Missionary safety a goal, not a guarantee

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Pool TV via AP
Mormon missionary Mason Wells, an American survivor of the attacks in Belgium, answers questions during an interview in a hospital in Ghent before returning to Utah. (Associated Press)

Missionaries travel to countries all over the world while their loved-ones at home hope they remain safe.

But as the terrorist attacks that injured four LDS missionaries in Brussels demonstrated, missionaries are subject to the all-too-real dangers of the world around them.

Elders Mason Wells, 19, and Joseph “Dres” Empey, 20, are being treated at the University of Utah Burn Center for second-degree burns and other serious injuries received in a coordinated terror attack that killed 32 people at the Brussels Airport and a train station.

Also injured was Sister Fanny Clain of France who is expected to serve her mission in Cleveland, Ohio. Elder Richard Norby has awoken from a medically induced coma and continues to improve but still needs surgery on a broken leg, according to the Associated Press.

“To the parents of all the missionaries out in the world: Take courage, don’t worry. We’re not afraid,” Chad Wells, Elder Wells’ father, said during a press conference at the University of Utah.

Missionaries and mission presidents are reasonably prepared to face the wiles of an uncertain world.

The Missionary Handbook instructs missionaries to “listen to and follow the promptings of the Spirit, which can warn you of danger” and provides additional rules geared towards health, safety and security.

For many mission presidents, exact adherence to the Missionary Handbook and other mission-specific rules and practices are the first line of defense against tragedy and accident.

“I became a huge fan of studying, understanding and applying these guidelines with exactness,” said former Spain Madrid Mission president and BYU ancient scripture professor Brad Farnsworth.

His mission didn’t have any mission-specific rules but did apply rules to unique situations after prayer and discussion.

Farnsworth said all people who engage in missionary work or other work in the gospel put their lives in the hands of God and he has accepted what ever happens as God’s will.

“We are grateful for blessings of safety when they come and we don’t question the Lord’s will when events become tragic,” Farnsworth said. “Our role is to ask, ‘What can I learn from this?’ when hard things occur in our lives, especially when they involve missionaries. I know the Lord loves His missionaries and their families. This firm conviction helps me accept the consequences of every event — good or bad. We still shed tears at times, but our faith in our Heavenly Father should never waiver.”

BYU ancient scripture professor Mike Goodman was president of the Thailand Bangkok Mission from 1997 to 2000.

Rules for his missionaries included keeping 1,000 baht, about $30 U.S. dollars on them at all times for transportation out of areas; storing the equivalent of 72-hours kits in their apartments; remaining inside during times of civic unrest and knowing code words to communicate information quickly.

“Thailand has several very strict laws regarding insults to Buddhism and the monarchy, and we had had missionaries and mission presidents imprisoned for acts deemed offensive to either,” Goodman said, noting that he was never arrested.

University of Utah Health Care
Mason Wells, left, and Joseph “Dres” Empey, right, shown in a hospital room in University of Utah Hospital, in Salt Lake City. Wells, 19, and Empey, 20, suffered second-degree burns and other serious injuries when explosions ripped through the Brussels airport. (University of Utah Health Care via AP)

The most dramatic example of adherence to mission safety rules during Goodman’s mission presidency involved the 1997 coup in bordering Cambodia.

“I received a call at (2 a.m.) asking me to evacuate the (Cambodian) mission because missionaries were pinned down in their apartments with gunfire going on all around them,” Goodman said.

His counselor carried a large amount of cash into Cambodia to purchase tickets to get the mission president and his missionaries to Thailand.

“Mission rules simply were in place for such an event in Thailand, which thankfully did not happen,” Goodman said.

Goodman said there were procedures for dealing with civil unrest, which he encountered several times, that required missionaries to stay in their homes.

Goodman believes God watches out for missionaries, but said safety is not guaranteed. Two missionaries died while he was a mission president: one by accident, another by illness.

“(God) requires us to do the best we can, and when we do, we can trust in his guidance and his blessing,” Goodman said. “But if that meant divine intervention whenever there was danger, it would be hard to reconcile with the realities of such prophets as Abinadi, Joseph Smith, or most obvious, the Savior himself.”

Regardless of perception, missionaries and mission presidents adapt as best they can to local circumstance to protect the health and safety of missionaries.

The theme of observing rules exactly is common across missions, regardless of whether the rules are church-wide or specific to individual mission circumstances.

John Larson returned  in September 2015 from missionary service in the Peru Lima Central Mission, where he served as a district leader, trainer, zone leader and assistant to two different mission presidents.

Larson said a lot of safety procedure was based on the first line under the safety heading in the Missionary Handbook: “Listen to and follow the promptings of the Spirit, which can warn you of danger.”

Larson said this was especially true with muggings, which he said were common in his area.

“If you followed the handbook and you offer no resistance, you become a walking ATM,” Larson said. “You had to be smart about how often you gave up money. Like if they had a knife or firearm or were likely to cause you serious bodily harm then just give (the money) up, or if they were just drunk or high, just walk away quickly.”

He also said certain areas in his mission had a curfew that followed daylight rather than the time, meaning missionaries in especially dangerous areas were to be in their apartments before nightfall.

In the Peru Lima Central Mission, the threat of natural disasters topped the list of potential dangers. “My entire mission was inside tsunami destruction range,” Larson said.

A tsunami warning in September 2015 prompted the area presidency to evacuate all missionaries to the highest ground in the mission, Larson said. Extensive training at prior zone meetings on emergency response allowed for the evacuation to proceed “without a hitch.”

Gioia Reni returned from the Italy Milan Mission in April 2015 where she experienced a growing, antagonistic immigrant population and protests by public transport employees. “We were supposed to stay very clear of protests that happened frequently,” she said.

The Missionary Handbook says missionaries are to avoid and not to photograph civil unrest. She said any large gathering for holidays or sporting events were to be avoided and certain events demanded missionaries shelter inside their apartments.

“I had my bike stolen three times,” Reni said, describing certain areas of her mission.

She also said immigration from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe brought a lot of Muslims to the mission. Missionaries were instructed to ask whether Muslim investigators were going to be endangered by investigating the gospel and if they intended to return to their home countries.

Prospective missionaries and parents can be kept abreast of local issues by following updates by the U.S. State Department, which maintains an alert system for international travelers.

Regardless of perception, missionaries and mission presidents adapt as best they can to local circumstances to protect the health and safety of missionaries.

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