Some of the most memorable reports of how the global COVID-19 pandemic affected The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revolve around missionary work. Elders and sisters in the England London Mission responded to the constraints brought on by COVID-19 — including quarantining in their flats — with creativity and determination. Mission President David Checketts and his companion, Sister Deborah Checketts, have served nearly half of their three-year leadership assignment during the global pandemic.
While the struggles have been difficult, the blessings have been bountiful, they report. In this episode of the Church News podcast, they are joined by their friend and guest host Sister Sheri Dew as they discuss preaching during the pandemic and the miracles they witnessed as the work moved forward in spite of COVID-19.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”
Some of the most memorable reports of how the COVID-19 global pandemic has affected The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revolve around missionary work. During the pandemic, missionaries in the England London Mission quarantined in their apartments, and with other full-time elders and sisters across the globe, reimagined the work.
President David Checketts and his wife, Sister Deborah Checketts, have led the England London Mission since July 2018, including during the last year defined by the COVID-19 global pandemic. In this episode of the Church News Podcast, President and Sister Checketts have a conversation with their friend Sheri Dew about missionary work in England, preaching during the pandemic and the many miracles they saw as the work moved forward in spite of so many obstacles. Today, we are so excited to sit back and listen to a conversation about missionary work in the pandemic between the three of them for this episode of the Church News Podcast.
Sister Sheri Dew: President David W. Checketts and Sister Debbie Checketts have been leading the London England Mission for nearly three years now. Prior to leaving on their mission, they lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, where President Checketts served as a bishop and also was president of the Yorktown New York Stake; and Sister Checketts served in a Stake Relief Society presidency, as a ward Young Women president, as a seminary teacher; and of course, they've both given just loads of service for a long, long period of time.
President Checketts has had a very distinguished high profile career. But that is probably the subject for another day. We'll hope they'll talk to us about that at some other time. I only want to say that I first met the young Dave Checketts and his wife, Debbie, when then-Dave Checketts was named the president and general manager of the Utah Jazz and at the time, he was, I think ,the youngest NBA team president ever, he may still be the youngest one ever. The Jazz, and the little company that I worked for happened to have had the same owner, and so for a while, we both reported to the same man. And then there was a period of time when I actually reported to Dave Checketts. So, it has been a true blessing for me to call President and Sister Checketts friends for a long, long time now.
Welcome, President and Sister Checketts. We're so grateful that you would talk to us today.
Sister Debbie Checketts: Thank you. It's nice to hear your voice. Sheri.
President David Checketts: Thank you, Sheri. We do go way, way back and I'm amazed that that you still have faith in the workplace after that time with me.
Sister Sheri Dew: I thought you were going to say, “I'm amazed (that) you're so old and you're still able to work.” That's what I thought was actually coming.
President David Checketts: No, we're both getting up there, but those were good days.
Sister Sheri Dew: Boy, it feels like a lifetime ago, but it's been fun to cheer you on from a distance for all these years, and we've had the chance, since you've been in London leading this mission for nearly three years now, we've had the chance several times to talk. And so, let's talk about the very unique experience you've had. I think being a mission president and wife of a mission president is always a unique experience, but oh my goodness, these last three years have really been something. So just to start, you've been in London now for nearly three years, and when I think about it, by the time you leave at the end of June of this year, almost half of your mission will have been during a global pandemic. At times, London's been hit hard. We've seen the reports of just how strict it's been there. Talk to us about the impact the pandemic has had on your missionaries, on missionary work. Give us a flavor for what you've experienced.
President David Checketts: Well, if anything, Sheri, I'll go first, It's been faith-producing beyond anything we can quite describe. When we received word, our missionaries, our senior missionaries, eighteen couples that were working in our mission and twelve others that were working in the temple, all were required to go home with about two hours of notice. They packed and then left the next day, and we drove them to the airport, many of them. It was perfectly quiet in this large mission van,aAnd then through their tears, they started to break out singing the hymns, they were so sad to go. Along with them, 18 missionaries from our mission, a very large mission, had to go home because of emotional or physical challenges like diabetes and asthma. They had to just get on their way, no choice in the matter, they had to fly home.
We gathered the rest of our missionaries, who were really very afraid of what we were about to go through, and this set of missionaries, we asked them to come up with, in addition to our mission purpose, we asked him to come up with a slogan, with a motto that we could use, a rallying cry during this time, and what they came up with was, "In the England London Mission, we thrive on opposition. “Behold, our work is not finished,” which is Alma 14:13, Alma and Amulek talking about how they were not going to let anything stop them. That came from our missionaries, and it started a period of time where miracles happened left and right, bringing people into the Church, partly caused by a global pandemic and the uncertainty and fear that it created in the people we were teaching, certainly, but part of it just because of the increase in faith that these missionaries were not going to give up, and they had suddenly new tools available to help them.
Sister Sheri Dew: Incredible, I mean, really. Sister Checketts, what do you want to add to that?
Sister Debbie Checketts: You know, we were really fortunate that we got to keep most of our missionaries, and then eventually we got, we call them “the British enforcements,” so missionaries that were sent home to England, we got about 40 of them that were reassigned, that was was really wonderful. They were amazing. The missionaries, they didn't know what to do. They didn't know what to do, and they really turned to us. And I found this in “Jesus the Christ” last week, and it reminds me so much of the missionaries during the beginning of the pandemic. It's (James E.) Talmage describing the disciples, and he said, “they were children to be trained and taught, but they were mostly willing people, receptive of soul, and imbued with a sincere eagerness to serve. To Jesus, they were his little ones, his children, his servants, and his friends.” And that has been so true of our missionaries during the pandemic. It has forged a relationship with them and a friendship with them, because they were so eager and willing to do whatever they were asked to do, because we didn't know what to do.
Sister Sheri Dew: So in those early days, then, again, you're all trying to figure out, “what do we do next?” What leadership, what guidance do we give these young missionaries, who are suddenly confined largely to their flats? So how would you describe that first part, where you're trying to figure out what comes next?
President David Checketts: Well, we knew that what comes next was life in a flat, they were going to have to stay inside. We redesigned the missionary schedule and put a half an hour of exercise in the morning, and then gave them an hour and a half in the afternoon to get out of their flat and exercise and breathe the fresh air. And then we started, to put it mildly, we started unifying and entertaining them because we literally had a missionwide Zoom call almost every night, every night of the week except for Sunday. We would do talent shows, we did Preach My Gospel Pursuit, which was basically a game show, with the assistance of the MCs and zones competing to see who could answer questions from Preach My Gospel, with the prize being that the leading, zone when the temple reopened, and it's still not opened, when the temple reopened, the prize was we would take them to the temple for lunch in the temple cafeteria and a full session in the temple with President and Sister Checkketts. And this went on for a year. This Preach My Gospel Pursuit had its own music, Jeopardy music we used and big pictures and crazy prizes. And then on other nights of the week we would do miracle nights where missionaries would share their miracles.
Sister Debbie Checketts: And the last 10 minutes, we would read a bedtime story to them. In the beginning, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” “The Magician's Nephew,” from C.S. Lewis
President David Checketts: He’s from Oxford.
Sister Debbie Checketts: Anyway, so we were trying to comfort them, and help with the boredom and break things up for them and their talents were very clever, lots of fun and lasted for a long time. And then Saturday night, of course, Sheri, you were part of one of our,
President David Checketts: our Saturday night devotionals here are legendary, because we have so many amazing speakers. And then on the following Friday night there were ten questions from the speaker the previous Saturday night. Again, you could earn crazy prizes, like hot pizza delivered to your flat. It was a combination of trying to teach, inspire, and entertain, and comfort.
Sister Sheri Dew: ThAndat probably a lot of the comfort was just feeling like helping them feel like, “Okay, you're not alone. You're not in this alone, you can do this keep going, we're gonna learn as we go.” So it feels like you created amazing connection.
Sister Debbie Checketts: They were so willing, they just were so willing and sincere, and I do think it created a lot of connection. And then we also allowed them to call home twice a week, and that is still actually in place because we're still quite locked down.
President David Checketts: A lot of our missionaries use it for preparation day, a call which they always have. But in addition to that, a lot of them use it as a Sunday call to call their families and actually have Come, Follow Me, or another kind of service from it, and as a result, we've had parents baptized, grandparents baptized, siblings that have decided to go on missions, and the inspiration that these missionaries can can create in their homes, if they will call and share a miracle or share a scripture that they've learned from or an experience that they've had with their families on Sunday, that's been just a phenomenal blessing.
Sister Sheri Dew: So one of the things that started to happen, did it not, is that you started looking at, and having to look at other ways to proselytize, certainly digitally and using technology. What did you start to learn? I know I've heard you say before some of the remarkable ways that you started learning how to spread the word. Talk to us about that.
President David Checketts: Well, I always say that as the barriers came up, in other words, we could no longer talk to anyone on the street, we could no longer knock on doors, we couldn't stop people in train stations or tube stops. I mean, actually, London really looked like a ghost town for the first month of this pandemic, but what happened was a number of other ways opened up to us. So missionaries started to use Facebook, they started to really focus on their profiles, and then we were amazed that they as they came up with very clever ways to create content and to post content and to get people to notice their content and to send them notices or to follow them, and these missionaries then, of course, would use their devices for Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp or all of these various tools available to us, they started to teach people.
Sister Debbie Checketts: And they also were able to include more members in their teaching because there were no barriers, two elders could include a members of the Relief Society presidency on their online teaching, and of course, a lot of Facebook, video teaching, and it was really a blessing to include the members and the youth, because there weren't the restrictions with the youth to help them in their lessons.
President David Checketts: It kind of took as our inspiration of scripture in Helaman that says that they were baptizing and uniting people, and that's what we decided we could do. People were home, they couldn't go to work, they had lots of time that they ordinarily did not have. The number of people that we taught in Spanish during this time was extraordinary. One set of missionaries, at one point, had 26 people on date in one area. That had never happened in the mission history that I can find, and the reason they had 26 people on date was these Spanish people who normally were working around the clock to take care of their families couldn't work. They were there, they were at home, they were available for a lesson, they wanted to hear more. There's been a tremendous increase in fear in the world, and people looking for faith and looking for meaning, and our missionaries have walked right into those circumstances where people were bored and had lots of time, and they were able to teach, and as a result, at one point in the mission, a mission that averages about 130-140 people a week that are on date for baptism; suddenly, we had 275, 300 people at one point. And the reason was, we were teaching people, they were paying attention, and it's like the Savior said, “He that hath ears to hear.” Suddenly, they had ears to hear.
Sister Sheri Dew: Have you detected anything or learned anything about, I mean, again, your missionaries have been operating in most unique circumstances, and that taps right back to your mission slogan that you came up with, your rallying cry, if you will. Have you learned anything about what makes some of those missionaries thrive in this kind of environment? Are there other intangibles that you can point to?
President David Checketts: It's a great question, Sheri. I think, actually, it's kind of the same principle as to why social media is changing the world, and that is that the missionaries who really had a hard time stopping people on the street, or really were quite socially anxious to knock on doors, were nervous about that —iIt's been much easier for them to do this work, and much less downside. So they have gotten a little more bold, a little more brave in their approach. And we've had some missionaries that, I think in the old environment, would not have thrived, but have thrived here because they're clever enough to produce a video or produce a picture. You know, they post a sunset, and talk about God's creations, and how grateful they are for all of the blessings that a gracious Heavenly Father has given them. Or they posted a picture of themselves standing next to the Christus in the Hyde Park Chapel and say, “He means everything to me. Message me to know why.” Just little things like that, where the anxiety around meeting a stranger or talking to them was really hard for them before, in the new environment, they did really, really well.
The other thing that I'll just mention briefly is we've had a complete miracle with the firesides and devotionals that we've held every fast Sunday, we are holding them live. We call it “Why I Believe” and it's a testimony of six or seven converts that have been baptized in the last month, and they're very popular when we've done them live in Hyde Park Chapel or in any of the other chapels in our mission. We turn them virtual and we spice them up with musical numbers done by virtual missionary groups. And we've added the converts, but we've done other things like bring speakers in that that would be meaningful to people, including Reverend Andrew Teal, from the Church of England, Pembroke College at Oxford, a chaplain, a lecturer for the Church of England, a good friend of Elder Holland and a great friend of ours as well. And we made him the concluding speaker in one of our virtual “Why I Believe” devotionals. That generated 47,000 views in 45 countries.
Sister Sheri Dew: Oh, my goodness.
President David Checketts: And it costs exactly zero to broadcast. I mean, we were using, when we did that, Sheri, we were using telephones, they were our cameras. That's how we were recording all the testimonies, and then on a laptop, we would compile it all together and broadcast on Facebook Live. It's now also on YouTube, and live on Instagram.
Sister Sheri Dew: I just love this. I'm thinking, “Oh, I'd love to watch that.” When you invited these guests, what do you think the impact was for them to be invited into this opportunity, but now they're speaking to missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not the Church of England. What was the reaction?
Sister Debbie Checketts: Well, he was the only non-member that we had, the rest have been members. Reverend Teal is a good friend of the Church and very familiar with the Church. He just loves the missionaries. And I think he was marvelous that night, he was really marvelous that night.
President David Checketts: It was especially special, because here was this chaplain for the Church of England who had agreed at Elder Holland’s invitation to go to BYU for a sabbatical. But when the virus first started in January, he went to the Oxford Ward. He stood in front of them and announced he was going to BYU in September of last year for a sabbatical. And in front of the whole ward, he said, “I think because I'm going to BYU on this sabbatical, I should live the Honor Code.” So he pulled out a copy of the Honor Code in front of the congregation in the Oxford Chapel, and signed the Honor Code, and then that was in January. In March, he and his wife both got COVID. His wife got very, very ill. She was hospitalized. He recovered in a short period of time, and he testified to all those who had listened, he actually testified that when he asked the doctors, “Look, we live in the same house, we eat the same food, why did I recover so quickly, and my wife is still struggling?” And he was told the reason was (that) he did not drink, he didn't drink coffee, tea, alcohol, he didn't get dehydrated, which is one of the ways to really introduce COVID into your body and its complications. So he was told caffeine dehydrates the body, alcohol dehydrates the body, and they aid and abet COVID’s entrance into the body. And so he gave the credit to his living the Word of Wisdom for his quick recovery.
Sister Sheri Dew: Oh, my goodness, that's beautiful. I mean, it's just beautiful. Okay, with everything you've seen of your missionaries, if you had all of their parents sitting in front of you, what would you say to them about their young men and young women, their sons and daughters?
Sister Debbie Checketts: You struck a nerve. I can't talk. I would thank them, first of all, I would thank them for teaching their children the value of work. I would thank them for preparing their children, and I would tell them that they have been so brave and so willing, and so earnest to try new things, because we just keep trying new things. We just keep trying and trying, and they're so willing and they give us such incredible feedback. This is a marvelous generation, a very tolerant and kind generation and they teach us over and over again the value of sticking with people that are very hard up on their luck. And we just think they're incredible. The Church is in really, really good hands.
President David Checketts: I would tell their parents that the stripling warriors had nothing on this generation. The courage that they've shown, and the love for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the desire to serve, in spite of COVID, will always be our testimony of this time period. And they have been faithful, they have been obedient. There's been a few that have melted down and just felt like they couldn't do it. They couldn't be in the flat that long, they had to go home, we've done our best to get them home, but we've had some that we couldn't get home. We had a young man from Venezuela, his family fled from Venezuela before COVID. And now this young man finished his mission and we couldn't get him to Venezuela or to the place where his family had fled to, so here he was serving in his 31st month, when we finally figured out we could get a student visa and send him to the US. But through that all, we just kept assigning him tough assignments, brand new missionaries, the training, he never complained. He wanted to see his family, but he never once complained. And we just had a Zoom call with him the other night to hear about his engagement to a woman that he's met in the U.S. He still hasn't seen his family. It's now well over three years, for him. And we've got a sister from Samoa that we finally think we have an answer to get her home. But she's already served 26 months, and she's just been there and amazing. So there's story after story after story of courage, of patience and perseverance, of learning new skills, of overcoming doubts, and of spiritual outpouring and testimony and faith.
Sister Sheri Dew: I’m going to ask you just a couple more questions, time’s going by. So let me wind down to a couple final questions. One of them is this: You've both, in very different spheres, had the opportunity to give lots of leadership in your life. President Checketts, you've had a very distinguished career, your wife has given tons of leadership as well. But I've always believed from observation, having never done it, that leading together a mission is a completely different experience. Is that right, or how would you describe it and contrast it with other kinds of leadership that you've given?
President David Checketts: Well, it is completely different. We will celebrate, in June, our 44th wedding anniversary, and we've had, as you say, leadership experiences in the Church — as a bishop, Deb was really involved with me. There were so many things I couldn't tell her and couldn't discuss with her. But she was so dear to counsel with me about things that I was struggling with as a young bishop of a residential ward there in Salt Lake City.
As a stake president in Connecticut, she was equally involved and so helpful, but this is different because we really are co-mission leaders, and that took an adjustment for us but I think we've done it and I cannot even describe how grateful I am for the way that she has led the missionaries, and she's interviewed them just like I have, even though it's not required of the mission presidents’ companion. She's interviewed, she's focused on health and family and personal items which has allowed me to interview about the work and cheer missionaries on to do the work. I just think it's been great. If I go off to work the second day we're home, if I go off to New York City to work, I'm not sure I know what to do without her.
Sister Debbie Checketts: I think she's also asking you about the leading companies.
President David Checketts: And well, this is so different because you have these volunteers. We have had missionaries from over 54 countries, and the languages, the dialects — even today in a zone conference, we were having just the number of accents, even in England, we have four or five different areas and different accents in the British Isles. So, this is very different. These people are here of their own volition, they've sacrificed a great deal to be here. And they want to do well, they want to change the world. As Deb said, they are tolerant, they do not want to have a fight with most of the social issues that are on the table in so many places in the world. So we are teaching people of every walk of life, of every ethnic background, social, economic, England's borders are open to everyone, and we teach and baptize people from all over. Name a country, we've baptized someone from there. But these are spiritual people who find Jesus Christ and and want to be baptized, and then we will baptize them.
Sister Debbie Checketts: But maybe I can tie it up, because in terms of leadership, as I've seen Dave leading the Church, we'll put that aside, but you know, have had leadership positions in the world. The one thing that clearly comes to him, and he reminds me all the time: This is His work. This is His work. We're not helping anybody else,it is the Lord's work. And I have loved watching President Checketts, watching Dave remind me of that, and remind our missionaries that this is His work. And I think that really has affected his leadership, knowing that, it's changed the way he has led in other ways, I've seen him lead in other positions that he’s had.
President David Checketts: It’s relevant because we have talent, and when I have built teams, I try to put the best teams together. And I try to put teams together that can play well enough to win. So there has to be chemistry. And there is chemistry that we work on among companionships and districts and zones. So that's applicable. But to Deb's point, it's the Lord's work, and when we've ever tried to wrestle it away, and do it our way, it fails. And then when we get back into the stream to say “Thy will, not ours, thy will, oh, Lord. Take this, help us. Show us the way.” He is there in power and great blessings.
Sister Sheri Dew: So that segues beautifully to the last question, which is just this: You know things today you didn't know three years ago, and you could probably have spent the entire time talking about that. But just tell us one thing that each of you know today that you did not know this time in 2018.
Sister Debbie Checketts: For me, I don't think that I could ever believe that I had the capacity to feel the Savior's love for others, for so many, many people. It is so powerful. That when you stand and you look at each and every missionary and you feel this love, it's incredibly overwhelming. And I don't think I ever believed I had that capacity. I think, for me, that's the one thing.
President David Checketts: There's so many things, as you say, Sheri, that I could call on, but I have always known that the power of heaven, it comes from Jesus Christ's Atonement, it is known as grace, and I have always known that His grace is sufficient, but I have never felt it the way I have felt it here and seen it change lives in such a powerful way, and I'm talking about our lives, and our missionaries’ lives, let alone in the world. The grace and mercy and power of Jesus Christ, His Atonement, the way that He leads and blesses the Church, it is so overwhelming. And when you are living it, and being in that stream, as I call it, you just never want to get out. I really think it will be a jolt for us when we have to stop, because they told us we were going to climb on a high speed train. And we came to the mission, a train that was going 100 miles an hour, and we did and it was hard. But then, just as we thought we were getting on top of what we were doing,
Sister Debbie Checketts: It changed track really fast.
President David Checketts: It veered off, and we were holding on for dear life once again. So we have been so humbled, so sanctified, so blessed, and it is a real power. It's a power that shows you God's love for those who are striving to gather Israel.
Sister Sheri Dew: President and Sister Checketts, we can't thank you enough for spending all this time with us. You've given us a peek behind the curtain of the London England Mission, but even more, thank you for your testimonies. Thank you for your examples, and just thank you for your service and for blessing us today and giving us a chance to feel a little bit of what you have experienced in a most dramatic, dynamic way. We love you and we thank you.
President David Checketts: Thank you so much, Sheri. We love you. We're so grateful for your friendship and sisterhood to us through the years.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.