Get out your Google Maps because this account of gospel teaching and conversion goes from Germany to Puerto Rico to California to Utah and on to Georgia. It’s a route totaling some 10,000 miles — but one covered instantaneously through technology and digital communications.
In late March, soon after the global COVID-19 pandemic forced missionaries worldwide to shelter in residence, Elder Weston Wardrop of the Germany Berlin Mission received an email from Bowdy Gardner, his former Young Men president in Provo, Utah, who now lives in East Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico.
Gardner asked if the missionary and his companion would like to put isolation time to good use by teaching Jordan Evans, a young man he knew from Corona, California, who had met with missionaries occasionally over the past decade. Evans became acquainted with the Church through one of his best friends and former high school basketball teammate, Ammon Tuimaualuga. The two attended early morning seminary together for a year, and Evans also attended some sacrament meetings.
“My mom is Buddhist and my dad was Catholic, so I was very spiritual growing up and studied all religions trying to figure out what was true to me,” said Evans, who accepted the Internet invite because of Gardner’s past help.
Within a few days, Elder Wardrop, Gardner, Evans and Tuimaualuga — now married and living in Lehi, Utah — came together for missionary lessons via videoconference calls that spanned thousands of miles and nine time zones.
After several weeks of lessons, scriptures and prayers, Evans accepted the invitation to be baptized. With COVID-19 restrictions precluding any baptismal service in a local meetinghouse, Evans instead made his way to Tiumaualuga to be baptized in Utah Lake on May 1.
“I knew for certain this was truly what I wanted to do,” Evans said, “so nothing could get in my way this time to not go through with it.”
The connections continued. Conner Payne, a friend of Elder Wardrop’s who has yet to serve a mission because of health issues, ended up living with Evans after his baptism as both relocated to Georgia to do summer sales. The post-baptism online lessons then linked Elder Wardrop in Germany with Evans and Payne in Georgia.
Learning of this experience harkened me back to a decade earlier, when I was covering Church events and issues for the Deseret News, the Salt Lake City daily newspaper and Church News’ parent publication. In July 2010, I reported on a Missionary Department test program — called “Missionaries on the Internet” — underway in the New York Rochester Mission.
There, a dozen participating missionaries used computers at local meetinghouses or visitors’ centers adjacent to the Church’s several historical sites in the area. When companionships didn’t have scheduled teaching appointments, they could go online — using Facebook, WordPress and Blogger — to follow up on previous contacts, check on referrals or work with members.
I was also reminded of when the Arizona Phoenix Mission joined five other missions in Arizona and Utah in 2013 to help pilot the use of iPads and iPhones and extend online proselyting.
As mission president in Phoenix then, I tracked for several months where our missionaries’ online lessons were being received, charting the locations on a world map. Arizona, Utah, Idaho and California collected a good share of tally marks, but marks were also spread across the United States and throughout the world.
We even had a map mark positioned in the middle of the Indian Ocean; one companionship was teaching a crewman stationed there aboard an aircraft carrier.
Our mission had similar long-distance conversion experiences there, too — one when an elder reached out to a hometown friend in southern Idaho, interacting with and teaching him online. Ultimately, the friend was “passed off” to the local elders serving in his hometown; they helped him through baptism and beyond.
The use of the internet, tablets, smartphones and social media give the collective missionary effort a truly worldwide reach. But success shouldn’t be measured only by global distances. In fact, online efforts can enhance missionaries’ work in their assigned areas as they work in tandem with local leaders and members and link up with them — and their “friends” — online.
Watching and reporting on missionaries using technology and social media over the years has been fascinating and informative, especially as pandemic quarantines and isolation have forced full-time elders and sisters to be more effective in online efforts. It will be equally fascinating to see how techniques refined and learned during the pandemic will mesh and bless as the missionaries return to in-person interactions and teaching opportunities.