‘At first I didn’t want to go home’: Southern student missionaries make tough call amid COVID-19 concerns

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On March 12, shortly after Southern Adventist University announced that it would be changing its classes to distant learning for the rest of the semester, the Student Missions office sent out an email advising current student missionaries to return home. The recommendation came as a response to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
“As a student missionary, Southern is recommending that you come home,” the email written by the Student Missions Director Christian Bunch reads. “I know this will have a huge effect on the organization you’re serving, but we must do what we believe is in your best interest and ask you to return. We do not want you to be stranded overseas as travel restrictions may continue to increase.”
Southern has about 50 student missionaries overseas, from which at least half have already returned to the United States or are in the process of coming back, according to Bunch.  

One of those students is mass communication junior Cameron Reel, who was serving as a fifth-grade teacher in Ebeye, Marshall Islands. Reel was in his apartment when he first received the email. After calling his parents and the school administration, he decided to leave. 

“At first I didn’t want to go home. Honestly, I haven’t been homesick this whole experience,” Reel said. “I couldn’t know the future, so I had a very hard time making my decision. One moment I had decided to stay; but then we heard about three [coronavirus] cases near us, so I decided to leave.”
Reel departed Ebeye March 18. 

Public Relations alumnus Shannon Hill, ’19, who was working as a teacher in Honduras, also made the decision to return home after receiving the email. 

“I knew that we had to act fast, and we would not be able to take much time to make the decision,” Hill said. “I had to say those goodbyes a lot sooner than I had initially anticipated. I already hate goodbyes, but the fact that I had to say goodbye to each person so suddenly was the hardest part about this whole ordeal.” 

Hill left the country on March 13, just one day after Student Missions sent the email. Honduras closed its borders as a response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 15. 

Other countries that have also gone on lockdown include Peru and Ecuador, both of which had student missionaries in the field. Bunch said students serving in Peru, Honduras, and Ecuador have been able to return home safely.

“Obviously, we are worried about [the] health crisis that is going on,” Bunch said. “But from my angle, I’m also worried about travel specifically, and [student missionaries] being stuck because of the government responses to the virus. Though it is not mandatory to leave, we highly recommend students to come back. ”

According to Bunch, no quarantine is presently in place for any of the countries from which student missionaries are returning. He said the Student Missions team continues to monitor global news outlets and State Department warnings as regulations and restrictions change daily. Both Reel and Hill said they will be practicing self-quarantine once home. 

As for now, Student Missions has no plans to discontinue the Student Missions program for the 2020-2021 school year. Students who have already signed up to go as student missionaries will still receive a training session, and the Student Missions Office will still help with fundraisers.

“People need Jesus at any season of life, and that is maybe clearer now than ever,” Bunch said. “So, there may be some adjustments that have to be made in terms of when students launch, based on when life returns to a state of normalcy. [But] we’ll adjust, and we’ll be flexible as we always have been; and we’ll encourage students to do the same.”

In a recent statement posted online, Student Missions wrote, “We solicit your prayers for the many student missionaries who have returned home, those who are returning soon, and those who have elected to remain overseas. In the face of difficult times around the world, we are thankful to know and serve the God of peace. In the months ahead, we will continue to support all of this year’s SMs regardless of their location. We will also move forward in preparing students to serve for the coming school year.”

Though he won’t be returning to Ebeye next year, Reel said, he hopes to return later in the future. Hill said she currently plans to go back to Honduras at the end of the summer. 

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