SEOUL, South Korea — Standing side by side with a sweet Catholic nun, I scooped Kimchi into a little plastic cup as I did my part in a box-lunch assembly line on a Tuesday in South Korea.

Every week our Seoul, Korea, missionaries tighten up their masks, don plastic gloves, and bright orange aprons and volunteer at Anna’s House — a charity that serves 600 box-lunches every day to the homeless. We completed the assembly process and went outside to the adjacent parking lot to pass out the food.

It was bitter cold and hundreds of people were waiting, 6 feet apart, for the distribution to begin. Our missionaries consider this service to be a highlight of their week. They know that even through a pandemic, people need to be served, they deserve a hot meal, they need a warm coat, they need to know that someone cares.

Perhaps that’s what we learned more than anything this past year. We all need to know that someone cares.

The charity is run by Father Vincenzo — a Catholic priest who moved to Korea from Italy 30 years ago. I love Father Vincenzo and his goodness. I have loved Italy ever since I served my young mission there 40 years ago. Now I love Korea too.

My husband, Brad Taylor presides over the Korea Seoul Mission and together for the past 2½ years we have served both the missionaries and the people here. COVID-19 turned 2020 into a crazy roller coaster of a year for all of us. But as we sit here on Christmas Eve and reflect on all that has transpired, we see nothing but small miracles that have occurred and rich learnings that we will take into the new year.

The beginning

In January, we starting hearing mumblings of a deadly virus in China.

In February, Korea became headline news around the world and we were instructed to go into isolation that we thought would last two weeks.

In March, we were shocked as our foreign missionaries were suddenly evacuated and we dropped overnight from a mission of 120 missionaries down to 30 native Korean elders and sisters. The temple closed. Church was canceled. We wondered, what do we do now? 

We hunkered down, moved missionaries into centers of strength and gathered virtually through meetings held on Zoom to figure out how to move forward. Despite the fact that we never could have seen this coming, we were miraculously prepared: missionaries already had smartphones, they were already finding ways to work online, and we had already utilized Zoom meetings in order to cut down on travel. Now it was time to take it to the next level.

Our missionaries increased their efforts to teach the gospel through video calls, often including their evacuated foreign companions who were sitting in isolation back at home. We pushed our young missionaries to think outside the box, try new things, be creative, let your light shine!

They created new Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and YouTube channels. They started live “radio shows”, “rooftop live” virtual concerts and online English classes. YouTube, in particular, is incredibly popular here in Korea. We have literally reached millions of new people through this media alone. We were amazed by the creativity of our missionaries, their positivity and ability to adapt, endure and lift each other up through such a stressful time.

From negative to positive

One of the greatest challenges for missionary work in Korea has been misinformation about the church on the internet — a problem we have been trying to solve since we arrived in 2018. With so much indoor time and armed with our 100% native Korean mission, we pushed our missionaries to take time every day to post good stories about the church, our beliefs, the members and their testimonies.

President Taylor and I started holding Zoom firesides with all the stakes in Korea as well as LDS Korean congregations around the world in places like New York, New Jersey, Utah, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Hawaii, inviting them all to join in this effort. The results have been nothing short of miraculous as the most popular Korean search engine “Naver,” has now changed from a negative influence into an incredibly positive tool. Additionally, it has provided wonderful uplift for the members in this time of isolation to read so many inspiring posts.

The tide has turned and people are now finding us versus us always having to find them. It is a David vs. Goliath-type of miracle that we couldn’t have dreamed possible even one year ago.

The virus has connected our world in a way like nothing else as we have watched it skip over continents and across the seas. We have prayed together, mourned together and missionaries are working together like never before.

Korean missionaries originally assigned to other missions around the world were brought back and reassigned to serve here in Korea. By July, we had 38 missionaries with only one-third them originally called to serve in our mission. As we added in missionaries from more than 18 different missions we were able to incorporate new ideas and connections from around the globe. 

Sister Kang Hanyoung was serving in the Angeles Philippines mission when she was pulled out and brought back home to Korea and reassigned to Seoul. It just so happens that we had started a new Filipino branch last year. Her service in that branch has been a great blessing to those members as well as to herself.

Elder Kim Dongmin was reassigned to us from the New York New York mission. He had been serving in the Bronx. He now is serving joyfully in a Korean city where a large Nigerian population exists. His efforts and influence in that area have been life-changing.

One sister who had an especially hard time growing up in Korea has shared with us that being brought back to her native country was heartbreaking at first, but as she has served her fellow Koreans she has developed a deep love for her homeland that she had previously lost.

Two of our elders are currently teaching a young man who is from Russia. A sister, who previously served in our mission but is now home in Russian-speaking Moldova, joins through technology on a regular basis to help teach this young man in his native tongue. He also uses Zoom to join in her Russian sacrament meetings from his home in Korea.

We are participating in “the global gathering of Israel.” Just one example: Our South Korean missionary (Elder Bae Jungil) went online and began teaching a Cameroon, Africa, woman who was now working as an engineer in New Delhi, India. She embraced the gospel and was ultimately baptized by an elder from New Zealand. Elder Bae participated and rejoiced in the baptism through technology.

If you had told me back in 1983 when I was serving in Italy, that something like this could happen, I would never have believed it!

Missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in South Korea gather outdoors on their preparation day during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, mixing spiritual uplift with physical exercise. | Ann Taylor

Physical and mental health

We learned quickly that finding creative ways to get missionaries outside would be vital to their physical, emotional and mental health. As the virus guidelines ebbed and flowed, we created opportunities for safe mission preparation days that included biking around an island, hiking the mountain behind our home and holding outdoor zone conferences in a forest we affectionately refer to as our “Korean Sacred Grove.”

We also visited an historic monument honoring a miraculous battle fought by American Latter-day Saint soldiers. 

During the summer months, the virus seemed to almost disappear. Our missionaries were teaching and baptizing at an even higher rate than before the virus. Church meetings returned in an adapted, social-distanced manner. But the ups and downs continued. By August cases started popping up again, restrictions were put back in place but missionary work carried on — we had a new normal.

Fast forward to November. We got word that our evacuated foreign missionaries could begin to come back. Most had already finished their missions, but four have made it back. We tearfully welcomed them at the airport from 6 feet away through masks.

They had to quarantine for 14 days AGAIN! For many of them this is the third or fourth or fifth time. Their Korean brothers and sisters are excited to have them back. They bring with them energy and excitement, hope and happiness! They bring with them their love for a country they were just barely getting to know.

December has brought a new spike in the virus — more cases than ever and even stricter constraints: Five or more people gathering for social purposes is banned until Jan. 3, 2021. But there is no panic, no fear … we’ve been here before. We are at 40 missionaries and we will keep on doing what we’re doing. We will keep sharing our light.

The opportunity we have had to develop deep personal relationships with this small band of missionaries has been an indescribable blessing. We have watched them not just survive this storm but thrive. Their increased opportunity for leadership, caring for each other and reaching out to both members of the church and others in the community is preparing them to lead here in Korea for years to come.

In Korea, 2021 is the Year of the Ox. People born in the Year of the Ox are “industrious, hold their faith firmly, and are always glad to offer help.” I think this perfectly describes the aspirations of the Korea Seoul Mission for the coming year!

Note: Sister Ann Taylor is the sister of Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks.

Missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Seoul, South Korea, with President Brad Taylor and Sister Ann Taylor in the middle, are pictured in a 2020 photo. | Courtesy of Seoul Korea Mission