A large group of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) departed the Marshall Islands and Kiribati Saturday on a specially chartered Fiji Airways aircraft — a response to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.
Approximately 50 LDS missionaries boarded the flight in Majuro, which followed a similar number getting on the flight in Tarawa, capital of Kiribati. The flight was returning the missionaries to the United States.
The LDS church operates multiple churches in the Marshall Islands, including two “stakes” on Majuro and Ebeye islands, which require at least 4,000 members each to be formally recognized by the Utah-based church.
Elder Percival, one of the departing young missionaries, summed up the feelings of many: “I am so sad that I am leaving the Marshall Islands on short notice, and I want thank each Marshallese individual for their help on my Marshallese (language).”
The LDS departure sparked an outpouring of comment on social media among Marshall Islanders and local residents, virtually all of it wishing the missionaries a safe trip and hopes for their return in the future.
“These are missionaries who are going home to their families because of the Covid-19 (pandemic),” said LDS church member Hirobo Obeketang, who manages the Marshall Islands Resort.
He said church leaders recently made a decision that there would be no activities in church buildings or large gathering areas as a precaution against Covid-19. “All church activities are made at each family’s home (to) coincide with the restriction made worldwide on prevention of spreading of the virus,” he said.
For some people working in the Marshall Islands, this western Pacific nation seems safer than their own countries. Late last month, Radio New Zealand International interviewed Laura Freeman, who is from Christchurch, and has lived and worked with IOM in the Marshall Islands since 2018.
“At the moment, without Covid-19 here, it just seems really silly for me to leave and go to New Zealand where everything is starting to lock down,” Freeman said in the interview.
Some other people working in the Marshall Islands left prior to United Airlines and Nauru Airlines suspending regular service after March 20.
“It has been very difficult to know whether I should stay or leave,” said Jeff Fennell, a missionary working in Majuro as a teacher for the Seventh-Day Adventist School. “The US is urging all citizens around the world to come home and it’s been a hard decision. I know these (LDS) guys loved the Marshall Islands and I don’t think they wanted to leave. They will be missed.”
Fennell said he hopes to finish out the school year, which normally wraps up at the end of May. “As nice as it would be to go home, I have really loved becoming part of the Marshall Islands community and I felt like the Lord was calling me to stay and finish the school year with these amazing students,” said Fennell.
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