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Called to serve during a pandemic

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called her on a mission to Ecuador. The pandemic required a choice

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Maddie Edwards poses in her driveway in Dighton, Massachusetts, on a recent afternoon. After a season as a BYU lacrosse goalie, she was called to a mission in Guayaquil, Ecuador — before the pandemic sent those plans into flux.

Courtesy of Maddie Edwards

A young woman with a freckled forehead, morning-tangled red hair and fresh blue eyes plops into a worn leather seat. She’s had it since her childhood. It’s wrinkled, chipped and scratched, but it feels like home. Here, Maddie Edwards can open up about anything, even her doubts about whether to travel to Ecuador on a church mission in the middle of a pandemic.

It’s not an easy conversation. Her parents sit facing her from a red couch embroidered with yellow flowers. The talk begins, as it often does, with politics. Mostly about the virus and its effect on the country, and their town. It flows into questions about her mission. 

Early morning rays shine on a wall of mementos from the family’s trips around the world. A singing bowl from Nepal. Another bowl from Greece. A tapestry from the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. They visited when she was 11. Now she’s been called to go back there as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

If she goes through with it.

As a child, Maddie dreamed of going on a mission, like her father did to Belgium. But as she grew up, that dream faded as she got busy with school and sports. She went to BYU, across the country from Dighton, Massachusetts, to play goalie for the lacrosse squad. 

But in Provo, surrounded by returned missionaries, she found a smoldering remnant of that childhood dream was sparking again. By December, she sent in her papers and waited to see where the church would send her.

It was two months later, as she walked into the testing center, when the email flashed across the screen. Her call had arrived. She couldn’t look but she couldn’t wait, either. She sped through the statistics exam, her mind all over the map. “I think it was like 25 minutes I spent in there,” she remembers. “Not my best test.”

On the phone with her family, they opened the email together. She’d be spending six weeks in a missionary training center starting June 3, then shipping off to the Guayaquil West Mission. Maddie was about to become Sister Edwards.

It was perfect.

Then, on March 31, another email arrived. Subject: “Adjustments to Missionary Service: New Options Available.”

Like the rest of the world, the church was figuring out how to respond to COVID-19. It offered Maddie the choice: Begin virtual training from home on June 3, or wait another year, or more, to start her mission.

Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure. Should she stay or go? Now or later? Was the virus a sign that she’d made a mistake? She spills the confusion to her parents, safe in her chair. She doesn’t even know if she still wants to serve at all.

Her mission, they concede, will be marked by uncertainty and unknowns. And it’s OK, they assure her, if she decides against it. But don’t abandon the call because of uncertainty, they say. If you no longer feel pulled in this direction, don’t feel forced. But opt out because it’s not what you want; not because the virus is making it difficult. 

The conversation ends without a resolution, but at least Maddie knows her parents will support her either way. She has a lot to think about.

She starts a new job as a contact tracer, calling people who’ve been exposed to the virus, letting them know so they won’t keep spreading it. It feels similar to missionary work, she’ll say, because she finds God in it. 

Maybe that’s what tips the balance. Maddie decides to trust the process. It’s about faith. Starting this June, she’ll be studying Spanish from her home. If travel restrictions remain in place after six weeks of virtual training, Sister Edwards will be temporarily reassigned — somewhere besides Ecuador.

“And then I don’t think anyone really knows,” she says, “what’s gonna happen after that.”