Looking Back: A Moonlight Swim in Samoa with President and Sister Faust

Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor

  • 21 March 2018

President James E. Faust, right, leads a parade on Savai’i with Elder John Sonnenberg, left, and Elder Lueli Te’o during an event in 1988 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Church in Samoa.  Photo by Gerry Avant.

Article Highlights

  • Gerry Avant recalls a parade and moonlight swim with President and Sister Faust and other leaders.

“Let’s go swimming!”

Nearly every time I saw President James E. Faust during the last 19 years of his life, he extended that invitation, conjuring up memories of a moonlight swim off a beach on the Samoan island of Savai’i. A smile and laugh always accompanied the invitation.

Swimming with President Faust and his wife, Sister Ruth Faust, is one of the fondest memories from my travels during my 45-year career at the Church News.

I had traveled to several South Pacific islands—including Tonga, Fiji, American Samoa, and Western Samoa, as well as New Zealand and Australia—on earlier assignments. I had been to some of the islands multiple times, checking into hotels on or near beaches, but had never gone swimming. I enjoyed swimming but never felt I had the luxury of time to swim while on assignment for the paper. That night on Savai’i became the exception.

Here’s how that memorable moonlight swim came about:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints commemorated its 100th anniversary in Samoa through a series of events June 13–26, 1988, on three islands: Tutuila in American Samoa, and Savai’i and Upolu in Western Samoa. (Western Samoa is now known as Samoa.) Included were fireside testimonials, devotional meetings and a regional conference, feasts, traditional dances and songs, canoe races and other athletic contests, and parades.

President Thomas S. Monson, then-Second Counselor in the First Presidency, presided over the last segment of meetings and activities, which were held in Apia on Upolu. Earlier events on Tutuila and Savai’i were under the direction of Elder James E. Faust—then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later a counselor in the First Presidency—and Elder John Sonnenberg of the First Quorum of the Seventy and President of the Pacific Area.

Before President Monson arrived in Apia, I went with President Faust and Sister Faust and other leaders to the celebrations in American Samoa and Savai’i.

The marching band of the Church College of Western Samoa performed in a parade on all three islands.

The parade on Savai’i was small, with four floats. It began at the village of McKay and proceeded to the stake center at Fusi, a distance of about a mile and a half. For a few stretches along the way, there were no spectators to watch the parade, but the band played on while its members marched in step.

Each time the parade passed a home or Samoan fale, people came running to see it. Children at a school along the route were released from their classes so they could watch as the parade made its way up a dirt road. Men cutting coconut trees put down their tools and emerged from dense forests to stand by the roadside. Fishermen, having heard the band, rowed their boats to shore for a closer look.

The four floats seemed to have all that the Saints of Savai’i had to offer. Parades elsewhere might feature store-bought materials, but on Savai’i the main components were mats woven by islanders and banana leaves, other foliage, and flowers that served as background coverings and fringe.

The parade on Savai’i was small, but its spirit was great. I believe the parade had a spirit of rejoicing; it wasn’t just for show. It displayed contrasting elements: It was the humblest, yet grandest, parade I’d ever witnessed. Tears still well up in my eyes as I recall the feelings I had as the last float and smiling participants passed by me.

For several hours, Latter-day Saints on Savai’i performed songs and dances, gave narrations of Church history on the island, and generally entertained President and Sister Faust, Elder and Sister Sonnenberg, and other guests.

Night had fallen by the time we left the Church grounds and returned to our hotel on the other side of the island. The night sky was clear with a bright moon that created a perfect tropical island scene. Elder Lueli Te’o, the regional representative of the Samoa West Region, asked President Faust if he would like to go for a swim in the ocean.

President Faust said he’d love to, but he hadn’t brought swim trunks. “That’s okay,” Elder Te’o said, “we can give you a lavalava.”

The lavalava is a traditional garment of many islanders that consists of a rectangular piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist and secured by a knot. President Faust said he would wear a lavalava only if he could add a safety pin. Elder Te’o sent someone to find a pin.

President and Sister Faust, Elder and Sister Te’o, a few others, and I—attired in lavalavas and shirts—waded into the ocean. For years afterward, President Faust would add this description: “The moon was so bright and the water so clear we could see our toes.”

After the swim came a challenge. When we returned to our rooms we discovered we had no running water. A pig had rooted up the water line.

Many times, President Faust recounted the incident with an almost breathless laugh as he described how he washed off the salt residue from the ocean. Sister Faust dipped cups of water from the high-tank cistern, mounted on the wall above the toilet, and poured it over him as he stood in the shower.

For my travels, I always took carry-on bags, having had a suitcase go astray on one of my first assignments. My rule of thumb was to wear one outfit and pack two. I had told a colleague, “I’ve never been to a place where I couldn’t wash out my clothes.”

I found that place on Savai’i. I rinsed off with bottled water, but I didn’t wash any clothes that night.

During festivities on Savai’i to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Church in Samoa, a young girl attempts to keep pace with singers and dancers. Photo by Gerry Avant.

Parade with marching band proceeds through a village on Savai’i in Western Samoa in 1988 during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Church in Samoa. Photo by Gerry Avant.

Elder John Sonnenberg and local priesthood leaders participate in a traditional Samoan dance in American Samoa in 1988, during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Church in Samoa. Photo by Gerry Avant.