Called to serve in a pandemic: 1700 non-native missionaries return home from the Philippines

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Editor’s note: Thousands of missionaries across the world are returning home before completing their missions at the direction of top Church leaders. Upon arrival, they must quarantine themselves for 14 days to prevent any spread of COVID-19. Church leaders have directed that those with a significant time left to serve be temporarily released as missionaries while they await reassignment. Each must choose by April 30, 2020, whether to opt for immediate reassignment once the Church announces it is ready to send them out again, or to wait between 12 and 18 months before returning to the field. The Daily Universe is looking at the impact of the pandemic on missionary service in a series of stories.

Cameron Bonsignore grew up in Spokane, Washington, and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints about a year and a half ago. He decided to serve a mission after being a member of the Church for only a short time.

He was called to the Philippines Urdaneta Mission and had been serving for a total of two months and six weeks in the Manila MTC and three weeks in the mission field.

March 17 is a day Bonsignore said he will never forget. It was when he and his companion got a phone call with the news that they would be going home. “We were basically told that we needed to pack everything we had and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” he said.

The news came as a shock to Bonsignore. “We had very little communication with the outside world apart from p-days, so it was hard to tell just how serious it (COVID-19) was getting.”

Bonsignore said the possibility of going home had always been in the back of his mind as the worst-case scenario, but he never thought it would actually happen.

“I felt really bummed getting the news because I had been out in the field for such a short amount of time, and I was just starting to feel my love for the people and the country grow,” Bonsignore said.

Cameron Bonsignore serving in the Philippines Uredaneta Mission. (Cameron Bonsignore)

The next morning at 8 a.m., Bonsignore and his companion loaded all their stuff into a van and traveled 20 minutes away to the mission home.

Over the next few hours, the 115 non-native missionaries in Bonsignore’s mission arrived at the mission home, and after a short departing devotional given by their mission president in a nearby chapel, they all loaded into large passenger vans to travel to the Manila MTC to wait for their flights back to their native countries.

“It was a very emotional moment for all of us, and many tears were shed as we sang ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again,'” Bonsignore said.

The 1,700 non-native missionaries serving in the Philippines were transported to and squeezed into the MTC, which is designed to hold only 250 missionaries at a time.

“While at the MTC, the majority of us slept on the floor with nothing but couch cushions as pillows, but the second night, stacks of mattresses were distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis, so then about half of us had something to sleep on,” he said.

After spending two nights at the MTC and another two nights at a hotel, they were finally put on five chartered jets to Salt Lake City on March 22.

“I think we were all blown away that the Church was able to pull this off; managing to transport this many missionaries at such short notice,” Bonsignore said.

When Bonsignore first got home, he was told that after being quarantined for two weeks, he would get to continue his missionary work on a reassignment. Even though that’s what he was told, he said he had a feeling it wouldn’t happen that fast — and he was right.

Shortly after he got home, the Church made temporary adjustments to missionary work, meaning he wouldn’t be able to go back out directly following his quarantine.

“I was pretty bummed when I first got home and after this new adjustment came out announcing that we were being temporarily released, but since then I’ve started looking for the positives in all this,” he said.

From right, Cameron Bonsignore, Levi Thedell, Karson Greenburg, Joshua Gleim and Luke Grundvig. (Cameron Bonsignore)

Bonsignore said he is going to choose the option of being reassigned as soon as conditions allow. “It wasn’t really a decision I had to make, because ever since all of this started, my only wish has been to return to missionary service as soon as possible.”

He said he has been preparing for his mission ever since he was baptized a year and a half ago and he doesn’t want to wait any longer than he has to. Even with all the unexpected changes Bonsignore has faced since beginning his mission, he said he has learned things from the experience.

“I know I never could’ve seen any of this coming before I began my mission, but all of it has taught me to stay true to the words of the hymn ‘I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go,'” Bonsignore said. “We are all waiting to answer His call and go wherever He needs us to go.”

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