy of the Book of Mormon and wanted to learn more. Later, Myers gave a priesthood blessing to an inactive member and had a powerful experience teaching a new convert about prayer. Those were his “three little miracle moments,” he said.
Missionaries from the Washington Vancouver Mission, left to right: Elder Lewis, Elder Harline, Elder Cody Myers, Elder Jace Rosenhan, Elder Helm, and Elder Jacob Olsen. Photo courtesy of Jacob Olsen.
“God definitely wanted this week that I was here to be something I can remember,” Myers said. “My whole mission experience brought my faith to a higher level.”
Any feelings of self-pity Olsen had were replaced by feelings of gratitude for the unique experience. He’s going home sooner than he hoped, but the Washington Vancouver Mission will always represent something sacred to him, he said.
“For the rest of my life, I believe it will be difficult to answer the question, ‘Who is your hero?’ without the names Elder Myers and Elder Rosenhan,” he said. “They are my heroes!”
Elder Cody Myers served for one week in the Washington Vancouver Mission before a minor medical condition during the spread of COVID-19 led to his early honorable release. Photo courtesy of Cody Myers.
Following are some of the many experiences emailed to the Church News in response to a request for missionaries to share what they have learned from their disrupted mission experiences due to COVID-19.
Members and Missionaries
In my mission, we weren’t allowed to go out tracting or door knocking due to the virus. But this allowed us to focus on . . . some of the most important people in missionary work: the members. We grew closer in relationships and helped them develop their own faith and hope to spread the gospel to others through their own personal and individual traits and spiritual gifts. Working this way strengthened my testimony that missionaries and members doing work together is the best and most effective way to do missionary work. I really learned to trust the Lord that if I did my best, He would do the rest and that the work could and will progress.
—Joi Dalton, Taiwan Taipei Mission, from the Edgemont 14th Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake
A Humbling Experience
I was serving for seven months when I got the phone call that I was going home that week. I was devastated to say the least. I felt that I was just barely getting the Spanish language down! The mission was full of amazing experiences! . . . After I had returned home, I quickly realized how wrong I was about being mad, because God is in control of all of this and has “all wisdom, and all power” (Mosiah 4:9). I saw that my progress hadn’t halted but was improving immensely in the spiritual aspect. Coming home early has been the most humbling experience I have ever had. I’ve been able to learn how to share the gospel in so many ways I never thought possible. He watches over every single one of us in every single circumstance that we may be in, and if we “draw near unto [Him, He] will draw near unto [us]” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:63). The work is still continuing! He loves us!
—Park Kendrick Bolos, Mexico Cancun Mission, from the Fair Grove Ward, Kanesville Utah Stake
Chaotic yet Organized
I have been out for at least eight months[;] . . . unfortunately because of the COVID-19 spreading rapidly in the world, and Madagascar’s borders closing, the missionaries were evacuated out of the country in less than 36 hours! With limited time to get all of us out, we could not say goodbye to the members of the Church, including all the people we’ve taught that we have come to love. Which was by far the most emotional, chaotic, yet organized, event I have experienced.
Overall, my mission experience, though cut short, was a humbling, thrilling, and eye-opening experience! [I learned] so much about every aspect in life. Most of all, you start to find yourself in the midst of serving others, and you weren’t even looking for it. During these uncertainties, I’ve learned to trust God in situations we can’t control.
—Richard Espino Jr., Madagascar Antananarivo Mission, from the Belmead Ward, Edmonton Alberta North Stake
Richard Espino Jr. was called to serve in the Madagascar Antananarivo Mission Branch. Photo courtesy of Richard Espino Jr.
Striving to Keep the Holy Ghost
I was only out in the field for about four months when almost daily we had drastic changes affecting our work. We weren’t allowed to greet people the usual way, we weren’t allowed to have meals in members’ houses, and we weren’t allowed to go to church. Finally, we were sent home. . . . This past month at home has been hard[,] . . . but I’ve learned the importance of hearing the words of God through the prophets. Although I may be struggling with being home, I learned the importance of striving to keep the Holy Ghost with each of us constantly. I learned that although I may not be set apart as a missionary, I can still do the work in other ways.
—Moroni-Byron Koani‘kula Kuúmaka‘kapuna Adolpho, Brazil Maceió Mission, from the Hauula Third Ward, Laie Hawaii Stake
Moroni-Byron Koani‘kula Kuúmaka‘kapuna Adolpho was called to serve in the Brazil Maceió Mission. Photo courtesy of Moroni-Byron Koani‘kula Kuúmaka‘kapuna Adolpho.
What I learned while being in quarantine and being sent home and released from my mission came from a talk by President Thomas S. Monson. It says the following: “How far is heaven? It’s not very far. When you live close to God, it’s right where you are.”
Before I read this, we had just gone into quarantine in mid-February and I was very discouraged and felt very alone. I was struggling with the work, and to make it harder, I now had to do it from the apartment. After reading that quote, I knew I had to look to the Almighty and seek the answers I longed for. No matter where I was, I wanted to keep the feeling of staying close to my Heavenly Father. I strived to feel heaven all around me by maintaining wholesome thoughts, words, and actions and communicating with God every second I could spare.
During the fifth week of . . . quarantine, I found out I was going home—and as hard as it was to process, I know it was made easier with my Father in Heaven knowing my thoughts and desires. He knows how my heart feels and was there with me the whole time. I’m glad I made my communications with Him such a priority in these times and let it become a part of everything I do everyday. I want to keep it like that for the rest of my life.
—Denali Renee Gerber, Thailand Bangkok Mission, Island Park Ward, Ashton Idaho Stake
Denali Gerber was called to serve in the Thailand Bangkok Mission. Photo courtesy of Denali Gerber.
Sharing with Family
With the permission from [my mission president], I have been able to share a message with my family (they are not members). I have also come to know that this is a way God has prepared people to accept His Gospel and apply it in their lives. I have known that people soften and humble their hearts. Families are more united at home, [with] a lot of time spent together as a family. How wonderful is that? More time for families to study the word of God, especially the Book of Mormon.
—George Wellington Wolfgramm, Micronesia Guam Mission, from the Nakolo Ward, Nuku‘alofa Tonga Halaliku Stake
George Wolfgramm was called to serve in the Micronesia Guam Mission. Photo courtesy of George Wolfgramm.
The truth is that I always said I would like to have more time to read, and now the Lord has allowed me. I read all of Jesus the Christ and the history of the Church. I have more time to meditate, pray, and to be in harmony with the Spirit. Now I can look for more personal revelation and, apart from the missionary work, we continue to be representatives of Jesus Christ! Thanks to technology, the work does not stop. By means of messages or videos that we missionaries have (and even if we do not have a tablet or the internet), we continue to send text messages and call people who are progressing by encouraging them with hymns or scriptures! I can testify that the Lord’s work does not end until the great Jehovah says that the work is finished; I testify because I know it.
—Carlos Miquel Villar Méndez, El Salvador Santa Ana Mission, from the El Tejar Ward, Bucaramanga Colombia Stake
The Lord Is in Charge
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, me and my companion were required to take the final flight off of the island of Tubuai, where I’d been for five months. . . . Throughout the month of lockdown, I was able to see the importance of a kind word or text message in these times. We were able to continue the work by just sending uplifting texts or scripture verses to the members and friends of the Church, even when hundreds of miles away from them. A few weeks later, I caught a charter flight along with most of the mission back from Tahiti to the United States. Although this situation was extremely sad and I cannot wait to get back out to Polynesia, I have been able to feel a comfort that the Lord is in charge, and that He is putting us through these difficult moments because he knows we can handle them. I learned that missionary work takes many different forms, but can all come back to spreading the love that the Savior can give to all in our day.
—Keaton Pugh, Tahiti Pape‘ete Mission, from the Leander Ward, Round Rock Texas Stake
My Missionary Purpose
I was recently sent home from missionary service due to COVID-19 and am currently waiting for reassignment. But being home and temporarily released hasn’t stopped me from fulfilling my missionary purpose! In my first area I taught a family that I created a quick bond with. They testified to us that we were an answer to their prayers. Many people in the family accepted the gospel, and some were baptized. I was soon transferred, but my friend from the MTC took my place! He continued to work with this family, helping them grow in the Church. Up until we got sent home, the father of this family was still preparing to be baptized, and my friend was actively working with him. Once back home, we decided we could still help and teach them, regardless of our circumstances. By working with the sisters who now cover the area, through the power of technology, even though we’re being quarantined 5,000 miles away, we’ve still been able to participate in the work and continue to teach this family about the gospel! Through this experience, I’ve realized that I can still fulfill my missionary purpose, even from the confines of my own home!
—Nathan Kimball Stratford, Brazil São Paulo Interlagos Mission, from the Alpine Third Ward, Alpine Utah West Stake
Nathan Stratford was called to serve in the Brazil São Paulo Interlagos Mission. Photo courtesy of Nathan Stratford.