Smoke billowed out of a fourth-floor window of temple patron housing as the sun set and dusk crept over Santo Domingo. It was March of 2020 and scores of mission presidents around the world had just been instructed to send all their missionaries back to their home countries. My husband Bret and I had been serving as mission leaders in the Santo Domingo East Mission and were in the process of sending our beloved non-native missionaries home, while the Dominican missionaries who had been evacuated from 40 different missions were now returning, with the caveat that they must spend two weeks in quarantine.
But now they were pouring out of the temple patron housing and mingling in the parking lot. Armed guards that the government had provided to make sure the Church complied with the quarantine left their rifles dangling limply at their hips, not knowing how to stop the spread of COVID-19 as almost a hundred elders and sisters spotted friends they had not seen since they left on their missions and greeted them with high fives and hugs. No one had grabbed a mask as they obeyed the screaming fire alarm and exited the building.
My husband and I looked on in alarm from our apartment next door, knowing that the Dominican government had made a rare exception to their quarantine policy by allowing the Church to quarantine the returning missionaries in temple patron housing rather than sending them to the state-run holding cells they provided for other citizens who were returning because of the pandemic. Bret and I didn’t know if we should be more worried about the smoking building, losing the trust of the Dominican government, or the health of all these missionaries unabashedly risking the spread of the COVID virus.
“Who is responsible for these missionaries?” I asked my husband, feeling compassion for whoever had to deal with this situation.
We didn’t have long to ponder the answer to that question, as the next morning the telephone rang: “Brother and Sister Smith,” a member of the area presidency inquired. “Would you be willing to be in charge of all the evacuated missionaries who are returning to Santo Domingo? We have 90 missionaries in quarantine right now. This group will stay for two weeks and then we will have more groups coming in.” Suddenly we became responsible for the 90 missionaries we had seen mingling in the parking lot, and who knew how many more might arrive later.
We were not naïve to the challenge we were being asked to take on. We would have to convince the missionaries to stay in their small hotel-like rooms, although many of them were only a bus ride away from their friends and families. In addition, they were still missionaries, so they would have to act like missionaries while also complying with quarantine protocols. Plus, they would be subject to boredom, and to top it off, they had not been trained to use smartphones to do missionary work. They weren’t even allowed to meet face to face to receive training.
Another concern haunted us: One of the things missionaries frequently ask one another when they compare their missionary experience is, “What was your mission president like? Was he strict or lenient?” These returning missionaries had served in 40 different missions and had been accustomed to 40 different mission cultures. We feared the ones who left their rooms without permission and inadvertently set off the fire alarm that caused the mass exodus from the building may not be willing to comply with the government’s restrictions or the mission rules. We needed to establish a culture of obedience and do it quickly.
In addition to keeping missionaries who were strangers to us safe and focused, Bret and I still had our own missionaries to care for, missionaries who were dealing with fear and loss as their companions gradually returned to their home countries. They mourned as our mission dwindled from 200 missionaries to 100 then to 50 and eventually to less than 20.
As daunting as this situation seemed, we had endured trials even more complex than this during our time as mission presidents and the Lord had guided us through them. We clung to a teaching we frequently repeated to our missionaries, “You’ve seen miracles in the past. and you will see them in the future. God is a God of miracles.” My husband and I knew our response to the area president before he had even been asked: “We are happy to be of help.”
Establishing the Culture
The crisis in temple patron housing had started when a group of elders left their rooms (in spite of instructions to the contrary), went to the fourth floor to do their laundry, and then overstuffed the dryer causing it to catch fire. This same group had used the smartphones they were provided upon arriving to contact sister missionaries who were also quarantined in the building in an attempt to socialize. We decided the missionaries needed to be trained on the proper use of smartphones as soon as possible.
The Church provides excellent training for missionaries who use technology in their missions. The missionaries who have been trained in technology learn skills that will bless them for their entire lives. The majority of the missionaries in our care, however, had served in countries where smartphones and tablets were not used. Like our missionaries in the Dominican Republic, they served in crowded areas and walked around neighborhoods, greeting people on the sidewalks and on the porches in front of their homes. They taught under trees and in parking garages. They passed by to check on their investigators daily, and they set appointments in person. The phones they used were little flip phones we called “maquitos” and were also nicknamed “dumb phones.”
The first thing Bret and I did was gather up all the smartphones and replace them with “dumb phones.” Then we scrambled to go through all the missionary department’s technology training ourselves. Because Bret and I were not adept at social media, the missionary department connected us with a social media expert to help us create our own Facebook page and show us how to teach with technology. We printed out the Church’s training on using technology, slipped the instructions under the doors where the missionaries were being quarantined, and assured them that once they demonstrated how to use this powerful tool, their smartphones would be returned.
Within 24 hours, there were missionaries who had practically memorized the technology training—there was very little to keep them occupied in their cramped rooms, and they were beyond eager to get their smartphones back. As the old saying goes, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” so we were equally eager to return the phones. Now that they had smartphones and knew how to use them, they could focus on their purpose as missionaries and teach, even in quarantine.
Too Many Hours to Fill
As all missionaries know, teaching is the fun part of missionary work. Finding people to teach is the hard part. While our quarantined missionaries filled as many hours as they could teaching, we had to help them find productive ways to fill the rest of their time while cooped up in their small space.
We received permission from the Dominican government to let them out of their rooms as companionships one at a time to walk around the temple grounds and get some exercise and fresh air. We created a rotating schedule where twice a day, missionaries from each room could take turns viewing the gorgeous flowers, smelling fresh-cut grass, and sitting under the shade of a giant mahogany tree.
Zoom became our most-used app as we trained and communicated with the missionaries remotely. We broke the large groups into smaller groups so we could interact with each missionary. Every day we had Zoom devotionals with the quarantined missionaries, and with our own missionaries who were not yet able to return to their home countries. Without knowing the quarantined missionaries beforehand, we chose district leaders, sister training leaders, and zone leaders. We trained these new leaders remotely and taught them to follow up on the training we had provided for their peers.
Because fear and boredom could cause tremendous anxiety, we kept the missionaries as focused as possible. Some missionaries developed mental health symptoms while in quarantine, and so a counselor was provided. When they weren’t studying or receiving training or teaching investigators, we encouraged appropriate means of relaxation. We printed off coloring pages designed for adults and bought puzzles to distribute.
New Creatures in Christ
We did not discourage the missionaries from calling the friends they had left behind to serve their missions. We encouraged them to use the skills they had developed as missionaries to teach their friends. This proved mutually beneficial as it gave the missionaries an opportunity to embrace their new identity as servants of the Lord in front of their friends, which will hopefully encourage them to continue to claim that identity upon returning home.
The Church’s technology training encouraged missionaries to “clean up” their Facebook pages and to use their existing Facebook friends to find and teach. This was often a watershed moment for the missionaries: their profile on Facebook declared how they wanted the world to see them, so changing their profile picture, erasing any offensive content, and posting inspirational messages created a bold statement that, indeed, these young men and women were new creatures in Christ.
Just as we had promised, our new quarantined missionaries saw miracles during those two weeks in isolation. Once they understood the purpose of their smartphones was to do missionary work, they embraced this new method of teaching. Many of them were concerned about the people they had been teaching when they were abruptly evacuated from the countries where they served. With their smartphones, they could continue teaching the very same people they had left days earlier. Very often the investigators were also restricted to their homes because of the pandemic and were delighted at the opportunity to continue learning.
While we were hoping simply to keep them safe and focused, the missionaries grew in ways we never anticipated. One sister approached Bret toward the end of her quarantine and asked for an interview.
“I was not able to have an exit interview with my previous mission president,” she explained. “I was wondering if I could have it with you.”
During the interview, Bret asked her how she had felt about her time in quarantine. Her response startled him.
“It was one of the best parts of my mission,” she exclaimed. Bret was eager to hear how this could possibly be.
“Throughout my whole mission, I have been praying for patience. I struggled and struggled and then we ended up in quarantine where I was forced to exercise patience. I felt like the Lord was giving me a chance to show that I had grown in the very way I had asked. I have actually been patient this whole time, and it is a sweet victory for me,” the sister missionary said.
Bret and I rejoiced as not a single one of our beloved quarantine missionaries ever tested positive for COVID-19 during their time in the temple patron housing. We returned every group safely to their homes or to their new assignment. Many were reassigned to our mission, and we began to rebuild the Santo Domingo East Mission with all Dominican missionaries—missionaries who, like ourselves, believed in miracles and would go on to experience many more.