Even before the pandemic was declared, the global response was underway
When a commercial flight out of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati needed to cut weight to make room for more Fijians to return home, 68 missionaries agreed to leave their luggage behind
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 23, 2020.
An email from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland led to what Korea Seoul Mission President Brad Taylor calls “that dreadful day.”
It was supposed to be a wonderful Friday. The previous week, President Taylor’s 131 quarantined missionaries had been thrilled to be joined in a missionwide video conference call by Elder Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City.
Elder Holland and the missionaries enjoyed it so much he suggested that he join the entire mission by video conference again the next week for scripture study. President Taylor and his wife, Ann, were preparing for Elder Holland’s call on March 6 when his email stopped them cold.
You’re about to get some tough news, Elder Holland wrote. Let me know if you still want to do the scripture study.
Within five minutes, the church’s Missionary Department informed the Taylors they needed to evacuate all of their non-Korean missionaries. The Taylors said they considered their options, then sent Elder Holland a reply email: We’d still love to have the missionaries study the scriptures with you.
The missionary companionships logged into the video conference 30 minutes before Elder Holland was to join, and the Taylors delivered the stunning news: 101 of the 131 missionaries needed to pack everything, clean out and temporarily close 50 apartments and rush to the mission office in Seoul to catch flights to their home countries. There, they were to be quarantined for two weeks and then reassigned to domestic missions.
COVID-19 had hit China and spread. The missionaries already had been quarantined in their apartments for more than two weeks. The coronavirus had reached 89 countries and killed nearly 3,500 people (3,045 in China), according to the World Health Organization’s daily COVID-19 report.
“It’s hard enough to say goodbye to six missionaries when they go home on schedule at the end of their missions,” President Brad Taylor said. “To say goodbye to 101 missionaries all at once when the news came out of the blue is one of the most difficult things we’ve ever done.”
While the missionaries tried to process the stunning change, Elder Holland joined the call. He shared a message that would resonate with tens of thousands of other missionaries the church would temporarily send home on commercial flights and chartered jets over a two-month period, and with millions of church members who by the end of March would be unable to attend church services or the temple together.
Adversity, Elder Holland said, regularly precedes monumental life-changing events.
“Remember that God can take every mortal experience we have and turn it to our good. He is always guiding the affairs of the church and his faithful children. He will turn all of this to the advantage of your work,” he added. “Miracles and great good will come of this for the Korea Seoul Mission. Cheerfully do all that you can do, and then watch for the miracle to unfold.”
Through interviews, reporting over nearly four months and press accounts, the Deseret News has compiled a picture of the church’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is a story of long days and nights filled with rolling decision-making that merged information from global and local health experts with information from church leaders experienced in both spiritual ministering and international crisis management. Those decisions have shaped the spiritual side of the pandemic for millions of Latter-day Saints around the world.
“They’ve combined global understanding with rich experience, and medical knowledge with local understanding, to try to come up with the best balance in this situation,” said Rick Turley, the former assistant church historian.
Those principles will guide the church’s leaders as they reopen church activities, Turley said.
“I think they know that that the circumstances are going to vary according to the precise contours of the area in which decisions are being made,” he said, “and that they can’t make a solo or single pronouncement at church headquarters that’s going to apply in all cases globally.”
Global missionary airlift
The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11.
The next day, March 12, the First Presidency suspended all church meetings worldwide “out of an abundance of caution and with deep concern for global health ... ,” but the church’s response in Asia was already well underway with humanitarian aid and protection for the Latter-day Saints.
Other churches around the world had been the focal point of superspreader events and that informed the actions of many nations. By March 25, the day the First Presidency announced the temporary closure of all 168 of the church’s sacred temples around the world, a coronavirus cluster around a Korean megachurch that met in late February had accounted for 5,080 confirmed cases of COVID-19. That represented more than half of South Korea’s total at the time, according to The Washington Post.
By the end of the day that began with Elder Holland’s message, all of the 101 evacuees from the Seoul Mission had arrived at the mission home from across the entire width of the Korean peninsula. By the following day, March 7, nearly all were on flights out of the country, “a logistical miracle, unlike any I’ve ever seen before,” President Taylor said.
Church leaders and staff would orchestrate a global airlift to return nearly half of the church’s 67,000 missionaries to their home countries. Over two months, all foreign missionaries went home from 377 of the church’s 399 global missions.
Dramatic stories became common.
Eight missionaries serving in Macau barely made it across a bridge before Hong Kong closed that border. Dozens of missionaries in the Philippines spent a night sleeping on buses in a field when they weren’t allowed to cross a border checkpoint; the next day, they managed to reach the airport and fly home with a total of 1,600 missionaries on five jets chartered by the church. When a commercial flight out of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati needed to cut weight to make room for more Fijians to return home before Fiji’s borders closed, 68 missionaries agreed to leave their luggage behind, according to a published account in the Fiji Times.
Stopping the spread
COVID-19 halted every regular gathering practice of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and dramatically altered not only its missions but its missionary practices. The faith’s most sacred rites, from the weekly sacrament service to temple worship, shut down in dizzying succession.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made it clear, as the First Presidency said in a letter, that the church’s leaders and members wanted “to be good global citizens and do what we can to control this contagious illness.” President Russell M. Nelson, the eminent retired heart surgeon leading the church, noted that “Your safety and well-being will always be our utmost concern.”
The stakes were clear as COVID-19 caused the deaths of tens of thousands, including Latter-day Saints like Carlo Alberto Dallari, 77, the first bishop set apart in modern Italy, and Elder Dee Pace, 68, a senior missionary serving in Michigan. No funeral was held for Dallari because of Italian government restrictions.
Church leaders, taking cues from world and local health officials and with prayerful inspiration, they said, worked to stay a step ahead of the coronavirus’ spread. Wuhan, China, initially seemed far away for most church members. The church’s first public statements about the coronavirus came on Jan. 29, when it announced that President Nelson had helped facilitate a donation of respirator masks and other personal protective equipment to medical workers in a Shanghai children’s hospital.
That same week, church leaders shut down the first Latter-day Saint meetings in Hong Kong because of COVID-19, based on guidance from government and health experts. Hong Kong Saints now have not gathered for sacrament meeting for four full months, since Jan. 26, according to Annie Wong, the Asia Area director of public affairs.
The emergency measures highlighted the church’s effective administrative structure. The global church is divided into 21 areas, each with an area presidency overseen by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and a member of the Presidency of the Seventy.
As January turned to February, Hong Kong protesters called for the closure of its borders with China. Church leaders in Salt Lake City were consulting with the Asia Area presidency, which was counseling with Hong Kong Mission President Dennis Phillips. On the night of Feb. 3, the government shut down all the ferries to Macau, an autonomous region where Phillips had eight missionaries, including Elder Ka Po Kwok, 19, of Hong Kong. The next morning, the decision was made, Kwok recalled: Remove the missionaries from Macau the only way possible, by bus over a water bridge.
By the morning of Feb. 5 in Hong Kong (Feb. 4 in Utah), after the first COVID-19 death there and 490 deaths in neighboring China, church leaders announced they had decided to temporarily close the Hong Kong Mission. President Phillips texted all 125 of the missionaries, telling them they needed to pack, clean their apartments and head to the mission office and would be returning home. Kwok said his mission president followed up with a second text that contained a predetermined code phrase so the missionaries would know the order to leave was no drill: “Jell-O Nation.” Missionaries returned to the mission home and flights were organized.
The 12 Hong Kong natives serving in the mission were released and sent home, while 113 others returned to their home nations. President Phillips has spent two months in the Missionary Training Center in Provo helping support online missionary training and looking forward to the day when he can lead his missionaries back to Hong Kong.
Prophetic message of optimism
As swiftly as the virus spread, the church worked to stay ahead of the threat, closing down meetings, temples, in-person missionary work and adjusting travel. On Feb. 27, leaders announced that general authorities and other church members should not travel to Utah for general conference, and that the leadership sessions of conference were postponed until October.
The rapid-fire decisions announced over two days in March were especially stunning.
The morning of March 11, the same day the outbreak was declared a pandemic, church leaders announced that the April general conference celebrating the 200th anniversary of the First Vision of Joseph Smith would be digital-only and that all missionary training would be done online. It would be later that night that Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert would be diagnosed with COVID-19, marking the day the pandemic became real for Americans and altered daily life in America that continues.
The next day, the church’s colleges and universities announced they would close briefly, then reopen as digital-only institutions for the rest of the semester. Those closures have continued into the spring and will through summer. No decision has been made whether students will return to campuses in the fall. BYU reported this week that that decision will come in July.
Also on March 12, the First Presidency suspended all church meetings indefinitely.
“I went over to church this morning, and it was kind of sad because no one was in it,” Eaglecrest 3rd Ward Bishop Ryan Kirby told his wife and five children when they sat down together the following Sunday.
The Kirby family, and hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saint families and individuals like them, began to worship at home, using the church’s new home-centered “Come, Follow Me” curriculum and buoyed in part by a video message of optimism from President Nelson.
“These unique challenges will pass in time. I remain optimistic for the future,” he said in the video, released March 14. By this time, the First Presidency, Twelve and other general authorities and general officers already had suspended all of their own ministerial travel.
Some limited temple worship continued in areas where it was safe to do so. On March 16, the First Presidency temporarily suspended proxy work at the 155 temples that remained open for limited temple work. By March 23, only 65 temples remained open, and only for living ordinances limited to 10 or fewer people.
The First Presidency closed all 168 temples completely on March 25. “We look forward to the day when the temples will reopen,” the First Presidency letter said. By that day the World Health Organization had confirmed 413,467 COVID-19 cases and 18,433 deaths in 183 countries.
Perhaps the strongest collective note of hope came with general conference in early April. Millions watched and listened via broadcast or livestream as President Nelson called for a global fast for relief from the pandemic on Good Friday, announced new temples and a new logo featuring the Christus statue. He also read a new proclamation on the restoration of Christ’s church and led the church in a worldwide Hosanna Shout.
“During times of deep distress, as when illness reaches pandemic proportions, the most natural thing for us to do is to call upon our Heavenly Father and his Son — the master healer — to show forth their marvelous power to bless the people of the Earth,” President Nelson said.
Meanwhile, the church continued to engage in international pandemic-related relief aid, which has grown to 481 projects in 115 countries as of Saturday, church spokesman Doug Andersen told the Deseret News. Those projects include providing food, hygiene products, personal protective equipment, medical equipment, cash and other commodities.
Since early March, the church has weekly delivered 15 truckloads of food and other commodities — enough to feed 1,400 people for a week — from bishops’ storehouses to food banks in every corner of the United States. In Utah, the Relief Society has helped recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to sew 5 million masks for health care workers in a joint project with Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health.
A wedding roller coaster
The temple closures remained a painful sacrifice and adjustment for many. For example, Carlos Muñoz, 34, and Melissa Whitehead Muñoz, 30, were rocked. They had been scheduled to be sealed in May in Provo, but in mid-April, a temple scheduler told them to expect the temples to be closed through May and into the summer.
They fervently joined the worldwide fasting and prayer on March 29 for relief from the pandemic called for by President Nelson, then did so again on Good Friday, April 10, when Latter-day Saints joined tens of millions of Catholics and others in another fast.
Finally, the couple said they felt inspired to marry civilly on May 1 in their backyard with 20 guests and a livestream for family and friends who couldn’t attend.
“Within the church, we grow up thinking about getting married in the temple. To have that changed for us was a difficult mental transition,” said Whitehead Muñoz, a graphic designer who grew up in Cedar Hills.
The transitions continued six days later. That’s when church leaders issued a letter announcing that 17 temples would in fact reopen on May 11 for wedding sealings only.
Whitehead Muñoz was immediately grateful that church leaders last year eliminated a requirement that couples married civilly had to wait a year to be sealed in the temple. She believed that policy change, the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum and several other adjustments in church worship and policies were inspired and were helping her and other church members during the pandemic.
With that yearlong wait lifted, and the Provo City Center Temple available for sealings, Whitehead Muñoz was the first to call for a new appointment. She was able to secure the couple’s original wedding date, May 16.
“It feels like it’s been a roller coaster,” said Carlos Muñoz, an event manager and performer from Houston. “You set your mind on one thing, then you get some news and you prepare your mind for that, and then you get more news. It was tough to adjust again and again.”
The pair are happy but still wondering whether to hold a reception in the future tied to neither a wedding nor a sealing.
“God has given us a consistent peace through it all, despite the turmoil,” Whitehead Muñoz said.
Missionary returns to mission work
Elder Kim Dongmin, a young missionary from Pusan, South Korea, tested positive for COVID-19 while serving in the New York New York Mission. After five weeks recovering at home, he returned to the mission field on Wednesday, when he was received by the Taylors in the Korea Seoul Mission.
They were joyous. Of the 131 missionaries they had the day the evacuation was announced, 32 have been released and 47 now serve in 40 other missions all over the world.
“I can’t express how hard it was to let them go,” President Taylor said. The Taylors remain in touch with all of them, and pray along with them that those still serving will be able to return to the Korea Seoul Mission.
Meanwhile, President Taylor said, miracles happened after Elder Holland told the missionaries to “embrace this challenge with all the gusto and all the enthusiasm that you embraced your mission call.”
First, the 30 remaining native Korean missionaries successfully transitioned to online work. One video they made has 1.4 million views on YouTube.
Many others have 10,000 to 25,000 views, including one of two elders challenging Korea’s arm wrestling champion and another of a sister singing with in a sweet-sounding duet.
Some classes they teach on Facebook Live draw as many as 1,500 people in a reserved culture where, Taylor says, a missionary might not talk to 1,500 people in an entire two-year assignment.
Second, the native Korean missionaries have blossomed.
“All those missionaries who were more shy or quiet have really risen up and become strong contributors, shared ideas, become leaders,” Ann Taylor said.
Both see the changes as extensions of how Elder Holland said God works through adversity, even as the church begins to reopen temples on a limited basis and has introduced a pathway to returning to church gatherings after the coronavirus has killed 335,000 people.
Latter-day Saint congregations are now exploring when and how to return to services. The First Presidency last week announced a phased approach to reopening formal Sunday gatherings based on local restrictions in each area.
“I think people are missing it,” said Turley. “They’re missing the opportunity to share feelings with others who share their same religious devotion. They want to remain safe in the midst of a terrible time, and yet at the same time they want the kind of spiritual nourishment, spiritual enrichment that comes with gathering.”
“Many of the miracles we see in the work of the Lord come out of stressful or difficult situations,” Elder Holland told the Deseret News in an email last week. “Jesus’ healings and restorative blessings came to people who were maimed, troubled, disenfranchised or poor — to name just a few categories. So, too, in modern times. Joseph Smith was troubled by the state of his own soul and the contention that existed in the local religious community. ‘For how to act I did not know,’ he said, ‘and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know.’”
Elder Holland continued: “Trouble in Kirtland, violence in Missouri, martyrdom in Nauvoo. On to handcarts, seagulls and crickets, Johnston’s army and oppressive measures by the federal government. The list goes on and on from the Old Testament era to the New to the Restored ... and those events don’t even put us into the 20th century!
“Blistered feet, spiritual anguish, forsaken earthly goods, the challenge of an untamed wilderness. The challenges to the work have always existed. In those moments we are frequently called on to ‘Stand still and know that [he] is God.’ No unhallowed hand nor any other difficulty can stop the work. He can do his own work and will. If we join him in it as the missionaries surely do, every difficulty will be turned to their good.”
Note: Sister Ann Taylor and President Brad Taylor are the sister and brother-in-law of Deseret News editor Doug Wilks.