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Reason to rejoice: missionaries return to Puerto Rico

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Maria’s lethal winds and rain finally subsided, Puerto Rico San Juan Mission President David Smart wandered about his neighborhood, searching for cell service.

After finally discovering a weak signal he dialed Church headquarters and uttered, perhaps, the happiest words he had ever spoken:

“All the missionaries are safe and accounted for.”

On Sept. 20, the historic Category 4 storm struck Puerto Rico, claiming more than a thousand lives and destroying the island’s already vulnerable infrastructure.

At the time, President Smart and his wife, Sister Brenda Smart, were still learning their way around the U.S territory. They had arrived just months earlier. But they loved the missionaries — and protecting each young elder and sister serving in Puerto Rico was their sacred charge.

Almost four months later, the Smarts have adopted the “new normal” that defines post-Maria Puerto Rico. In a conversation with the Church News, the couple marveled at the mix of emotions and events they’ve experienced since the hurricane — ranging from sadness and worry to joy and sustaining gratitude.

They helped more than 150 missionaries find shelter in the San Juan mission home and mission office in the hours prior to the storm. And then, days later, they watched those same missionaries fly away, generally, to temporary assignments across the Americas.

Now the missionaries are making incremental returns to Puerto Rico, signaling better days for the aptly-named “Isle of Enchantment.”

A mission president’s firm directive

President Smart awoke on Monday, Sept. 18, to sunshine and blue skies — a familiar picture-postcard day in Puerto Rico.

Yes, the weather forecasts warned that a massive hurricane named Maria was just days away, but many here weren’t really worried. Another powerful storm — Hurricane Irma — had largely skirted the island a couple weeks earlier. The missionaries had waited out Irma in their respective apartments with few problems.

But this storm felt different to the mission president.

“The Lord guided us to bring the missionaries in [to San Juan],” he said.

A few of the missionaries in more distant regions of the islands, perhaps emboldened by their Irma experience, put up a mild protest. But President Smart issued an unassailable order: Report immediately to mission headquarters.

In the hours before Maria’s arrival, 55 sister missionaries squeezed into the mission home. Ninety-nine elders took cover in the mission office, a converted Mormon meetinghouse that included a gym and a stage.

They hunkered down and waited out the massive hurricane “that sounded like a train whistle,” said one missionary. Each relied upon food and other provisions they had packed inside their 72-hour emergency kits.

Once Maria had passed, the missionaries were anxious to pull on their yellow Mormon Helping Hands vests and help with the initial humanitarian response effort.

“For eight days, they did some great missionary work,” said President Smart.

Their smiles and can-do spirit made many new friends. A group of sister missionaries, for example, helped clean the grounds of a Catholic Church in San Juan.

“Later, we heard from one Catholic [official] who said they had prayed for ‘the Mormon women’ during their mass,” said Sister Smart.

But within days it became evident that Puerto Rico’s recovery would be a long-term, difficult process. Most of the island’s basic infrastructure was destroyed. Power was out and drinking water and other necessities were quickly becoming scarce.

Church leaders decided to evacuate the missionaries from Puerto Rico. Most were to be temporarily reassigned to other missions. A few who were weeks away from completing their missions were released and sent home.

Tearful farewells

Airlifting 150-plus missionaries from a disaster zone to the U.S. mainland proved a logistical nightmare. Additionally, the desperate circumstances across the island did not allow for the missionaries to return to their areas to pick up journals and other mementos — or to bid farewell to members and investigators.

The evacuation “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said President Smart. “It had to be done, but I felt a hole in my heart.”

Sister Smart said she tried to “put on a smile” for the missionaries, but admitted “we were all a mess.”

Still, there were “miracles amid the heartaches,” said President Smart.

Despite the post-Maria travel challenges, the Smarts were able to fly to Miami with the missionaries and oversee their unprecedented “transfers” to other missions across the Americas.

A senior missionary couple received permission to remain in Puerto Rico and assist wherever they could on the island.

After seeing all the young missionaries off to their new assignments, the Smarts traveled to the Dominican Republic to help coordinate LDS relief efforts in hurricane-impacted areas across the Caribbean.

“But we just didn’t feel right,” said President Smart. Despite the ongoing shortages on the island, they decided to fly back to Puerto Rico.

They returned to a damaged mission home without power — and a mission without a single young missionary. “But we were so happy to be back in Puerto Rico where we felt we could be best utilized,” said Sister Smart.

President and Sister Smart focused much of their efforts on the missionaries’ eventual return. They traveled about the island, visiting more than 50 abandoned missionary apartments.

Whenever possible, they salvaged missionary journals and other keepsakes. They disposed of clothing and other items that could not be repaired.

Memories of each missionary haunted the Smarts inside each apartment. “A flood of emotions would come back,” said Sister Smart. “We missed the missionaries so much.”

As water and electrical service slowly began to return to parts of Puerto Rico, President Smart began formulating a plan for the missionaries’ return. On the final week of November, Elder Weatherford T. Clayton, a General Authority Seventy, traveled to Puerto Rico to assess conditions and determine if it was safe and viable for missionaries to return.

Soon the Smarts received happy news: The missionaries were coming back.

Back to “business”

On Dec. 14, 14 elders arrived at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, site of the heartwrenching evacuation.

“We quickly divided them up across the island,” said President Smart. “We tried to get missionaries in each of the [five] stakes.”

All of the missionary apartments have power and water, including secondary water services.

Subsequent waves of missionaries have since arrived. Almost three dozen missionaries are now laboring in Puerto Rico, which continues with its slow, post-Maria recovery. A group of new missionaries, fresh from the Provo MTC, is expected to arrive in the coming days.

Everyday the missionaries work their areas — finding contacts, teaching lessons and working with members. But they never leave their apartments without work gloves and yellow Helping Hands vests.

“We tell the missionaries that, at any moment, you might see someone in need of service,” said President Smart.

President and Sister Smart are also grateful for the invaluable support they received from senior missionary couples during the hurricane and subsequent recovery.

The Puerto Rican people were known for their fondness for the missionaries long before Maria. But many are now especially eager to hear the gospel’s hopeful message.

“Some have told the missionaries that in the past they had been focused on the wrong things,” he added.

The Puerto Rican members also celebrate the return of the missionaries. Many have referred the elders and sisters to new friends that they made in the challenging weeks and months after Hurricane Maria.

“The whole mission,” said Sister Smart, “has changed.”