Photography by John Derek Perry.
There will be many stories told of this time–of the days when a powerful virus jumped oceans and swept across continents. When life as we knew it came to a shuddering halt, and we incorporated new phrases into our vocabulary: social distancing, self-quarantine. Though my own story is not earthshaking, I feel compelled to tap it out in sentences that will one day speak to my grandchildren, telling them of the parting of my personal Red Sea in the time of the virus.
I awoke Thursday, March twelfth, in a hotel in Casablanca, having arrived in Morocco with my brother John just the night before. Squinting at my phone to check the time, I found a text from my oldest son:
“Did you hear that President Trump is suspending all travel to the US from Europe for 30 days starting Friday? You and John might have some scrambling to do.”
There’s nothing like a shot of adrenaline to rouse a jet-lagged brain. Texting my John, I asked if he’d heard the news. Apparently, he had been up most of the night communicating with our oldest brother and a cousin, trying to get accurate information about what was happening. It appeared that U.S. citizens were exempt from the ban, as they had been when travel from China was suspended after the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Since we were already in Morocco and were not affected by the ban, we determined to continue our trip as planned, visiting the exquisite Hassan ll Mosque in Casablanca that morning–the third largest mosque in the world.
We then hired a private car for the four-hour journey to Fes, the intellectual and spiritual center of Morocco, where we were scheduled to stay for five nights. I confess that throughout the day I felt an undercurrent of uneasiness, wondering if we should try to get home sooner.
On Friday we took a fascinating journey–mostly on foot–through the ancient walled medina of Fes el Bali, and its surroundings. Our eyes feasted on the Royal Palace, the tanneries, spice shops, magnificent mosaic creations, and gorgeous woven rugs. Our mouths feasted on Chicken B’stilla and the sweetest fresh oranges we’ve ever tasted. Kaoutar, our Muslim guide, was both knowledgeable and funny. She made our tour a delight.
We should have remembered, however, that Friday the thirteenth is known for bringing bad luck. Upon returning to our riad that evening we learned that all flights from Morocco to Spain, Italy, and France had been suspended. As we had been booked to fly to Barcelona the following week, this was a problem. Our airline had cancelled all flights out of Europe except through London Heathrow. Thus, began an unplanned chapter in our Moroccan adventure–a chapter called “A Superfluity of Bookings and Cancellations.”
John contacted a travel agent friend, Craig, who became our lifeline over the next several days. He first booked flights for us from Casablanca to Istanbul to London, leaving Monday. By this time, I had a constant nervous churning in my stomach, along with a feeling of urgency that we needed to find a way home as soon as possible. We texted family and friends requesting their faith and prayers to help us make it out of Morocco before any more travel bans were put in place. We also received word of concerts, plays, and sporting events being cancelled due to the Corona virus. Church would be held at home for the foreseeable future, and even temples would be closed except for live ordinances. Such strange happenings left us feeling unsettled.
In the meantime, we had a few days before our flights and determined to go on our previously scheduled day trip to Chefchaouen, the blue city. During the nearly four-hour drive Saturday morning, I did serious battle with my fears. I thought of my mother and of her mother, and of the great faith they have always exhibited. It was humbling to admit that at the first sign of trouble I was coming up short in the faith department. For two hours of our drive there seemed to be a fierce wrestling match taking place inside of me–fear vs. faith. I exerted myself mentally, like my mother and grandmother have done when facing a crisis. Though it took hours, faith finally won the match and I felt much calmer during the remainder of the day.
For the last two hours of the ride, our driver and guide, Mustafa, entertained us with his narrative. Chefchaouen was a photographer’s delight–heaven for John. Around every narrow passage was a new photo op, another blue wall or door, and bins of colorful soaps. Three hours of exploring ended with a tagine of chicken with lemon and olives. During the ride back to Fes, John contacted Craig again to see if he could find a flight back to the states which bypassed Europe, in case things shut down there. After a fair amount of searching, he booked us a Monday flight on Turkish airlines: Casablanca to Istanbul to JFK overnight, then to Salt Lake City.
Sunday morning began well. It was the first week of “home church” due to COVID-19, and I received an email from my Relief Society president, one from my Bishop, and a video message from President Nelson. I felt God’s love through their words. I also felt great comfort when my husband, Brad, texted me that he had spent time praying for John and me in the temple (before it closed) and felt like he “shouldn’t worry because you will be fine. It may be inconvenient for you to take the different route and airlines, but you will get home okay.” I spent the morning having “riad church,” studying scriptures, praying, and singing hymns. John and I had scheduled a driver to take us back to Casablanca that afternoon, so we could be close to the airport for our Monday flight to Istanbul. Unfortunately, as we brought our luggage down to the courtyard, Dominique, the French woman who owned the riad, informed us in her limited English that all flights to Turkey had been suspended. She kindly offered John the use of her computer to try to schedule yet another flight.
The nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach kicked up a notch. After several flight cancellations, it was difficult to keep faith that we could find a way out of Morocco. On Saturday our guide, Mustafa, had told us that although he loved his country, it had some serious issues–especially the difficulty of obtaining medicine. This only strengthened the urgency I was feeling that we needed to find a way home. John was able to book a flight from Fes to London, but it wasn’t until Thursday. Later, his friend Craig found a flight to London on Tuesday. We drove to Casablanca to be near the airport. By late Sunday night, however, both flights had been cancelled. We needed a miracle.
Just after midnight Monday morning, Craig was feverishly searching for another flight but could only see two flights to Paris, each with only one seat left. John thought we might have to fly out separately, but he didn’t feel good about it. To quote from his journal: “While Craig was typing away looking at options I kept praying for another option to open up…I prayed that if opening the Red Sea was not such a hard thing, maybe a second seat on the 4 p.m. flight could be doable…Craig suddenly texted and said, ‘Hold on, I think a seat just opened up, hang tight and let me see if I can snag it…’ [Ten minutes later] Craig said he had managed to book us all the way home–Casablanca to Paris to Atlanta to Salt Lake City.” Such a relief. We prayed like crazy that these flights would not be cancelled.
We arrived at the Mohammed V Airport Monday at noon–allowing ourselves plenty of time in case of complications. Entering the terminal, our hearts dropped to our toes as we read the departure board. We didn’t have to speak any French to understand that nearly every departure that day had been cancelled: Annulé.
Thankfully, our flight on was still listed as open. For the next hour we stood waiting for an Air France employee to open the check-in desk. The few seats around us were already occupied by other travelers, many wearing medical masks and gloves. Though I had been praying nearly constantly all day that our flight wouldn’t be cancelled, I suddenly had an overpowering feeling that John and I should pray together. We offered a heartfelt prayer while standing with our luggage in the middle of the bustling terminal.
Our boarding passes indicated T1 as the check-in area, and though we thought we’d found the right place, we decided to walk the length of the airport to make certain we knew the correct spot. But the terminal seemed devoid of any airline or airport employees to answer our questions, and all signs were in French or Arabic. Our exploration led us back to where we started, only now a large crowd was gathering. You could almost smell the fear and tension as hundreds of people–all desperate to find their flight–appeared uncertain where to go. The next few hours were–as John later described–“absolute madness.” No one seemed to know where to check-in, and no airline workers could be found. At some point a few men began shouting at the crowd in Arabic, trying to give some instructions which only increased the confusion.
In the thick of the crowd, we met two young adult sisters from Australia, Millie and Sophie, who seemed to be the only English speakers around, and were booked on our same flight. As we spoke with them, Sophie received a text saying our flight had been cancelled. Desperately, John called his friend Craig who accessed his booking system and said he wasn’t showing a cancellation yet, so we should stay put. Millie, who was on the phone with her travel agent father, said he’d encouraged her to look around the airport again to see if she could find where we needed to be. As she walked away I had a powerful thought come into my mind: Claim the blessings of the temple.
So, standing in a crowd of frustrated people, some of them shouting in Arabic, I prayed with all my might for the blessings of the temple. In recent years I have devoted myself to temple service, and to becoming more exact in my covenant keeping, and for decades my parents have been dedicated temple-goers, working to claim temple blessings for our family. I felt suddenly confident that I could ask for divine assistance–my study of temple truths has led me to understand that those who keep their covenants can expect help.
About 10 minutes later, Millie called Sophie to let her know that she had found the check-in desk for our flight. It was T1, but downstairs. Helping Sophie with her luggage, we quickly found Millie–at the end of a seemingly endless line of people and suitcases–a line that looked as formidable as the Red Sea. Such chaos! It was already after 3:00, and it seemed there was no possible way to get that great multitude of people checked in and through security in time for the flight. And we still weren’t certain if the flight had been cancelled.
Just when I thought my faith might fail me, I received an e-mail message from dear friends: “Hello Lynne…Our prayers and hopes are with you and your brother, that you will continue to have peace and return safely and soon to your family. We love you, Carlos and Myrna.” What a blessing at a critical moment. The powerful faith of this good couple was enough to bolster my belief that we could still get on our flight.
Millie and Sophie’s father helped them check in online. The first Air France employee we had seen all day came walking down the line asking if anyone was checked in and had a seat assignment. When the Aussies said yes, they were waved past the noisy throng of travelers and disappeared. John was on the phone with Craig who was having difficulty checking us in. A few minutes later, Millie and Sophie reappeared way down the line and motioned for us to join them. At that moment, Craig finished our check-in and we followed the girls past the Red Sea, where we were waved through the gate and directly to the check-in desk. Once our bags were checked we rushed up the escalators to the enormous security screening area where we were literally the only two humans in sight. What had just happened? Still shaking from our three-hour ordeal, I turned to John and gasped, “I feel like the Red Sea just parted.” He responded, “That was the exact phrase I used in my prayers last night, that God would part the Red Sea for us.”
I’ve been told that you can’t actually show courage unless you’re afraid. Faith is like that too. We can’t actually demonstrate faith unless we’re facing uncertainty. As Elder John A. McCune described, “There will be times when we will not be able to see any way that a current situation will end well…” (1) Like when you’re standing on the shores of the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army races toward you in their chariots. When you have absolutely no place to go. That is where faith lives.
I came home from Morocco with an unexpected souvenir: a clearer perspective on exercising faith. Faith isn’t just sitting on a padded pew at church when it’s convenient and the speakers are interesting. Exercising faith can be exhausting. It can be a little messy. Exercising faith is waiting for hours in the chaos of a Moroccan airport when most previous flights for the day have been cancelled and there’s no reason to believe yours won’t be too. Exercising faith is sending up unceasing prayers for angels and miracles while your heart is pounding painfully in your chest. Exercising faith is going head to head with doubt by summoning up every reason God has given you to believe in Him and in His power to help you. Exercising faith is trusting in the truth that covenant keepers can expect help. Exercising faith is when you “…[labor] much in the spirit, wrestling with God in mighty prayer.” (Alma 8:10)
One of my favorite examples of exercising faith is less celebrated than the parting of the Red Sea, but no less stunning. When Joshua began leading the children of Israel and they needed to cross the Jordan River, twelve men were assigned to carry the Ark of the Covenant. They were told:
“…as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the Lord…shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off…”
“And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water…the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground…” (Joshua 3:13,15,17)
The soles of the feet of those who carried the Ark of the Covenant actually had to “rest in the waters of Jordan” before the Lord performed the needed miracle for the Israelites to cross the river on dry ground. Exercising faith is daring to rest the soles of your feet in the river, trusting the Lord to make a path for you to go where He is trying to lead you.
I love what happened next: The Lord commanded Joshua to assign twelve men, one from each tribe, to choose a stone from the riverbed they had crossed, put it on their shoulder, and carry it with them. Those stones were then set up together as a memorial.
“And he spake unto the children of Israel, saying, When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean these stones? Then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land. For the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over: That all the people of the earth might know the hand of the Lord, that it is mighty…” (Joshua 4:21-24)
John and I were blessed with the last two tickets on the last flight to Paris before Morocco closed its borders. After spending the night in France, we flew to Atlanta, and finally to Salt Lake City, arriving just hours before the Salt Lake International Airport was shut down. How does one express sufficient gratitude for miracles received, for earthly angels like Craig–whose assistance was such a blessing–and for the comfort we felt from the faith and prayers of faraway friends and family? I had many hours to ponder that question during my two weeks of self-quarantine.
Though I cannot ever repay the debts I owe, I can at least take one action: when we have exercised faith and received a miracle from the Lord, He expects us to stand as a witness for Him thereafter. Recording my Moroccan experience is my attempt to add a stone of my own to the memorial, to testify that my brother and I experienced miracles, experienced our own personal parting of the Red Sea. I witness that “…he that is mighty hath done to [us] great things; and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:49)
- John A. McCune Come unto Christ–Living (Live) as Latter-day Saints, General Conference, April 2020.