Missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are finding new ways to serve their communities and spread their faith as COVID-19 curtails traditional door-to-door visits.
Elders with the church have been using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media more frequently over the past several months in order to reach people, and they’ve also been taking part in community service projects.
One such project took place in Detroit Lakes on Oct. 13. Three elders with the North Dakota Bismarck Mission spent the day at Oak Grove Cemetery, taking pictures of all the headstones there for digital cataloguing on the Billion Graves website, billiongraves.com, where they can be accessed by genealogists and family members seeking information about their ancestors.
The elders also took photographs of headstones at the area St. John Lutheran Cemetery and Egelund Lutheran Cemetery.
The idea to partake in the Billion Graves project was given to them by Dakotas Mission President Scott L. Howell, who is an amateur genealogist.
“I thought,” Howell said in a press release, “that it would be helpful for our missionaries, during this time of social distancing, to get out in the fresh air and do something meaningful, like taking photos of headstones in cemeteries for genealogy purposes.”
Levi Lister, one of the elders who participated in the local project, added, “Most people want to know where they come from, and by helping with this project we are making it easier for people to do that.”
Lister and the other two elders, Logan Holmer and Waylon Daniels, are living in Detroit Lakes and serving the area for two years as volunteer missionaries. While the nearest Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple is in Bismarck, N.D., there’s a meetinghouse in Detroit Lakes.
Church missionaries pay and finance their own way to live and serve in the communities they’re assigned to, according to elder Zachary Matthews, a communication specialist with the North Dakota Bismarck Mission.
When the pandemic induced some foreign countries to close their borders, more than 35,000 missionaries worldwide were sent back to their home countries, according to an Oct. 22 report in The Forum. of Fargo-Moorhead. The Bismarck Mission -- one of the larger missions in the country -- reassigned more than 100 people who would otherwise be serving abroad to parts of Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana instead.
The missionaries are taking precautions against COVID-19 and, in addition to reaching out on social media and taking photographs for the Billion Graves website, branching out into different kinds of service like assisting farmers and ranchers with their duties or cleaning up garbage along public trails.
“Before COVID, a lot of the work that we had been doing was in-person -- knocking on doors and meeting people that way,” Matthews told the Tribune. “Since COVID, obviously we can’t do that. So we’ve turned to other ways to find people to teach and to serve. We’re spending a lot of time on social media … (and) also doing more service in the community.”
Anyone who knows of a small or private cemetery in the area that would benefit from the Billion Graves project may contact the local missionaries at 218-298-2412.