SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — The Fourth of July and Pioneer Day are still months away.
But at this unusual moment around the world, a chilly March afternoon seems an apt day for a “parade” to celebrate the dedication of missionaries.
On Thursday, a steady stream of vehicles crawled through the subdivisions traversing the South Jordan Utah Highland Stake. The sounds of honks and shouts could be heard on several streets as stake members welcomed home their recently returned full-time missionaries.
More than a dozen missionaries from the Highland stake greeted the passing well-wishers from their front porches and living room windows.
Welcoming missionaries home from their labors is a beloved Latter-day Saint tradition. But these are untraditional times. The Highland missionaries were observing strict social distancing practices to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.
A few have concluded their missions. Others are awaiting new assignments and continue to serve as full-time missionaries.
Ideally, the missionaries would be trading handshakes and high-fives with their friends, and fellow stake members who shouted greetings from their vehicles. But the distance did little to mute their enthusiasm and appreciation for Thursday’s creative show of support.
“It’s been great to see everyone from the stake driving by and supporting the missionaries,” said Elder Bryant Hall, who returned yesterday from the Oregon Eugene Mission.
South Jordan Highland Utah Stake President Nathan Evershed said the missionary motorized homecoming tour struck a balance between two timely needs for the elders and sisters whose lives have been dramatically disrupted in recent days: “It’s about maintaining social distancing while avoiding social isolation. We wanted to welcome these missionaries home.”
The motor tour also offered the stake members a much-appreciated opportunity to salute the missionaries and offer their support.
Returning home early “was really hard,” said Kaytlin Telford, who was serving in the Philippines and has been released from missionary service. “My original plan was to think about my life after my mission in June.”
Thanks to technology, President Evershed and other local leaders have been able to maintain close contact with the recently-returned missionaries. He hopes it’s helping the transitioning elders and sisters move past the “emotional whiplash.”
After all, just days ago they were serving in their respective missions, perhaps speaking another language and teaching people they loved.
“We’ve arranged for virtual meetings with these missionaries to talk with them and counsel with them,” he said. “And for those missionaries who have not been released, were maintaining contact. We just had a Zoom meeting with a group of missionaries to help them maintain some kind of normalcy. They are meeting and having discussions with fellow missionaries and talking about what they can do to make this time effective and useful.”
President Evershed and others have counseled the missionaries to adhere to their established daily schedules while remaining in contact with the people that they were working prior to their returns. They continue seeking opportunities to share testimonies with family and friends via social media while scheduling time each day for pondering and journal writing.
“We’ve also talked about performing missionary work for the other side of the veil,” said President Evershed. “The missionaries can’t go to the temple right now, but they can certainly do family history.”
The abrupt changes have marked a challenging disruption for the Highland missionaries. Thousands of their fellow missionaries around the world surely feel the same way.
“But the missionaries,” President Evershed observed, “are also full of faith, hope and anticipation for what there next assignments will be.”
Sister Madisyn Kehl from the Japan Kobe Mission smiled and waved from her front porch as a convoy of vehicles snaked through her subdivision. Many of the motorists lifted “Welcome Home” signs from open windows. A few tossed candy.
Sister Kehl said she plans to follow directions to isolate in her home for a couple weeks. But she’s also eager to return soon to the mission field.
“I hope,” she said, “that I can go back to Japan.”
More examples of missionary homecoming tours
As Sister Brynn Almond stepped out onto her front porch Monday in Santa Clarita, California, she was greeted by dozens of families in their cars, honking their horns and waving hand-made signs as they drove down the street.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Sister Almond had landed in the Los Angeles airport after 10 months in the Philippines Tacloban Mission.
“It was awesome,” said Sister Almond, 19, of the welcome home. “It definitely lifted my spirits and helped me feel better about this whole situation because it’s not easy, especially coming home and being quarantined. It was so nice and I definitely felt the love from my ward family.”
This “drive by” welcome home was something her mother, Sharon Almond, wanted to do to help her daughter feel loved during a difficult time. “It really did boost Brynn. She was really down,” she said. “Her demeanor changed and it put a smile on her face.”
Elder Nathanael Foster, 20, was 14 and a half months into his service in the Washington D.C. South Mission when he received word that missionaries with health issues were being sent home due to COVID-19 concerns.
Just a few hours after arriving home in Gilbert, Arizona, on March 17, Elder Foster was greeted by many members of his extended family who drove by honking their horns and waving signs.
“It was awesome to see just the support of the family and to be able to see all my loved ones after such a long time,” he said. “It was kind of hard holding myself back and not wanting to hug every one of them, but it was great to see them.”
Debbie Beck of the Cincinnati Ohio East Stake said her oldest grandson, Elder Jordan Beck, experienced a similar gathering on his way home from the airport after returning from a mission in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In a park near his home in Cincinnati, “all his friends and families (were) parked in a space, honking their horns, with signs and balloons waving as he drove by and all with only a 24-hour notice.
“Not the normal missionary reunion, but nevertheless a tender mercy and blessing it could all happen this way,” she said.
— Sydney Walker contributed to this report.