Guest Post: Mistaken Enemy #CopingWithCOVID19
When I went on a mission to South America over 20 years ago, I knew that I would learn things there that would stay with me throughout my life. But I had no idea that one of the most important lessons I would learn would apply to a pandemic in 2020.
The city that my mission was based in had two missions headquartered there: the North Mission and the South Mission. Both mission offices were housed in the same office building, and the respective office Elders sometimes interacted with each other. My zone leaders told me that the two mission presidents had very different styles and approaches to missionary work, and as a result their missionaries reflected those differences. I didn’t think much about these rumors at the time. All of the areas I was assigned to serve in were far away from the city, and I would never even see missionaries from the other mission. Or so I thought.
But one day our mission was turned upside down. One of the two mission presidents was abruptly pulled out of the country and reassigned to a different mission. (“He was getting death threats!” the mission gossip said.) Now 300+ missionaries were combined for the foreseeable future under the leadership of the remaining mission president. He had only a month left of his three-year assignment, and he wanted to have us prepared to serve as one united mission under the new incoming president, so he made an executive decision: he reassigned every missionary to a new companionship with a missionary from the other mission. Perhaps he reasoned that we would quickly learn to work together in spite of our different backgrounds.
Sadly, that was not the case for many companionships. It turned out that there was more than just a difference in style. Many missionaries had a great disdain for missionaries from the other mission, and they quickly mobilized to try to make sure that the missionary from their “team” had the upper hand in all companionships. Those first weeks together were really rough. Arguments broke out in zone meetings. We heard of Elders who got in fist fights with their companions. P-day activities with other missionaries grew to be a source of tension instead of a time to relax, as missionaries from the other mission said and did things to provoke their “rivals.” A full six months after the missions combined, I watched missionaries arrive at the Christmas mission conference and abandon their companions so that they could run off and gossip about them with their old friends.
I was very fortunate with my companions and mostly avoided any conflict related to mission “team” loyalty. But it hurt a lot when I was transferred to a new area and immediately felt hostility from my new zone leader. We had never even met before, but I was from the other mission and was therefore the enemy. I just didn’t understand the rivalry. Weren’t we all supposed to be on the same team? Didn’t we all have the same goal as missionaries—to bring people to Christ? And yet here we were treating each other as enemies. The number of baptisms in our mission plummeted. I was sure it was because of the contention between missionaries. How could we teach by the Spirit when there was so much anger? I imagined Satan laughing at the situation. He didn’t have to work on our investigators; we had done a great job of sabotaging the missionary work on our own.
At the end of my mission I returned home a bit stunned by what had happened. Over the years as I reflected on my mission, I started to notice how similar things were happening all the time in my wards and in the Church as a whole. Sometimes we were quick to demonize other members simply because they didn’t believe exactly the same as we did, or because they had a different approach or style. Were we forgetting that we were all on the same team, with the goal of following Jesus? And what was all this talk about “The World,” turning people outside the Church into enemies? Isn’t one of our important doctrines the idea that we all—every single person on earth—chose to follow Jesus in the premortal existence? Shouldn’t we be trying to help others on their journey instead of labeling them as enemies? It was so easy to fall into the trap of vilifying others. Mosiah 3:19 says, “The natural man is an enemy to God.” Yes. “An enemy to God” . . . and to people, I thought. I had to work hard to resist the tendency to turn others into enemies, too.
I have always loved reading inspirational accounts of what happened during World War II, how regular people united and sacrificed together to defeat an evil man who sought to destroy lives, cultures, goodness and freedoms. When COVID-19 turned our lives upside down, I was so hopeful that it would be a time to finally set aside differences and unite against a common enemy—a dangerous virus that kills vulnerable people and causes suffering and long-term health problems for many more. At first I was very encouraged. People all around the world quickly made big changes in their lives in order to slow down the virus. But in the United States, where political polarization has been extreme for several years now, many people have already turned on each other instead of continuing the fight against the virus. Some people on the right have taken to calling mask-wearers “sheeple.” Others accuse the left of being happy about the virus and the high death count because they make President Trump look bad. There are accusations from the left, as well, with many accusing the right of caring more about money than about people’s lives.
The most troubling accusation I have heard is that we are overreacting, that the virus really isn’t that bad. With my background in infectious diseases, and from reading the news out of New York City, I can tell that the virus is bad, really bad. I worry that many people have given up the fight against the virus altogether, because they would rather fight other people. Does the virus laugh at this? Of course not. Viruses don’t laugh. But you’d better believe that SARS-CoV-2 is taking advantage of our fighting with each other to fulfill its own mission, which is to make as many copies of itself as possible.
To be sure, bad policies, bad leadership, unpreparedness, and lack of tests all contributed in a major way to the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. But the chaos and confusion caused by fighting in my country have without a doubt already contributed to many deaths, and the pandemic isn’t close to being over.
Maybe I am naïve, but I still hope that good things can come from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. Perhaps people will look at countries that did a remarkable job in their fight against the virus, like South Korea and New Zealand, and they will learn that unity is more important than partisan politics. Perhaps when we return to church, we won’t care so much about our differences. Perhaps we will be more aware of the vulnerabilities and suffering of others, more willing to help in hard times. You know, a little closer to Zion.
Brita spent five years of her career working on experimental new vaccines, and she is cheering on all of the people who are working so hard right now to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.[Image: Three Little Girls in a Room Arguing and Spitting by Lorenz Frølich]