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Facing coronavirus travel bans, the Mormon church has chartered jets to bring thousands of missionaries home

Family members cheer as they see Elder Kaleb Preston, who was returning from his mission in the Philippines, at the Salt Lake City International Airport on March 22. After initially chaotic airport scenes, the church later coordinated with local officials to reinforce guidelines for safe airport pick-ups. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP)

When Britain Bashore landed back in Utah last week after nearly two years volunteering as a missionary in the Philippines, the 19-year-old was greeted with little of the public fanfare that at any other time would have marked the occasion.

There were no throngs of extended family members waiting at the bottom of the airport escalators and no parents standing at baggage claim with balloons. Instead, Bashore’s immediate family, careful to follow social distancing guidelines, met him in the parking garage at the Salt Lake City International Airport and ushered him into their Subaru — without his checked luggage, which they abandoned for later rather than risk the crowds.

Bashore was one of some 1,600 Mormon missionaries rushed home to the United States from the Philippines this month on five flights chartered by the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as borders closed and airlines shut routes amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. The arrival of so many missionaries at once led to chaotic scenes at Salt Lake City’s airport, drawing sharp rebuke from state leaders who said families’ behavior violated public health guidelines and put the community at risk. The church later coordinated with local officials to reinforce guidelines for safe airport pick-ups.

The evacuation from the Philippines was only one part of a much broader moment of upheaval within the church’s mammoth global network: the return home of Mormon missionaries on a scale rarely seen in the church’s history. For thousands of missionaries, the coronavirus pandemic has wrought logistical nightmares and disrupted one of the faith’s most cherished traditions.

Often dressed in white button-down shirts and with name tags pinned to their chests, the church’s roughly 67,000 missionaries, hailing from around the world and based in nearly 400 locations, are among the most recognizable Christian evangelists. Although mission work is not mandatory in the church, many young Mormons who opt into the program see the experience as a crucial turning point in their transition to adulthood. (Male members of the church can work as missionaries from the age of 18 and make up the majority of volunteers; women are eligible at 19.) Retired Mormons also commonly volunteer for missionary work.

Some missionaries work in their home countries, and the church has not brought all of its volunteers home. But with mounting concerns and restrictions due to the outbreak, many young missionaries nearing the end of their service have been released from their duties early. Others who have been sent home will be assigned to new posts domestically.

Like many other missionaries, Bashore was stationed in a remote area, in a small town in the Philippines called Manta-angan. He had no smartphone, radio or television and mainly relied on communications from his team leader to stay up-to-date on the news.

He and his roommate, a fellow missionary, were aware of the coronavirus outbreak and took precautions to prepare for a potential lockdown, including stocking up on about a month’s worth of food. But when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced new travel restrictions, Bashore and other missionaries working for the church were sent scrambling to reach Manila and find flights out.

After a hectic journey that included a night sleeping in a sugar cane field and help from police to reach the local airport, Bashore boarded one of the church’s chartered flights — in a first-class seat from Manila to Salt Lake City. Because he only had a few months left in his mission work, he was released from his service and will spend the summer at home before starting classes at Southern Utah University in the fall.

“It was hard to leave and hard to adjust back,” he said. “It was crazy to leave the mission. I did not think I would be coming home.”

Andrew Andrewsen, 19, was among those flown out of Manila in the same cohort as Bashore.

He landed in the Philippines in July and expected to stick out the full two years. But as the outbreak worsened, the situation “got really bad, really fast,” Andrewsen said. A new curfew made his work more complicated, and people he met began to seem fearful of interacting with strangers. He washed his hands more and wore a face mask to protect himself and others, but the restrictions continued to increase, forcing him to leave behind his Philippine counterpart in a rushed goodbye.

“It was hard to leave because, well, once you’re in a place long enough, you find a love for the people,” Andrewsen said. “And even though you don’t want to leave and a part of you just wants to stay, there’s not really anything you can do about it.”

Avery Barnes, 20, took time off from her Spanish studies at Brigham Young University to move to Italy as a missionary in early 2019.

By February of this year, as the coronavirus outbreak spread rapidly across Europe, Barnes understood the situation in Italy was getting worse. She saw local headlines and learned that entire communities were going into lockdown. But she had software installed on her phone that prevented her from checking certain sites and had also been transferred earlier this year to Malta, where life was continuing more normally than in Italy.

But earlier this month, as President Trump announced new rules governing travel from Europe, she was sent home to Los Angeles via London.

It wasn’t until she reached home, she said, that she was “really able to compare [the situation in Italy] with the rest of the world.”

On her long flight home, she said, she mourned her service coming to an end.

She had pictured a different homecoming. As is tradition for many returning missionaries, she would have addressed her congregation on one of her first Sundays back, sharing lessons she had learned abroad. Friends from high school and family members would have gathered to hear her speak.

But with her congregation now closed for in-person services, Barnes doesn’t know when she’ll have the chance to make those remarks.

“It’s a very small thing, but it’s something that makes it feel like I just reverted back to normal life and I don’t get to have a lot of closure,” she said.

Instead, back in L.A., where residents have been ordered to stay home, Barnes is passing the time by helping out with her younger brother’s remote learning. She hopes to eventually find tutoring work and return to campus in Utah next fall.

But with so much about the future uncertain, she said, even some of those plans feel “more just like dreams at the moment.”

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