Returning Latter-day Saint missionaries reconcile early returns, adjustments to life

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2013 file photo, missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walk through the halls at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

PROVIDENCE – Saige Cooper was angry when she received a text message from her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission president.

The text ordered her to pack her bags — as she would be leaving her Santa Rosa, Calif. mission within the week.

Cooper, of Providence, did not understand the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic, as Latter-day Saint missionaries do not have access to news or non-church media.

“I didn’t understand why this was happening,” Cooper said. “Being sheltered, we didn’t really understand how bad corona was because we were inside all the time, no news or anything, so we didn’t understand what was going on and why it was important enough for us to get sent home.”

Although her release was considered “honorable,” Cooper said the stigma surrounding missionaries who return home early — involving swirling rumors about potential mistakes or questions about a missionary’s church worthiness — has bothered her.

“I was just upset that I couldn’t finish out my mission because there’s this stigma of going home early,” she said. “I was pretty mad at first but I realized I’d rather be at home quarantined with my family than spending and making the last three months of my mission memories sitting inside an apartment.”

Cooper was one of thousands of missionaries returning home early from their missions after the COVID-19 outbreak has shaken every aspect of society.

“We were surprised,” said Nicholas Chambers, of Wellsville. “We kind of thought it was a joke at first.”

Chambers served his mission in the Philippines for 21 months — just three months short of a typical mission term of service for young men.

The news that he needed to pack his belongings came in the morning. By the evening, Chambers was out of his house and staying with a local Latter-day Saint family.

“We didn’t know when we were supposed to leave or what airport,” Chambers said. “We were kind of just waiting, trying to figure out what the plan was.”

As he began his 14 days of isolation, as is required of all missionaries returning home for the foreseeable future, Chambers said the adjustment from a full-time, structured religious mission to a world of uncertainty is “strange.”

“As a missionary, you’re so focused on other people and focused on trying to help the people you’re teaching, when you come home I guess you’re more focused on how you can try to grow yourself,” Chambers said. “I don’t think I’m ready for that next step but it’s kind of a good way to throw yourself back into society.” Chambers hoped to look for a job after his two-week isolation period ended, but expects a difficult time given many businesses are closed or not in financial shape to hire.

While missionaries struggled to make sense of the news and rapidly-changing adaptations, several missionary parents said they were sad — yet relieved — to have their children home and safe.

“We were probably a little bit relieved to knowing he’d be able to come home and be in a safe place,” said Brian Chambers, Nicholas’ father. “We knew whether he stayed in the Philippines or came home he’d be protected, but we took comfort in knowing he’d be able to come home.” 

The elder Chambers also said the news came as less of a surprise to him, as he has followed the coronavirus crisis news carefully.

“We were not surprised, we had been following the virus and the pandemic and the different countries and things that were being impacted by it so we weren’t surprised,” Chambers said after receiving a message from his son that he would be flying into the Salt Lake City International airport just a few days after receiving the news.

Don Guyman, of West Bountiful, said his son, who is serving in Pittsburgh, Pa. was set to come home in August and will now return in May. 

The unexpected time shortage was the hardest part for their family, Guyman said.

“I was kind of sad because I know he’s really loved his mission and I could tell he was disappointed because it was kind of sudden,” Guyman said. “As a missionary, you know you’re going to be coming home around a certain month and that sudden, final ‘hey this is the end and it’s earlier than you thought it was going to be’ is hard to process.”

While families shared mixed emotions about their experiences, all said they recognized the decision was in the best interest of everyone involved.

“It was nice to come home but it was sad leaving the people,” Cooper said.

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