SALT LAKE CITY — “This work will continue to go forward, regardless of what happens, regardless of what the future may hold,” said Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as he discussed today the safety and well-being of the Church’s 52,000 missionaries.
Three missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lost their lives this week: one was killed Monday in a Virginia shooting and two died Friday in a New Zealand automobile collision. A fourth missionary is expected to make a full recovery from wounds he suffered in the Virginia shooting.
Speaking with journalists, Elder Ballard explained that such tragic deaths are rare among Latter-day Saint missionaries.
“The safest place in the world for 19-to 21-year-old young men and 21- year-old young women is in the service of the Lord in the mission field, scattered out over the four corners of the earth,” said Elder Ballard.
Elder Morgan W. Young, 21, of Bountiful, Utah, was killed by a gunman who attacked him and his companion, Elder Joshua D. Heidbrink, 19, of Greeley, Colorado, while they were proselyting in Chesapeake, Virginia, part of the Virginia Richmond Mission.
Elder Jonathan R. Talmadge, 21, of Willamina, Oregon, and his companion, Elder Bradley J. Isle, 20, from Las Vegas, Nevada, died in a head-on collision near Timaru, New Zealand. Both were serving in the New Zealand Wellington Mission. The accident also killed an elderly woman and seriously injured two people in the other car.
Elder Ballard expressed condolences to those mourning the loss of these three young missionaries and to the family of the woman killed in the New Zealand accident: “The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve extend our love to you, pray the Lord will bless you and that the peace of the Lord will ultimately come to your hearts.”
He added, “It doesn’t matter how many missionaries we have, when we lose one the whole Church mourns and our hearts go out to the parents, to the siblings and to the priesthood leaders over such a tragic loss.”
Noting that the Church’s 52,000 missionaries are similar to the population of a city, Elder Ballard emphasized that the Church does “the very, very best we know how” to protect their health and safety while they serve in 343 missions covering the earth.
He reviewed several key elements of missionary organization and training that help keep missionaries safe:
• Training in personal safety and good health practices that begins in the Church’s 16 Missionary Training Centers and continues in zone conferences and district meetings throughout the time of missionary service.
• Missionaries always work in pairs and are required to stay with their companions.
• Qualified, mature, inspired mission presidents and their wives who shepherd the young people in their missions “like they were their very own children.”
• An organization of assistants to the mission president, zone leaders and district leaders “that is structured to watch over and be very careful where we place missionaries.”
• Ongoing consultation with local Church leaders and members about the safety of specific areas and neighborhoods. Missionaries are instructed to avoid unsafe areas.
• Careful instruction in automobile safety for those using cars.
• Ongoing safety training for missionaries who ride bicycles.
• When walking, missionaries are encouraged to walk swiftly and with purpose. They are instructed to minimize the objects they have with them and only carry cash sufficient for that day’s needs. If accosted by thieves, missionaries are trained not to resist, to avoid confrontation and to give up whatever money they have.
• A network of 80 physicians serve as full-time volunteer missionaries around the world “so mission presidents have access to the best medical advice they can possibly get right within the boundaries of their own areas.” Also, an additional 200 volunteer nurses and others with medical and health care backgrounds “are out there shepherding this missionary force.”
• Missionary apartments are periodically inspected for safety and cleanliness. Missionaries are moved to different apartments whenever needed.
Despite all the Church does to protect its missionaries, Elder Ballard acknowledged that violence and accidents will happen from time to time, and missionaries may be hurt or killed.
Elder Ballard observed that even though the neighborhood where Elder Young and Elder Heidbrink were working was considered a safe area, violence can happen anywhere. “The world is just a different world. It’s becoming a more violent world, as we all know,” he said.
Reflecting the love and concern of the Church for its missionaries, Elder Ballard said, “Our hearts are always heavy, regardless of what the circumstances are, when any of our missionaries have any kind of tragic experience.”
Elder Ballard concluded by emphasizing that such tragedies will not stop the Church’s work of sharing the restored gospel of the Savior: “Joseph Smith (the Church’s founding prophet) made it abundantly clear that there would be nothing that would stop this work from rolling forward till the Great Jehovah comes forward and says the work is done. And He hasn’t said that yet.”