Called to serve in a pandemic: ‘Miracles’ allow missionaries to return to foreign missions

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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.

Sister Belynn Borg, a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stands in front of The St.-Paulus-Dom in Munster, Germany. Because of the pandemic, her journey to Germany included multiple reassignments, setbacks and quarantines. (Sister Belynn Borg)

A limited number of missionaries are returning to their original foreign assignments a year after the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the world and sent thousands of missionaries home.

The Provo, Utah and Preston, England Missionary Training Centers shut down March 16, 2020 and since then, all missionaries are being trained virtually.

During March and April 2020, almost all missionaries serving outside their own country were sent home, except for a few countries in Europe and Asia. At the same time, many missionaries whose service would end on or before Sept. 1, 2020, were released from missionary service early.

On March 31, the Church offered new options for individuals whose missions had been disrupted during the pandemic. Missionaries with time left to serve could choose to be temporarily reassigned to a mission within their own country until conditions allowed them to return to their original assignment, or they could choose to delay their mission for 12-18 months and finish their service at a later date.

Sister Belynn Borg was originally called to the Germany Frankfurt Mission. A week before she started the home MTC in August 2020, she got a call from her bishop who told her she was reassigned to the New Mexico Farmington Mission.

Sister Borg spent 12 weeks in her reassignment and said she absolutely loved it, but still wanted to go to Germany “so badly.”

The Church began sending limited numbers of missionaries to assignments outside their home countries in November 2020.

“This process is deliberate and cautious,” former Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said in a statement.

A close friend of Sister Borg’s was in the first group of missionaries sent back to the Germany Berlin Mission in November. Shortly after, Sister Borg had a dream that she said felt like God was telling her she would go to Germany soon if she stayed faithful.

She said she was excited at the thought of finally going to Germany, but at the same time wanted to stay where she was. “It was like my heart was being pulled in both directions.”

Sister Borg then received a call from the mission office telling her she would fly to the England MTC, quarantine for two weeks, and then be sent to Germany.

However, because of the new virus strain, Germany closed its borders to the U.K. and Sister Borg ended up in isolation for four weeks in the Manchester MTC.

There were around 70 missionaries quarantined there in groups of four and after the fourth week, the mission office started sending groups into Germany.

“By all means, no missionaries should have gotten through the border,” Sister Borg said. “It was literally a miracle every single flight.”

Sister Borg’s group, however, never made it to the plane. They came back from the airport and she said she was devastated. The 42 missionaries left were reassigned to serve in England and she expected she would be there for at least a six-week transfer.

After only 10 days, the missionaries were brought back to the MTC, flown to Croatia, spent a week quarantining and a week helping with earthquake relief, then finally flew into Germany.

“Crazily enough, just as my plane landed, Germany changed their policies again and closed their borders to Croatia as well,” Sister Borg said.

She said it is crazy to finally be in Germany. When she was temporarily reassigned to England she thought she would never make it to Germany, “but God doesn’t forget anyone,” she said.

Elder Will Bigelow, right, poses with his companion in front of a church in Bahia Blanca, Argentina where he served before being sent home due to the pandemic. In mid-February, he returned to Argentina almost a year after being sent home. (Jared Bigelow)

Elder Will Bigelow spent a few months serving in Bahia Blanca, Argentina before being sent home during the lockdown. He was reassigned to the Independence Missouri Mission and spent nine months serving there, assuming he would stay there the rest of his mission.

In January 2021, he was given three weeks to prepare to return to Argentina.

Because of heavy travel restrictions in Argentina, only missionaries who had lived in Argentina long enough to establish residency prior to the pandemic are able to return at this time. However, many of the missionaries who served there prior to the pandemic have now completed their missions.

According to Elder Bigelow’s brother Jared Bigelow, only a small group of missionaries who lived in Argentina long enough to establish residency have enough time left in their mission that the Church feels it is worth it to send them back. Because Elder Bigelow still has six months left to serve, he has returned to Argentina almost a year later to complete his mission.

“I think that some part of him was always holding onto the hope that he would get back to Argentina at some point,” Jared Bigelow said.

Jared Bigelow said the pandemic has tested everyone’s ability to cope with unexpected change and “our full-time missionaries are no exception.”

In order to stay positive, Jared Bigelow said Elder Bigelow remembers he can “do what he has been called to do no matter where he is.”

“There is missionary work to be done in Argentina, Missouri and even in our own homes, so missionaries always have the opportunity to make the most of their full-time service,” Jared Bigelow said.

Sister Emma Murdoch poses in front of a church in Chile where she was originally called as a missionary. She was first reassigned to Louisiana due to the pandemic but was recently sent to Chile to finish her mission. (Sister Emma Murdoch)

Sister Emma Murdoch was called to Concepcion, Chile then reassigned to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. About a month and a half ago, her mission president called her to set up a screening to see if she could go to Chile. The next day she got flight plans for Chile and was set to leave three weeks later.

Even with her flight plans, Sister Murdoch was still worried about things that could prevent her from getting to Chile such as the ice storm in the South, COVID-19 tests, and canceled flights.

“But somehow by the grace of God, I was able to make it here,” she said. “I know God needs me here for a purpose right now and I am ready to fulfill that purpose with a willing heart.”

According to Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff, all missionary travel is dependent on local travel restrictions and can change at any moment. Individual missionaries who are eligible to travel will be informed by mission offices.

The Church is closely monitoring world events and making adjustments as needed as they send missionaries out to various missions across the world.

“The safety of our missionaries and those they serve is our top priority,” Woodruff said.

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