Called to serve in a pandemic: ‘I was told to pack up all my stuff as fast as possible’


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.

A few missionaries serving in the Maryland Baltimore Mission planned a trip to explore some caverns for one of their preparation days. Little did they know it would be their last “normal” day for the foreseeable future.

Looking back, the fact that they had planned the excursion for that specific day is something Sister Anna Alder called a pretty cool tender mercy. “We all got to have one more fun day spent together in person before, well, everything went absolutely crazy,” she said.

Elders, left to right: Elder Tyler Beus, Elder Izak Pew, Elder Caleb Carr, Elder Devin Johnson. Sisters, left to right: Sister Kimberly McKeen, Sister Alexis Myers, Sister Anna Alder, Sister Brynlee Case. Missionaries took a trip to some caverns on what they didn’t know would be their last “normal” preparation day for the foreseeable future. (Sister Anna Alder)

On the evening of March 16 after their trip to the caverns, Sister Alder got news from her mission leaders that they were to be quarantined for at least the next two weeks. Any missionaries that had already left their apartments for the night were to return home immediately.

The night just kept getting crazier for Sister Alder and her companion, Sister Alexis Myers. Their district leader, Elder Devin Johnson, and his companion, Elder Caleb Carr, were over at a family’s home that Sister Alder and Sister Myers were teaching.

Elder Johnson received news that night that he would be going home because he had asthma. When he found that out, Sister Alder and Sister Myers had to help him haul all of his stuff out of his apartment and into their car to take him to the mission home.

“Basically in a matter of 48 hours, it went from ‘Your name is on a list and there’s a chance you could maybe be going home soon’ to ‘Here’s the plane. Get on,'” Sister Alder said.

Left to right: Elder Devin Johnson, Elder Caleb Carr, Sister Anna Alder and Sister Alexis Myers after Elder Johnson got sudden news that he was being sent home. (Sister Anna Alder)

“It’s one thing to be sent home after struggling with mental health or having an accident that sends you home, but it’s another thing entirely to be sent home when in reality, nothing is wrong with you and it’s simply a preventative measure,” Sister Alder said.

The unexpected events of March 16 were just the beginning of many more that would come upon the Maryland Baltimore Mission and Sister Alder.

A week and a half after the quarantine began, the current transfer ended and Sister Alder received news that she and Sister Myers would be staying together in their same area.

Around the same time in Provo, a young missionary from the Philippines, Sister Aim Hernandez, was entering the MTC. Sister Hernandez was supposed to be there for 10 weeks while she learned Japanese and prepared to enter the Japan Sapporo Mission.

As the days passed by in Sister Hernandez’s MTC experience, she began to wonder about the possibility of getting sent home as she saw more and more foreign missionaries getting sent back to their home countries.

“We received news that foreign missionaries serving in Japan were going to be pulled out and they must return to their home country,” Sister Hernandez said. “We’re going to be the last missionaries at the MTC and we don’t know what will happen after our training.”

Sister Hernandez said that the day of March 22 started out like a normal Sunday, the only thing out of the ordinary was that all the missionaries were invited to a departing devotional.

“So as the devotional was going, it’s going more intense,” Sister Hernandez said. “Then, we finally got the correct answers that we were all leaving the MTC.”

Sister Aim Hernandez, bottom right, poses for a photo with the Japanese and Korean speaking districts on Sunday, March 22, after they found out they would all be leaving the MTC. (Sister Aim Hernandez)

The next day on March 23, Sister Hernandez was told to go to the information desk at 10:30 p.m. to receive her itinerary.

Sister Hernandez was told that she was supposed to be sent back to the Philippines, but then got news that the Philippines’ borders were closed. “Honestly, I don’t know what will happen to us,” she said. “It’s the Lord’s plan. I just trust him.”

Meanwhile, on March 24, Sister Alder and Sister Meyers got a call from the assistants informing them that the MTC was shutting down and their mission would suddenly be receiving some new missionaries. Sister Myers would be staying in the area to train one of the new missionaries and Sister Alder would be transferred to a neighboring area to also train a new missionary.

“I was told to pack up all my stuff as fast as possible and await further instructions,” Sister Alder said. “Needless to say, the news came as a huge shock to me.”

That night Sister Alder and Sister Myers drove two hours to Columbia, Maryland, where Sister Alder picked up her new companion, Sister Aim Hernandez. Sister Hernandez, along with seven other missionaries, had been pulled out of the Provo MTC and thrown into missions that they weren’t originally assigned to.

Sister Anna Alder with her new companion, Sister Aim Hernandez. (Anna Alder)

“I was put into a brand new area I have never been in before to train a brand new missionary from a foreign country who could be leaving at a moment’s notice in the middle of a quarantine. Let me tell ya, it hasn’t been easy,” Sister Alder said.

A few days after Sister Alder and Sister Hernandez had settled into their new area, it was general conference weekend. As they were watching general conference on their phones while locked up in their apartment, they heard their mission president’s name, President Thierry Mutombo, announced as one of the newest members of the General Authority Seventy.

That meant that his assignment as the Maryland Baltimore Mission president would conclude 15 months earlier than expected. “Over the past few weeks, we had our last zone conferences, our last personal interviews, our last three-week training meeting all virtually with President Mutombo before he will begin his new assignment,” Sister Alder said.

Sister Anna Alder’s last personal interview with President Thierry Mutombo before he begins his new assignment as a General Authority Seventy. (Anna Alder)

The new mission president, President Robert Nye, arrived on to the mission on April 29 and officially started taking over the mission on May 1. “Transitioning to a new president in and of itself can be a really confusing time for anyone in a mission field,” Sister Alder said. “Can’t imagine what it’s going to be like with everything going on.”

President Nye got to meet all the missionaries over Zoom on May 2 and 3, and Sister Alder said things with the switch seem to be going OK for now.

Once everything started to settle in, and Sister Alder realized that she would have to learn to live with being inside all day every day, she had to make some adjustments to her missionary schedule and daily routine. This is complicated even more by the fact that Sister Hernandez is still taking language lessons learning Japanese through the MTC on Zoom for four hours a day.

Sister Anna plays the ukulele to pass time during quarantine. It’s one of the things she does to keep busy while her companion takes foreign language classes through the MTC. (Anna Alder)

“As far as missionary work goes, there’s not a whole lot I can do on my own for that amount of time every day, so I’ve had to get really good at keeping myself wholesomely entertained,” Sister Alder said. After Sister Hernandez is done with her MTC over Zoom, it’s basically dinner and then there are around three hours left in the day to contact, find and set up virtual lessons. “Given the circumstances, I’d say we’re doing pretty well,” Sister Alder said.

Since Sister Alder and Sister Hernandez are both new to their area, their efforts of finding people to teach consist of calling and texting as many random people in their areabook that they can find. “It’s basically the equivalent of door knocking, but through a phone screen,” Sister Alder said.

She said one of the challenging things about having virtual lessons is that it’s harder to have people’s undivided attention. “I understand that you can clean your bathroom and talk on the phone at the same time, but maybe don’t do that while we’re trying to teach you about the restoration of the gospel,” Sister Alder says.

Amidst the challenging times, Sister Alder does her best to stay positive and make the best out of the situation she’s in. “Lots of singing, lots of playing the ukulele, lots of cooking,” Sister Alder said. She also takes what she calls “quarantine vlogs,” brief videos of fun things that happen during the day. “Hopefully these all help me to only remember all the happy, positive things I’ve experienced throughout this whole thing,” she said.

Sister Alder said both the best and the worst thing about the situation is all the time she has to think. “Worst in the sense that your mind can drag itself down to some pretty negative places when you don’t have something immediately in front of you to keep you busy,” she said.

With all the time to think, Sister Alder has asked herself the question everyday of whether she would rather be out on the mission or be at home, going through all of this with her family. Ultimately she has come to the same conclusion every time: there’s nowhere she’d rather be than on her mission.

“Here, I am stressed, but I am safe. Here, I am lonely, but I am loved. Here, I am panicked, but I am at peace,” she said. “I am blessed enough to not have to worry about many things that others are worrying about right now. My focus is solely on helping others come closer to our Heavenly Father.”

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