PROVIDENCE — Jackson Garr was ecstatic when he turned the corner to his Providence street and saw 20 cars lined up, ready to honk and wave in his honor.
Garr had just returned — a year early — from his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission in the Marshall Islands.
The church announced about a month ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread around the world, that its missionaries would be returning to their homes to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
Garr was disappointed and confused when he received notice of his early departure, as there are currently no confirmed coronavirus cases in the Marshall Islands, one of 18 countries with no confirmed cases as of April 3.
“In the Marshall Islands there’s nothing, no coronavirus there, I didn’t know much about coronavirus because they’re pretty isolated out there,” he said. “I found out and thought it was weird that they’d take me from the safest place in the world and put me in America.”
But amidst his disappointment and confusion — Garr was thrilled to stand up through the sun roof of his parents’ car after returning from the Salt Lake City International Airport and see 20 of the neighbors he grew up with honking, waving and cheering him on — in a socially distanced manor.
Upon their return, church missionaries typically deliver a talk in their home ward — a congregation comprised of neighbors — and often host a “welcome home” party, but missionaries returning home during the pandemic are required to enter two weeks of quarantine.
“Part of being a missionary is you get to have the traditional homecoming talk,” said Maurie Garr, Jackson’s mother. “Since we’re not having church, no one is going to be able to see or hear him and they just wanted to support him and tell him they loved him and appreciated him.”
Garr’s celebration was second for the Providence neighborhood — another missionary from their ward returned home a week prior and the neighbors gathered standing six feet apart from each other with signs and balloons.
“I just felt like this was a really easy way for us as members and neighbors to be able to participate and show them that we love them” said Camia Haslam, a neighborhood resident. “We get kind of bored at home so just seeing other people is really great.”
Haslam said another goal of the parades is to show solidarity with the missionaries — young men and women usually between the ages of 18 and 22 — who had to return home before they were ready, often with little notice.
“This has to be a really hard time in a missionary’s life to be out serving the Lord and then the next day, ‘hey, you’re going home, it’s time for you to go home,'” she said. “That’s a hard thing to grasp, especially when you’re trying to learn a language, you’re trying to teach the gospel and then all of a sudden you’re going home.”
While missionaries and their neighbors wish they could have had a traditional get-together, several said the drive-by parades will be a unique memory once the pandemic has calmed down and missionaries are able to have traditional celebrations.
“Different traditions for different times,” said Brett Johnson, whose son recently returned home from a mission in Kenya. “They’ll be the only generation with a home-honking.”
Others said coming home in the midst of a pandemic and an economic crisis are two extra difficulties on top of the adjustments missionaries normally face, and the parades help them feel welcomed back to “normal life.”
“It was just important that they knew that we loved them, that touch of home that they came home to the people that really raised them and that we wanted them to know that we knew they were home and to wish them well,” said Jenniece Beckstrand, of another Providence neighborhood. “It’s a really hard time for these kids to come home, just to come home to normal circumstances is hard, this has got to be really hard.”