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Sarah Jane Weaver: How missionary work and technology are making a large world feel small

Sister Karly Robison and Sister Meg Taylor, missionaries serving at the Nauvoo historic sites, give a virtual tour in front of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Church historic sites have been closed since March 2020. Credit: Courtesy the Nauvoo Historic Sites
Sister Sierra Geertsen films Sister Allie Butler at the Smith Farm and Sacred Grove Historic Site as part of a virtual tour. Virtual tours are being offered at the Church historic sites since being closed to visitors since March 2020. Credit: Courtesy New York and Pennsylvania Historic Sites
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council, speaks June 26 during the 2020 Mission Leadership Seminar. New mission leaders participated in the seminar via technology. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Sister Kimber Young, top center, teaches training missionaries Mandarin Chinese via video conferencing at the Provo Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, missionaries are being trained by remote video conference rather than travel to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 10 missionary training centers. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Sister Kimber Young teaches training missionaries Mandarin Chinese via video conferencing at the Provo Missionary Training Center on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, missionaries are being trained by remote video conference rather than travel to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 10 missionary training centers. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Our family was recently invited to observe, via videoconferencing, the baptism of a very special person.

We had never met this new Latter-day Saint, but felt as though we knew him; we had prayed for him for many months. We followed his journey down the covenant path through our missionary daughter — who was one of many, many young people to teach and testify to him.

He had overcome doubt and fear and committed to living the commandments. He had read and studied the Book of Mormon. And he had asked countless questions — some of which the missionaries answered and some that he sorted out with the support of a faithful, committed branch. His most important questions were answered with the peace that only Heaven can send.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his baptism was sweet and spiritual. A local branch member performed the ordinance, witnessed by the full-time missionaries in the area.

The technology that made it possible for everyone else to watch the baptism did not diminish what we felt. We observed a new member’s testimony and singular act of commitment.

It connected us to him, to his branch, to our daughter (who is no longer even serving in the area), and to other Latter-day Saints.

For one brief moment our Church of almost 16.5 million members felt very small.

At this time when the global pandemic has isolated millions, inspired tools are fostering connection. Local meetings have been broadcast into homes, and the messages of general Church leaders have been broadcast across the globe. Families, once divided by distance, are now participating in “Come, Follow Me” lessons on their devices and computers. Youth groups living thousands of miles from historic sites are taking virtual tours. And missionaries are using social media to “find” people they could not meet otherwise.

COVID-19 did not surprise the Lord, and He will use it to accomplish His purposes, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a 2020 Church News interview. 

Missionary work is one powerful example of this miracle.

As the pandemic intensified almost one year ago — in the face of increasing health risks and nations about to close their borders — Church leaders made the decision to return thousands of missionaries to their home countries. Others quarantined in their missionary apartments for weeks or months. The work continued as young elders and sisters accepted reassignments and reimagined the work.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the Church’s Executive Missionary Council, said leaders learned quickly that it was not enough to ponder only with their heads, but that they also had to ponder with their hearts. The Lord expanded their vision of the great opportunities and possibilities for missionary work to go forward under these stressful circumstances, he said.

The gospel “is a message of peace and hope; it is a message of healing and joy,” said Elder Uchtdorf. “Using technology to share this message with the help of the Spirit is the opportunity of our time.”

The foundations were laid by inspiration months before the pandemic began. In October 2017, Church leaders announced plans to arm the missionary force with smartphones and to increase the use of technology to help find people interested in religion. Leaders announced in February 2019 that missionaries were authorized to communicate with their families each week on preparation day by text messages, online messaging, phone calls and video chats, in addition to letters and emails.

And two years before tens of thousands of missionaries would be reassigned to their home countries, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles emphasized the importance of being “called to the work” rather than being called to a place.

With these perspectives, opportunities and tools, missionaries in one location are finding, teaching and connecting not only with those isolated by the pandemic, but also those once physically out of reach of traditional proselytizing missionaries.

Elder Uchtdorf said in his October 2020 general conference address that even though this pandemic was not wanted or expected, God had prepared His children and His Church for this time. “We will endure this, yes. But we will do more than simply grit our teeth, hold on and wait for things to return to the old normal. We will move forward, and we will be better as a result.”

He concluded with a promise: “God has something unimaginable in mind for you personally and the Church collectively — a marvelous work and a wonder.”

Our family glimpsed this miracle on a recent Saturday afternoon as we witnessed a quiet, sacred baptism — attended by a missionary companionship and a local branch member — but shared via technology with many, many more who love the Lord and His Church and rejoice in every connection to His work.

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