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'Mission Intermission:' Thousands Of Latter-day Saint Missionaries Sent Home Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

Photo inside a busy airport terminal.
Courtesy Ryan Wells
Latter-day Saint missionaries arrove at the Salt Lake City Airport by the hundreds. Those who don't live in Utah are shuttled to hotels as they wait for a connecting flight.

Two weeks ago, Marcus Adams — or Elder Adams rather — was hunkered down in the home he shared with three other full-time Latter-day Saint missionaries in the Philippines. They had a stash of rice and ramen noodles and were preparing for weeks of quarantine. 

That’s when he got the text: all foreign missionaries were going home. 

“When I was told to pack my bags I went into our little backyard area and just had a moment just to sit to myself as my companion was still packing,” Adams said. “I just sort of sat there and cried.” 

At seven months into his two-year mission, Adams said he was just starting to get the hang of it. He had gotten over a bout of homesickness during Christmas, the language, Tagalog, was starting to click, and he felt an emotional connection to the people he was meeting. 

“The people over there are so nice,” he said. 

Adams has been trying to stay in touch with the individuals and families he was teaching about the Latter-day Saint gospel, but the 14-hour time difference makes that challenging. 

“So, I’ve had to talk to them right as I am going to bed or right as I’m waking up,” Adams said. 

Adams was one of 1,000 American missionaries returning to Utah from the Philippines. The arrival party was all over the news with families squished together in an airport parking garage. It was the opposite of social distancing. 

“I told people, if you weren’t there, it’s really hard to judge,” said Adam’s mother Becky. 

Becky Adams said her family was waiting at the airport for hours after her son’s plane landed, and they didn’t know how they would find him. 

Without passing blame, Becky Adams said the directions at the airport were vague. She expected they would be grouped by mission areas or last name. 

“But it was just like, ‘Okay, park on the left side.’” 

I don't say that to be mean but his poster was, 'Welcome to your mission intermission.' — Becky Adams

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Salt Lake City Airport have said they’ve now streamlined the process. 

Becky Adams was eventually reunited with her son though, and they’ve been quarantined as a family ever since at their home in Ephraim, Utah. 

“It’s so bittersweet.” she said, “He came home and I’m like, ‘I’m so glad you’re here, but don’t get comfortable. Because I don’t want you here.’ And I don’t say that to be mean but his poster was, ‘Welcome to your mission intermission.’” 

A lot of missionaries find themselves in the same shoes as Marcus Adams. A top Church official, Elder Craig C. Christensen, shared some logistics during a Silicon Slopes virtual town hall last week.

“We decided to move every missionary back to their home country,” Christensen said. “With 67,000 missionaries across the globe, 19,800 are U.S. citizens returning back to the United States, and Utah has about 12,000 of those missionaries.” 

The urgency came as country borders began closing to prevent the COVID-19 outbreak. A Church spokesman confirmed they have moved “tens of thousands” of missionaries so far. 

“If we can’t logistically do it, they stay in the country they’re serving,” Christensen said. “But we’re trying to move them back to their home country.” 

What that looks like is a lot of chartered flights full of American missionaries coming to Salt Lake City. Those who don’t live in Utah have to wait for a connecting flight and in the meantime are shuttled around by volunteers like Ryan Wells.

“We’re basically picking the missionaries up at the airport and taking them to hotels,” Wells said. 

These layover missionaries are fed pizza and instructed to stay in their rooms. 

“The feelings have been all over the place,” Wells said. “From very silent, tired missionaries to others that are speaking Spanish or other languages they learned on their missions.” 

There's all kinds of different emotions. You can tell that a lot of them weren't ready to come home. — Ryan Wells

Wells estimates he’s driven well over a thousand missionaries at this point, including groups coming from Paraguay, where he was a missionary more than 10 years ago. 

“It was really fun to connect with them and talk with them about where they’ve been and what experiences they’ve had.” Wells said. “Honestly, it’s been very reflective for me.”

Wells said his two years as a missionary were critical in shaping who he is now. He said the relationships he made with the people he served influenced him, and because he learned fluent Spanish, he became a language teacher at Taylorsville High School. So, his heart goes out to these missionaries. 

“There’s all kinds of different emotions,” Wells said. “You can tell that a lot of them weren’t ready to come home.” 

Those near the end of their mission will simply have to cut it short and Church officials announced this week that all missionaries returning home will be temporarily released. If they want to return to full-time service they will be given the option of going back as soon as possible or delaying for a year or more. Because there’s no telling how long this mission intermission will last. 

Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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