BOLOGNA, Italy — Water gushed from the faucet in a torrent, splashed and pounded into the tile below. The sound was natural and normal. Nobody noticed the problem at first.
The drain stopper was broken. The baptismal font wouldn’t fill.
Four missionaries who had dedicated significant portions of their young lives to helping others to the waters of baptism suddenly didn’t have enough baptismal water to immerse Lucky Ughulu, 29, and fulfill his desire for a remission of sins and membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Let’s go to a river,” one of the missionaries said. “No,” said another. “The ones here are full of rats.”
Someone suggested the Adriatic Sea. The final decision fell to Anziano Samuel Nagliati. (Anziano is the Italian word for elder.) A 20-year-old from São Paulo, Brazil, he was in charge because the president of the local congregation, called a branch, had just moved away.
“Lucky wanted to be baptized right now, and there’s no water,” Nagliati said.
Nagliati is one of tens of thousands of young Latter-day Saints whose missions were upended by COVID-19. One of the church’s 399 missions closed temporarily. The rest adjusted to the new conditions. The number of missionaries in each mission either nosedived or skyrocketed when the church returned thousands of missionaries nearing the end of their missions home, and reassigned 30,000 foreign missionaries back to their native countries.
The Italy Milan Mission, which includes the historic city of Bologna, entered the COVID-19 era with 142 missionaries. A year later, it was down to 40 or 50, said President Bart Browning. The disruptions continue throughout the world, but so too does the work of the missionaries — online, in person and through unique language training in order to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Overall, the church had more than 67,000 full-time missionaries as the coronavirus began to spread in February 2020. Today, 53,000 are serving.
Serving in Italy
Nagliati took a winding path to Italy. He was in the last group at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, when the outbreak was declared a pandemic in March 2020. He described the MTC at the end as a ghost town, where he and his small group had the vast and usually packed cafeteria all to themselves.
“We started hearing things about the coronavirus in the MTC and I thought, ‘What is happening in the world? What is happening in my mission?’”
The church reassigned him to Salt Lake City for about a month. Then he was sent back to Brazil to serve. Just like that he was back where he started, 6,000 miles from his assigned mission.
Unlike most missionaries, Nagliati had a unique opportunity to return to Italy. His grandparents are Italian, so when Italy opened its borders to citizens, his dual Italian citizenship allowed him to return to the historic cobblestoned streets of Bologna.
The other missionaries who witnessed Ughulu’s baptism had to wait longer to make it to Italy.
Nagliati’s mission companion, Anziano Cole Draper, 20, began online missionary training in April 2020 at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He said he enjoyed sleeping in his own bed, eating his mother’s cooking and going to Top Golf on preparation days. But his Italian studies suffered. He spoke English with his parents at home rather than Italian in the MTC’s language immersion program. Then he was reassigned to Missouri from June 2020 through May 2021, when Italy again began to allow new foreign missionaries into the country.
“Oh, man,” Draper said. “I had not studied Italian at all in Missouri. I lost all hope of getting to Bologna. I got here and I had no idea what was going on. I served for a year, then got here and felt like I started over again.”
President Browning temporarily closed down full-time missionary work in cities across the breadth of northern Italy as his numbers dwindled. That trend has reversed. Since May, he has received 15-20 new missionaries every transfer — every few months.
“We maxed out last transfer,” he said. “Then the Missionary Department called and said, ‘Can you take 25 more?’”
The result is that nearly 80% of Browning’s current missionaries arrived in May or later, Draper said.
“I don’t even know anyone in the mission now,” Nagliati said.
The mission president improvised. During the height of the terrible outbreak in Italy, the missionaries stopped contacting people on the streets and on public transportation and quarantined in their apartments.
“We are pioneers, learning how to do this new type of work,” Nagliati said. “We learned there isn’t just one way to do things. There is always the good, the better and the best, as President (Dallin H.) Oaks taught us.”
The influx of new missionaries created new challenges. While he scrambled to find new apartments, President Browning wondered how everyone would learn the language fast enough to be effective.
“All the missionaries coming in know how to teach, they only lack Italian,” he said.
The answer was embedded in a program Browning initiated before the pandemic. He asked missionaries to teach lessons to church members from the faith’s weekly study guide, “Come, Follow Me.”
“If we are to be a family-centered church,” Browning said, referencing President Russell M. Nelson’s guidance, “we should strengthen families and strengthen our relationship with them.”
Nagliati and Draper spent the past several months together learning each week’s “Come, Follow Me” lesson in Italian, then teaching it 20 times to families in the congregations they serve. Each week, they learn new vocabulary and master it as they teach it repeatedly.
“Our language is stronger than ever before,” Browning said. “Our relationship with members is stronger than ever before. The greatest army of missionaries are the members, and now we have a member with us in every lesson we teach. We also find out and pray about each family’s needs and learn the vocabulary and grammar to respond to those needs.”
One way they meet them is with videos. Nagliati and Draper served together in an area so large that it would take three hours to travel from one end to the other. Quarantine taught them to use video, which allows them to tailor messages that meet member needs more frequently but effectively.
For example, Nagliati and Draper sent a video message to a family that hadn’t been to church in three years. The family sent back a grateful message. The missionaries arranged a video call and learned that the family had children with autism. The parents had found it difficult to help their children remain reverent in church meetings. They now have resumed church attendance.
“The mom started crying,” Nagliati said of their video call. “She said, ‘Thank you for remembering us.’”
“Thank you for saving me,” another woman wrote them. “ I was going through something in my life. I followed your advice, and it helped.”
Draper joked that the first videos they make each week with a “Come, Follow Me” message contain pretty spotty Italian on his part.
“I feel bad for the people who get the first ones,” he said with laughter, “but by the end of the week, we’re making good videos.”
Nagliati knew some Italian before his mission and is proficient.
He’s worked to help Elder Draper improve his Italian. Earlier this month, the two sat at their desks in their flat six floors above Via Giovanni Brugnoli and studied Italian on a humid, rainy, gray morning. Fans beat back the heat as they worked silently, a dog’s barks echoing through the open window.
The wall in front of them carried a map of Bologna and a photo of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in all white standing in front of the Christus statue at the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center.
Nagliati’s maternal grandparents are from Napoli. His paternal grandparents are from Ferrara, where Ughulu lives.
“I love this language,” he said. “This is the language of my ancestors. I feel connected to them when I speak it.”
Nagliati said Bartholomew has stressed four pillars — technology, studies based on the needs of members and others they meet, correlation meetings and “Come, Follow Me.”
“There is a fifth pillar, too,” Nagliati said. “Us.”
Ughulu is a native Nigerian who moved to Ferrara and was taught by sister missionaries. Nagliati and Draper co-taught Ughulu afterward, with the sisters joining the lessons online.
Nagliati’s answer to the leaky baptismal font was to pray. After the prayer, he decided the group should head to the Adriatic Sea, the body of water between Italy and Croatia.
“God didn’t make us feel like, ‘There’s a spot,’” he said. “He made us feel, ‘Let’s try.’”
So Ughulu, four missionaries and three other church members piled into cars and headed for the beach on a hot Sunday afternoon. After the 90-minute drive, they found the beaches packed, unsuitable for the reverence required for a baptism.
A church member suggested the pool at a friend’s house, but Nagliati rejected the idea because it was another half hour away. The two sister missionaries already had traveled four hours to the chapel.
So they kept looking. Suddenly, they found a barren pocket of dark sand between crowded beaches. Ughulu’s hours-long wait for baptism was over. He and Nagliati walked into the Adriatic Sea while the missionaries and members opened Zoom calls home to their parents and to local church members.
The weekend had included church meetings where they saw two visiting apostles, Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Ronald A. Rasband. It ended near sunset on an evening of rich colors and long shadows with two men standing in a calm sea conducting a priesthood ordinance.
“It definitely was one of the best experiences I’ve had on my mission so far,” Nagliati said.
“We planned the day,” Draper said, “but nothing we planned happened. But it was the best day of my mission.”
The baptism was a microcosm of their disrupted missions. The missionaries say they have learned lifelong lessons.
“God prepares,” Nagliati said. “He literally prepared a way for us. We’re not in control of anything. God really prepares the way. He closes one door but opens another one. He never leaves us in the dark alone.”
After Nagliati and Draper finished their studies on the overcast, humid morning, they headed for the Bologna train station. Their companionship was ending.
The church now has 53,000 full-time missionaries serving around the world, and transfers occur every few months as missionaries begin and end their missions, and also accept new assignments.
Nagliati, a master of three languages — Portuguese, English and Italian — will complete his mission in December and enroll at BYU-Idaho in January. Until then, he will work in a new area of Italy with his new companion, Anziano Nathan Gregory of Provo, Utah.
Draper, who studied at BYU before his mission and wants to go into finance, became a senior companion and trainer for Anziano Isaac Fossum of Pleasant Grove, Utah, who has faithfully studied Italian every day for 14 months while he working as a reassigned missionary in Northern California.
“I’m super excited to finally get here,” Fossum said.
“It’s been a long wait.”