“Fiji: Islands of Faith,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 32
“God created Fiji on one of his happiest days,” says Elder Glen L. Rudd, recently released as President of the Church’s Pacific Area. And when you drive from one end of Viti Levu, the country’s largest island, to the other, you have to agree. Volcanic peaks tower above rain forests and orderly cane fields; palm trees and powdered-sugar beaches give way to bays of glittering aquamarine. Fruits and flowers spring spontaneously from foliage in a palette of green hues.
Life in this paradise isn’t always idyllic, though. Behind Fiji’s natural beauty is a developing nation, and people here struggle with economic, political, and social challenges that go along with their country’s growing pains. But for some Fijian citizens, the gospel of Jesus Christ has become a major source of strength. Embracing and practicing its principles helps them cope with trials, brings them peace, and gives them hope for better days to come.
The nation of Fiji consists of more than three hundred islands that lie approximately 1,100 miles north of Auckland, New Zealand. Although about one hundred of the islands are inhabited, most of the country’s population is concentrated on just thirteen of them.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in Fiji in 1924 when Church member Mele Vea Ashley emigrated there from Tonga with her children. A few other early members came from Samoa. But it wasn’t until 5 September 1954 that fourteen Latter-day Saints were officially organized into a branch that met in a rented hall in Suva. In the thirty-six years since those humble beginnings, the Church has grown to include more than eight thousand members, a stake of nine wards (organized in 1983), and two districts with nine branches.
Most Church leaders here say that problems with transportation and communication are among the greatest challenges members face—especially those who live in rural areas outside of Suva and on the western side of Viti Levu. Wages in Fiji are low, so few people can afford to buy cars; they travel mostly by bus.
In late 1987, after a bloodless military coup, the new Fijian government declared it illegal for public transport to operate on Sunday. This posed little problem for people who belong to the country’s dominant Christian religion—there is a church in every village. But many Latter-day Saints live far from their meetinghouses.
Vilisi and Fei Ucunibaravi and their six children decided that they would walk the twelve kilometers from their home to the Nausori chapel each Sunday. “Some people would laugh at us, and they wouldn’t stop to give us rides,” says Sister Ucunibaravi. “But that was all right. Our hearts were there before we left home.”
Now, three years later, the government has relaxed the law so that buses run on Sundays during part of the year. With no other forms of transportation possible, some members can now catch a bus to church—but to meet its schedule, they often arrive late or must leave early.
Some wards and branches hired private trucks to pick up members for church. But Bishop Timoci Ratu of the Nadi Ward found that wasn’t a perfect solution, either. “We overdrew our ward budget just paying for transportation,” he says. “So I encouraged people to come through their own faith. At first the attendance decreased, but now it’s on the same level as before.”
The transportation problem also affects the members’ ability to do home and visiting teaching. The fact that few people have telephones in their homes makes it even harder. President Inosi Naga of the Suva Fiji Stake says, “It is difficult to get out. But we try hard—and I think we’re getting some results.”
Raj Kumari, Relief Society president in the Tavua Branch, has visiting teachers mail a typed message to those who live outside of town. Priesthood quorum leaders in the branch assign groups of men to travel to a specific village to visit all the members at one time.
In the Sigatoka Branch, Relief Society president Siteri Varo takes a bus to the mountain villages each month to see the sisters who live farthest away. She leaves her home at 8:00 A.M. and returns home at noon. “It’s not long enough to spend there,” she says, “but I have no choice. It’s the last bus of the day.”
Even though members in Suva live closer to one another, Grace Taito, Relief Society president in the Suva stake, has similar problems with communication. But because she is principal of the LDS-sponsored primary school, she can send messages to bishops and ward Relief Society presidents through their children—or those of their neighbors—who attend the school.
In 1878, Fiji’s British government brought in laborers from India to work in the sugar-cane fields. After five years, the Indians could return home at their own expense; if they stayed an additional five years, the government would pay their passage back or allow them to remain in Fiji. Many of these workers preferred life in the islands away from the Indian caste system, so they stayed. Today, approximately half of Fiji’s population is descended from these indentured workers.
The Fijian Indians have kept much of their native culture—which has little in common with the culture of the indigenous Fijians: the two groups have different religious beliefs, customs, and life-styles. Because of this, they have largely remained separate. Integrating the groups in the Church has nearly always been a test of each person’s love of others, but recent political problems have complicated the situation even more. In October 1987, the Fijian military replaced the country’s newly elected prime minister—a member of the political party to which most Indians belong. Since then, tensions between the two groups have escalated.
How are Church members responding to this delicate situation? “I think anyone watching us would say that we have done very well to stay unified,” says President Naga of the Suva stake. “During the coup, we advised members not to mix church with politics. We keep telling our people that once we join the Church, there are no strangers. And I think they really believe that, although some of them individually have expressed their concern about what has happened in our country.”
Bishop Ratu says that, thankfully, the tension isn’t felt much in the Church, even among new members. “I suppose it’s because the gospel teaches us that there is no difference among all human beings, either through their classes or races or creeds or color,” he says.
In addition to counseling people to be unified, Church leaders give members experience. Members of both groups work side by side on the high council, in stake and ward auxiliaries, in bishoprics and priesthood quorums, and as full-time missionaries. This fosters feelings of mutual respect. “I love her,” says Sister Varo, an indigenous Fijian, of her former Indian first counselor, Brijma Wati Charan, who is now a full-time missionary in Fiji. “She helped me so much—not just in Relief Society responsibilities, but by caring for my son while I was conducting.”
Leaders also make sure that all members are taught in their own language at church. Though Fiji’s official language is English, many of the older members, as well as some who live in remote areas, speak only their native tongue. So bishoprics and branch presidencies often schedule three speakers for sacrament meeting: one speaks in Hindustani, one in Fijian, and one in English. Relief Society and priesthood quorum teachers often use translators so that all can participate. And at ward or branch activities, there is plenty of Fijian and Indian food.
Latter-day Saint Indians and indigenous Fijians report that they feel comfortable with and more equal to each other in the Church than they do in any other part of their society.
For indigenous Fijians, tribal custom is a major part of life. Villages are scattered throughout the country, and each one has a chief who determines village law. In fact, before missionaries can be sent into a new area, Church leaders must participate in traditional ceremonies to obtain the chief’s permission.
In the villages, people live a sort of united order; they give all that they have to the chief, and in turn he gives them food, clothing, and a place to live. Even when a person moves away from the village, his family has claim on all that is his. Bishop Ratu says, “Just recently, my family told me that a relative’s children—who were born out of wedlock and have no father—needed school fees. So I gave them the money. We are expected to respond to the extended family’s needs.”
Fijian tradition does not permit people to speak to their elders, and commoners are not to approach those of chiefly rank without being invited. There may also be restrictions between people from different villages. “That can be a problem,” says Alex Lobendahn, a high councilor in the Suva stake, “because if there are restrictions, members of a family from one village are not able to home teach a family from another village.
“I wish we could break those barriers and go to people in the name of the Lord rather than in the name of culture,” he continues. “But people are reluctant; understandably, they don’t want to cause problems.”
Brother and Sister Ucunibaravi overlooked the cultural restrictions in order to marry. Sister Ucunibaravi comes from a chiefly Fijian family, and her husband is a commoner. “My wife had to choose between me and her class,” says Brother Ucunibaravi. “But having the priesthood in her home was the most important thing to her.”
The Indian citizens of Fiji also have strong cultural traditions. Many Indian parents do not allow their children to date, and arranged marriages are common. When a woman is married, she becomes a member of her husband’s family and a servant in her mother-in-law’s home. While she lives there, her father-in-law has the final say on what she does. This may hinder a young woman from joining the Church, even though her husband, who is not required to secure his father’s permission, does join.
Most Fijians of Indian descent are Hindu, and some Indian Church members are ostracized when they give up the beliefs their families have held for generations. “My personal philosophy,” says Peter Lee, a counselor in the Fiji Suva Mission presidency, “is that if one’s culture is not going to hinder progress, then we should keep it. But if it’s a tradition that will hinder the work of the Lord, we need to take a stand on what we should or should not do. Otherwise we’ll never move forward.”
One of the most apparent strengths of the citizens of Fiji is their love for others. “That’s an island trait, I think,” says Alex Lobendahn. “People here will give everything and keep almost nothing for themselves.”
“When we teach our people about loving their neighbor and fellowshipping, it’s nothing new,” says Peter Lee. “It’s something they are used to.”
His wife, Sereana, agrees. “We’re already practicing it. For example, if I have extra food, I automatically take some next door to our neighbors.”
Fauoro Akata, Relief Society president in the Nadi Ward, remembers that one sister always attended meetings with her LDS husband and children, but never joined the Church. “One day,” Sister Akata says, “I asked her why. She told me it was because she didn’t have a white dress. So we bought some material and gave it to her. She made a dress and was baptized soon afterward.”
In Nadi, Saints also work to help one another get to the temple. The trip to Tonga costs about $450—a huge sum for many families to save. So each year, members work together to raise money by sponsoring community dinners and cultural shows. Then they select several people or families who are unemployed or who are not in a position to save and send those people on the annual temple trip in August.
Their warmth of personality also makes Fijian Saints good member-missionaries. It is not unusual to find that members of wards and branches knew each other before they joined the Church. The week after they were baptized, Seminsi and Sereana Ratu, members of the Rakiraki Branch, introduced the missionaries to two contacts. Now five of the Ratus’ friends have been baptized.
“One reason we spread the gospel easily is that we often mix with one another,” says Bishop Subhash Dass of Suva’s Nasinu Ward. “If we stop to say hello on the street, it’s not unusual for our visit to last five or ten minutes.”
The desire to spread the gospel to their own is carried over into the full-time missionary program. Of the ninety missionaries now assigned to Fiji, thirty-eight are native elders and sisters. Local missionaries have been vital since the Church’s beginnings in the country. When the first American missionaries came in May 1954, immigration officials allowed only two in the country at one time, so local missionaries comprised the rest of the proselyting corps. The quota was gradually raised to sixteen, then lifted after the 1987 coup.
Even so, most Fijians still serve at home. (A few missionaries of Indian descent are now being assigned to India, the Philippines, and Australia.) One reason is language. Because many people do not speak English fluently, non-Fijian missionaries sometimes find it hard to teach abstract spiritual principles. But native elders and sisters solve that problem. “When we teach in our own language,” says Elder Laisiasa Veikoso, “we can explain things more clearly. We can better share our feelings with our investigators, which helps them to feel the Spirit.”
Elder Nawal Sen says that he enjoys serving in Fiji because he wants to see that his people receive saving knowledge. Of Indian descent, he finds that because he understands Indian culture and religion he can help his people resolve their problems, not only with the gospel but with Christianity as well.
“About six years ago, we had only twelve local missionaries serving,” says President Naga. “Now we have thirty-eight. And we’ll have many more. The children of our first-generation members are coming to missionary age, and they are gaining a strong understanding of gospel principles from their seminary work.”
Equally important, the missionary program gives young Fijians invaluable training. “The returned missionaries are a real strength,” reports Bishop Joseph Sokia of the Tamavua Ward. “Their missions strengthen their testimonies and prepare them for leadership and missionary responsibilities throughout their lives.”
Brother and Sister Ucunibaravi agree that their missions brought them a spiritual maturity that has made a real difference in their lives and in the lives of their children. “We feel privileged to have served,” they say. “There are many broken families here. Without our missions, we would probably be in the same situation.” Their missions also helped them form strong commitments to Church activity. “The Church is the center point of our lives,” says Brother Ucunibaravi. “We’d be completely lost without it.”
“As much as I wanted to serve abroad,” says Alex Lobendahn, “I knew that we needed missionaries here. It was hard in some ways, but it helped me love the people more. My mission gave me the determination to help the Church grow here in Fiji.”
Unfortunately, returned missionaries often don’t stay in Fiji. Many go to BYU—Hawaii, marry Latter-day Saints from other islands, or accept jobs in countries where there is greater economic opportunity.
Fijian Church members are humble people with a strong faith that God will provide for them. That faith does not go unanswered.
When 21-year-old Sunita Kumari, an Indian sister who is now serving full-time in the Suva Fiji Mission, wanted to join the Church, her older brother tried to stop her by arranging a marriage for her. After the members of the Rakiraki Branch fasted and prayed with Sunita, the marriage fell through, and she was baptized.
A few months later, branch members again fasted and prayed with Sunita, this time that she might be able to find a job. She had been looking for work since she had completed her schooling four years earlier, but now she felt it was especially important to earn money “so that I could pay my tithing and help the poor people.” A week later, Sunita was offered a job as a secretary for a new business.
It was a dry year when Mona and George Dunn decided to grow sugar cane on their farm near Lautoka. After six weeks without rain, the Dunns and the contractor whom they had hired to plant their crop feared that the seedlings would not survive. Brother and Sister Dunn and their sons fasted and prayed. As they returned from church the next Sunday, they met the contractor. “You are very blessed,” he said. “It has rained just enough to keep your cane alive.”
Later, when their water tank had nearly run dry, the Dunns again prayed for rain. As they sat on their veranda a few nights afterward, they saw a patch of clouds. “Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it poured right now?” said Sister Dunn.
“It will,” replied her husband. And it did. The storm filled their tank to overflowing—but did not wet the road leading to their home.
Subhash and Roselyn Dass and their sons Amit and Anand wanted to travel to the temple to be sealed, but they couldn’t seem to save enough money. When Brother Dass was called as a bishop, he felt strongly that he needed to receive his endowment. The family had enough money for one plane ticket to Tonga, so Sister Dass encouraged her husband to go alone. “No,” he said. “We must all go together. The Lord will provide a way.”
The family fasted for the next two Sundays. At the end of the second week, Bishop Dass’s employer offered to loan him the money for all four plane tickets. “Going to the temple was the most beautiful experience we’ve had,” says Bishop Dass. “We know now that if we seek the kingdom of God first, the Lord will do the rest.”
In Vesaru—an agricultural area outside of Ba—Jovesa Nausa lives on a ten-acre cane farm. He is an elder in the Ba Branch and teaches the Gospel Doctrine class. “I used to harvest plenty of cane from my farm,” he says. “But I wasn’t happy. Now I belong to the Church, so I don’t worry about money any more. I believe God is with us and is helping us. Even though I harvested less cane last year, I am happy.”
Brother Nausa’s feelings are echoed by Latter-day Saints throughout Fiji: “Our family has never been so united”; “The gospel makes us happy.”
Joy is one of the great blessings that the Church has brought to Latter-day Saints in Fiji—a joy that can last eternally. Living in paradise is getting better all the time.