Called to serve in a pandemic: Coming home for a second time

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Editor’s note: Thousands of missionaries across the world are facing upended plans during the pandemic. Some are returning home before completing their missions, others are serving in quarantine and many are receiving new calls. The Daily Universe is looking at how these missionaries are grappling with challenges in a series of stories.

Elder Donny Vanderholm said goodbye to his mission in Guatemala on March 29 after only four months of service. Like many missionaries, Vanderholm had to return home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike most missionaries, this was Vanderholm’s second time having his missionary service cut short.

Elder Vanderholm reported to his mission for the first time in September 2018 but returned home for personal reasons after only five days.

“For the following 14 months, I worked very hard with Church leaders, family, counselors and friends to help me change and become better so I could one day return to my mission,” Elder Vanderholm posted on Facebook the day after his second return home. “During this time I not only found myself but I also found my Savior.”

Elder Vanderholm reported again in November 2019 and served for four months, which he described in his Facebook post as some of the greatest months of his life. COVID-19 brought those months to an abrupt end.

Hundreds of missionaries await their departure from the airport in Guatemala. (Elder Donny Vanderholm)

The final few days in Guatemala were confusing, Elder Vanderholm said. He and his companion had been in their apartment for eight days, trying their best to do missionary work remotely, when their mission president told them they would have to return home. The feeling he got when he received that news, Elder Vanderholm said, was indescribable.

Elder Vanderholm and his companion spent two days with another companionship close to the mission office, then another two days with all other American missionaries in the country at the former Guatemala Missionary Training Center. The next day, they all boarded two planes the Church had chartered, and just like that, they were on their way home.

The days leading up to the unexpected departure were filled with uncertainty, Vanderholm said. Missionaries didn’t know when or if they’d be returning to Guatemala or receiving new assignments. For Elder Vanderholm, the most confusing part of it all was leaving his mission again without any closure.

“Many times I thought to myself, why did I need to come back here?” he said. “I really never came up with any answers. I couldn’t think of a certain person I was supposed to meet or an investigator I had to specifically teach. I was not able to find ‘the reason’ I had to work so hard to finally return just to be sent back home after four months.”

Elder Vanderholm said trusting that God has a plan for him has helped him make peace with his departure.

“It would be very easy for me to blame God for wasting the last year and a half of my life; to say that the year I spent preparing and working to return to the field was all for naught because here I am again back at home. But I know that isn’t true,” Vanderholm said. “I have learned so much about myself and the Atonement, and I know that this trial of returning home yet again is another chance to continue my growth.”

Elder Donny Vanderholm holds a turkey in Guatemala. He said his four months of missionary service in the country were some of the best of his life. (Donny Vanderholm)

For now, Elder Vanderholm has returned to his home in Washington to await reassignment. He has opted to be reassigned as soon as possible and to keep his original release date.

“I expect I will be able to return to Guatemala within the year, but honestly, where I go isn’t really important to me anymore,” he said. “At this point, I just want to be able to go and serve as soon as I can, wherever I can.”

Elder Vanderholm’s sister, Raechel Hornfischer, said she and her parents felt sad for him upon hearing the news of his return.

“He worked so hard to get to where he was on his mission and having to come home again felt like another setback in a long line of setbacks,” she said. “Of course we were excited to see him, but it definitely wasn’t a happy time for any of us.”

Hornfischer said although her parents are enjoying not having an empty house, they know their son would rather be back on his mission.

Though Vanderholm has been released for the time being, he said he’s trying to stick to the missionary schedule as much as possible and to fill his days with spirit-expanding activities such as scripture study, service and fulfilling his branch calling.

“The worst thing someone can do, especially a missionary awaiting assignment, during this time of quarantine is to look back at these months and think of them as a waste of their life,” Vanderholm said. “I like to think that God has granted me additional time to prepare myself to truly be the best disciple of Christ that I can be.”

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