I think most of us have been in a ward that has sent a missionary off, only to be interested in the reason we see them at church again a few weeks/months later. I think the first thoughts that go through our minds are a bit judgmental. They must have done something wrong. I knew he was dating that girl too seriously before he left. Maybe they have a mental disorder or something. These thoughts are only whispered in hushed voices in the back of chapels and relief society rooms. We then transition to pity. Oh, this is probably so hard for her. How long was she out? She must feel so uncomfortable being back. And of course there is always that one “lovable” sister who lacks a filter or tact and bluntly walks up to say, “Oh honey I hope you’re ok! What happened?!”
One Early Return Missionary is enough to make an entire ward feel uncomfortable. In my own home ward, we had two individuals return home early over the space of a few months. When the first one returned, our bishop took some time at the pulpit to share a few thoughts. With a large and sincere smile he simply stated, “It is none of our business.”
Once upon a time, I had just finished an endowment session in the Idaho Falls Temple. It was my first time in that temple, and I had attended with a few friends. While we were waiting in the coat room, a man began asking us about ourselves. We said we were BYU-Idaho students and that our friend Chelsea was getting ready to leave on a mission. He congratulated her then went on to mention how people who return early or don’t go must not have good testimonies. He then proceeded to ask each of us where we served. Feeling very self-conscious of the fact that I didn’t serve, I lied and said Hong Kong. My friends didn’t correct me. They knew how I must have been feeling.
The only thing harder than serving a mission is coming home to face your ward after leaving your mission early. It shouldn’t be this way. A ward is your family. The place you can feel close and comfortable. The return of a missionary is not something to feel shame or discomfort about. The mere fact that someone took the time and effort to put in their papers and actually LEAVE to some foreign and far away place like Mongolia or Boise is laudably to me. That alone is more than I have ever done.
When a missionary comes home early and finds themselves brave enough to walk into the chapel, they are doing so with an anxious heart full of faith in Christ. Whatever they are going through can only be made worse by the looks and whispers of their ward members.
If you have a missionary in your ward return home early, embrace them with sincere love and charity. Say “Welcome Home!”, and mean it.