At the start of July 2018, President David W. Checketts and his wife, Sister Deborah L. Checketts, arrived to preside over the England London Mission. Friends had told them the three-year assignment to lead, mentor and nurture full-time missionaries would seem like a high-speed train.
And that was more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed the world in early 2020.
When the Checkettses arrived in the mission field they felt they had boarded a train “that was going 100 miles an hour.”
“We did it and it was really hard,” said President Checketts. “But then, just as we thought we were getting on top of what we were doing….”
Sister Checketts stepped in. “It changed track really fast,” she interjected of the global pandemic.
President Checketts agreed. “It veered off, and we were holding on for dear life once again. 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.”
Similar to other missions worldwide, missionaries in the England London Mission found themselves quarantined in their apartments and forced to reimagine missionary work. They, along with the Checkettses, have learned how to proselytize during the pandemic, witnessing many miracles as the work has progressed despite so many obstacles.
Church News podcast: Listen to President and Sister Checketts, with guest host Sister Sheri Dew, discuss missionary work
The Checkettses, who have served almost half of their assignment during the pandemic, remember the initial, dramatic impacts in early 2020. Senior missionaries — 18 couples working in the mission itself and 12 more serving in the London England Temple — were required to return home with only several hours of notice. They packed and left the next day, with the Checkettses driving many of them to the airport for their return flights home.
“It was perfectly quiet in this large mission van,” recalled President Checketts, “and then, through their tears, they started to break out singing the hymns — they were so sad to go.”
Eighteen young missionaries also returned home promptly, due to physical conditions such as diabetes or asthma.
The Checkettses asked the remaining missionaries to come up with a slogan or motto, as they faced long-term quarantines and drastic changes to proselyting processes. The resulting theme: “In the England London Mission, we thrive on opposition — ‘Behold our work is not finished.’”
The latter phrase is the pronouncement of Book of Mormon prophet-missionaries Alma and Amulek in Alma 14:13.
“That came from our missionaries, and it started a period of time where miracles happened left and right,” said President Checketts, noting the faith of determined missionaries and their adjusting to new tools and processes available to help in the work.
Sister Checketts also acknowledged the contributions of whom she called “the British reenforcements” — the some-40 full-time missionaries from the London area who were being sent home from other missions throughout the world and continued their service in the England London Mission.
For her, attitudes and the adaptability of the pandemic-period missionaries mirror a line in the book “Jesus the Christ,” with latter-day Apostle James E. Talmage penning a description of the Savior’s disciples in His time of mortality: “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.”
Added Sister Checketts: “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.”
To aid the missionaries during their quarantining, the Checkettses directed elders and sisters to add a half-hour of exercise to their morning schedule and an hour and a half to be outside their flats each afternoon, getting more exercise and fresh air.
To emphasize unity and sustain involvement, the Checkettses held a missionwide Zoom call nearly every night — talent shows, Preach My Gospel Pursuit games, “Miracle Nights” where missionaries would share their miracles, and — for the final 10 minutes — a bedtime story from Sister Checketts, reading from the likes of C.S. Lewis and others.
“It was a combination of trying to teach, inspire, entertain and comfort,” President Checketts said.
Saturday nights were given to devotionals with guest speakers, with quizzes held the following week on key points from their messages.
Prizes for some of the competitions included a hot pizza delivered to the missionaries’ flat to a temple session with President and Sister Checketts — the latter still to be honored as phased reopenings have limited regular temple access.
Missionaries were allowed to call home twice a week — an allowance that continues today. The Checkettses say the more-frequent and mission-focused conversations have led to numerous instances of baptism and reactivation of members of the missionaries’ immediate and extended families.
President Checketts credits “the inspiration that these missionaries 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.”
With metro London becoming a quasi-ghost town from the start of the pandemic as people sheltered in place, missionaries had to move from the in-person contacting in residential areas, on the streets and in parks and in transportation locations.
Missionaries began to use Facebook to reach out — focusing on updating their profiles, creating and posting new content, and following up and teaching via apps such as Messenger and Whatsapp. Missionaries became “a little more bold, a little more brave” in their online approaches than in-person interactions, using videos and photos as lead-ins, President Checketts said.
“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 post 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.’”
Missionaries found not only friends seeking faith and learning about the Church who had little else to do and were able to visit and learn more frequently, but also members with more around-the-clock availability who were able to join in on virtual lessons via digital technology.
The England London Mission went from averaging 130 to 140 people per week on date for baptism pre-pandemic to 275 to 300 a week at times during the pandemic. “The reason was, we were teaching people, they were paying attention,” said President Checketts, “and it’s like the Savior said, ‘He that hath ears to hear.’ Suddenly they had ears to hear.”
The London mission also turned its popular Fast Sunday evening “Why I Believe” devotionals — held in the Hyde Park Chapel and other local meetinghouses, typically featuring a half-dozen recent converts sharing their conversion stories — into virtual events. The Checkettses also invited guest speakers for these streamed devotionals over Facebook Live, YouTube and Instagram, which have extended well beyond the mission’s physical boundaries.
One such guest was Rev. Andrew Teal, chaplain and lecturer at Oxford University’s Pembroke College, and a good friend of both Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Checkettses.
“We made him the concluding speaker in one of our virtual ‘Why I Believe’ devotionals,” President Checketts said. “That generated 47,000 views in 45 countries.”