Called to serve in a pandemic: Ohio mission president couple sees online teaching miracles

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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.

President and Sister Stratford, left, with another couple in front of the Newel K. Whitney Store in Kirtland, Ohio. The Stratfords have been serving in the Columbus Ohio mission and will finish in June 2020. (Val Stratford)

President Val Stratford and Sister Jeri Stratford had been presiding over the Columbus Ohio mission for 33 months when the state was put under a stay-at-home order. Despite the disruption in their service, they continue to help their missionaries fulfill their purpose while social distancing.

The stay-at-home order was enforced in March and was supposed to expire at the end of April but instead was extended into May. With just a few weeks left of their mission, President and Sister Stratford are still adapting to the changes being made under the prophet and apostles. 

Change in their mission is not new to the Stratfords, however. 

“I can tell you that about every two months since we’ve been here, there’s been some kind of change,” Sister Stratford said. “So we kind of expect change because that’s just life.” 

The missionaries have been self-isolated since March 17 and will continue to be until further notice. Self-isolation can make it difficult to follow the missionary schedule, but the Stratfords are helping the missionaries through the process. 

“We’re doing the best we can to keep the same schedule with zone conferences, interviews, regular connection with missionaries,” President Stratford said. “We’re missing the physical connection that we have with our missionaries, but the Spirit speaks through technology.” 

Using technology and Facebook have been the main teaching tools for missionaries during self-isolation. Sister Stratford thought that technology would be a distraction when their missionaries began using it, but now she sees the miracles they bring. 

“God was paving the way,” she said. “It’s like when President Nelson called for a home-centered church. That was no coincidence either.” 

The Stratfords have encouraged their missionaries to find creative ways to teach using Facebook. One of these ways was to have the missionaries record themselves teaching a message at a local landmark in the city they’re serving in and post it on Facebook. 

“You can’t control what’s out there on the world-wide-web, but we’re trying to attract those people here locally.” President Stratford said. 

The Stratfords have seen success from online teaching during the pandemic. “We’ve witnessed a lot of miracles,” Sister Stratford said. “Maybe God didn’t create the pandemic, but he is using it for good.”  

“People were found, introduced to the gospel, taught via technology and in some cases never attended a traditional sacrament meeting,” President Stratford said. “They received a testimony of the Book of Mormon.”

Marwan Geara (middle) at his baptism with the missionaries that found and taught him during the pandemic. (Marwan Geara)

One of these people was Marwan Geara, a former Anglican-Catholic bishop. A companionship in the mission found, taught and baptized Geara — all during the pandemic. 

“I can now proudly declare that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ,” his testimony reads. “I am also forever grateful to the missionaries.”

The mission for the Stratfords will be ending differently than they had expected, but they are still grateful for the missionaries and what they’ve experienced. 

“My favorite thing is being with the missionaries and learning from them,” Sister Stratford said. 

President Stratford agrees. “It’s an amazing time. It’s a different time, but it’s amazing and full of miracles.”

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