SALT LAKE CITY — Thirteen-year-old Bella Steuer’s sandals spun off her feet Sunday afternoon during her family’s mad dash to hug Elder Chase Steuer as the Latter-day Saint missionary emerged from the Salt Lake City International Airport into the parking garage.
Steuer was among 1,600 missionaries arriving in Utah from the Philippines on five flights chartered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The airlift was necessary to comply with an order by the Philippines government that all foreigners leave due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Cheers and clapping erupted and horns honked as the first missionary walked out of the terminal into the garage where hundreds of families waited. Mothers alternately wept and laughed and hugged their sons and daughters again and again.
Steuer’s mother said the Alpine, Utah, family expects to do this all over again later this week to greet their daughter, Sister Taylor Steuer, who is serving in the Chile Antofagasta Mission.
“She was told to pack today,” said Callie Steuer as her iPhone notified her that her battery was down to 20%. She was holding it up so her camera could feed a Zoom video conference with rows and rows of open windows, each representing family members in different places.
Sunday’s flights were for all of the American and Canadian missionaries serving in the church’s 23 missions in the Philippines. Hundreds were catching connecting flights out of Utah to their home states or provinces. Once home, they will self-isolate for two weeks. Many then will be reassigned to missions in their home nations.
The church announced last week it was sending home all nonnative missionaries from 54 of its 399 missions around the globe. That announcement was followed by others on Friday, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that “substantial numbers” of missionaries likely will return to serve in their home countries.
On Sunday, families began to arrive hours before the first flights were due at 3:30 p.m. Several fathers had tracked the flights online as they crossed the Pacific Ocean. Church officials also updated the families, letting them know the first two flights would land an hour early.
Airport officials asked the families to remain in their cars on the top floor of the cool, dark parking garage outside Terminal 2. The anticipation made that difficult for most.
One woman announced the process: Officials would call out a missionary’s name as she or he entered the parking garage. Then one member of the family could come forward to greet them.
“I’m that person,” Nancy Jensen immediately told her husband, Gary — who agreed with a smile — as the Logan, Utah, couple waited for their son, Elder Ammon Jensen, who served in the Philippines Cebu Mission.
One missionary had trouble finding his family at first. Wearing a mask and pulling a rolling suitcase, he walked through the five rows of cars in his short-sleeved white shirt, his head swiveling back and forth.
“It’s like déjà vu in reverse,” said Shawn Orgill, who drove down from Idaho Falls, Idaho, with his wife Pauline to pick up their son, Elder Tim Orgill. “We dropped him off in a parking garage at the Provo (Missionary Training Center) and watched him walk away, and now he’ll walk up to our car in a parking garage and we’ll take him home.”
Vehicles were covered with signs and writing. Some people stood up through sunroofs.
Stanton and Misty Rowley of Delta, Utah, laid a sign on the hood of their car that said “14-day inter-mission.” Their daughter, Sister Callie Rowley, had been in the Philippines for exactly two weeks before she flew back home. Now she will self-isolate with her family for 14 days and then be reassigned to another mission within the United States.
Steuer will not be reassigned. He had served nearly 23 months. His stake president released him from his calling as a missionary via FaceTime once Steuer arrived home in Alpine.
He and Elder Jensen had been part of a group of about 120 missionaries who tried to catch a ferry barge from one island to another in order to reach the airport. The ferry was canceled. The missionaries then loaded on to six buses that spent Thursday night in a sugar cane field, Steuer said. They slept at a meetinghouse on Friday night. On Saturday, they stayed at a Holiday Inn before flying out Sunday to Tokyo and then Salt Lake City.
“It was super fun,” Steuer said enthusiastically. “It was a great experience.”
Love for the Philippines was on display throughout the garage. “Welcome home” signs were covered with pictures or drawings of the nation’s flag, while others dressed in the flag’s colors or waved an actual Philippines flag.
The Orgills received an email telling them their son would arrive at 3:30 on Sunday and asking them to come to Utah to pick him up. They were happy to, Shawn Orgill said.
“You just feel for these missionaries,” he added, “because you know this is not how they wanted to leave the Philippines.”
His wife, Pauline, said her son had served 20 months.
“He loved his mission and he loved the Philippines, so it was tough on him that he didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone there the way he wanted to,” she said. “But he always tells us, “Trust in the Lord, he has something in store for us.”
Many missionaries may see the length of their missions reduced in the coming weeks, church leaders said in their statement on Friday. And while the church continues to issue new mission calls, all new missionaries will undergo virtual training at their homes rather than enter any of the faith’s 10 missionary training centers.
Sunday’s arrivals from the Philippines also represented the major, ongoing effort to move missionaries out of areas where the virus is present and to comply with government travel restrictions and other mandates or requests.
The Philippines government issued an official memo on Monday requiring most foreigners to leave the country. The 54 missions sending home all nonnatives included 26 missions in Africa, all 23 missions in the Philippines, all four in South Korea and the only mission in Mongolia.
The church also temporarily closed its mission in Hong Kong.
Church leaders on Sunday issued a statement asking the returning missionaries and their families to take social distancing and their 14 days of self-isolation seriously.
“Parents or guardians should go to the airport alone to meet a returning missionary and practice safe social distancing while there,” the church statement said. “That way, the missionary is able to properly begin self-isolation.
“Upon returning home, missionaries should strictly follow the self-isolation recommendations of the CDC which include limiting contact with others and avoiding leaving their homes for any reason,” the statement continued. “They are encouraged to stay in a well-ventilated room, preferably alone. If that isn’t possible, the missionary should stay 6 feet away from others in the room. They should use good hygiene and regularly wash their hands. If a missionary develops any symptoms of a respiratory illness, they should contact a local health provider.”
The Steuers said they were prepared for Chase’s self-isolation and beamed at having him home.
“I’m proud of you,” his father, told him.
“He came home earlier than he expected,” Dave Steuer said, “but he served an honorable mission.”
As for his youngest sister, Bella, she said she ran out of her sandals and jumped into the family hug, sending it careening, for a good reason.
“I missed him.”