“One Trembling Step at a Time,” Ensign, June 1994, 56
Almost three decades have passed, but the day I met Atiati is still vivid in my memory. As a young missionary serving in Samoa, I had already learned much, but nothing had prepared me for Atiati.
My companion, Elder Matagi, and I had visited the village of Sasina many times but had enjoyed little success. As we entered the village this particular day, we saw no adults, only children. The children told us that most of the villagers had gone to the next village for a wedding. Atiati was the only adult around, we were told.
We had never heard of this man before. Grasping at any chance to share the gospel with someone who hadn’t heard it, we asked the children where Atiati lived. They gave us directions and then followed in a curious little pack as we walked there.
Located on the extreme outskirts of the village, Atiati’s fale (house) looked forbidding as we approached. It was a sunny day, but all the polas (shades) were drawn. When we asked the children why, they started to giggle. “Go in and find out for yourself,” they replied.
As we walked up to the fale, I called out. I heard a noise as if someone were in pain. One of the older boys darted forward, pulled aside a pola, and shouted, “Atiati, the Mormons want to see you.” The children then ran off quickly.
Elder Matagi and I stood there momentarily, but we finally reluctantly entered the fale. When my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I noticed a bed in one corner of the fale. On the bed lay an unshaven, unkempt, distorted figure. I felt so uneasy that I would have bolted out of the house except that Elder Matagi was holding tightly onto my arm. When we calmed down, we noticed that the figure, a man, was trying to speak. I moved closer, and he asked if we would raise the polas so he could see us in the light.
As light streamed into the fale, we could see that Atiati was crippled from the neck down, his limbs misshapen. At his invitation, we sat down and introduced ourselves as missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He thought it was a new church until we mentioned the word Mormons. Then he asked us questions about the Church and our beliefs, and we taught him the first discussion. We ended with our testimonies and then prepared to leave.
I was touched when Atiati asked if we would pray with him before we left. What a pleasure to have someone ask us to pray! Humbled, Elder Matagi and I knelt and prayed. As we left, we promised Atiati that we would visit him again soon.
Heading home that evening, my companion and I discussed our new friend’s condition. Atiati had contracted polio twenty-two years earlier, and the disease had left him without the use of his arms and legs. The only part of his body he could move was his neck, and even that movement was limited. What if he were converted? Could he be baptized, being so completely disabled? We knew very little about assisting a man with disabilities, and we felt awkward. Finally we agreed that to avoid any embarrassment for Atiati, we would not visit him as missionaries and teach him the gospel; we would visit him only as friends.
The next day we set out again for Sasina. We had several people we wanted to see. However, when we arrived in the village, everyone seemed too busy to listen to us. After several hours of fruitless tracting, we decided to see Atiati before heading home.
Upon entering Atiati’s fale, I sensed a change immediately. Atiati was still lying in the same position in which he must have lain for the past twenty-two years, but there was something different. The Atiati with whom we had spoken the day before had no will to live. He had spoken in a whisper and had been unkempt in his appearance. The man now lying in the bed had a smile on his face. In a clear voice, he invited us in and asked us to sit next to his bed. He was clean-shaven, and his clothes were fresh.
Seeing our confused expressions, Atiati told us with a smile that he had paid someone to shave and bathe him earlier that morning. He had even had his bedding changed. “Today,” he said, “I begin to live again, because yesterday my prayers were answered and you were directed to come to me.”
Looking directly into my eyes, he continued. “I have waited for more than twenty years for someone to come and tell me that they have the true gospel of Christ. I want you to know that for over twenty years, I have done nothing but lie here and read the Bible. If what you tell me is really the true gospel of Christ, I will know and recognize it.”
Teaching Atiati was an experience I will never forget. He could quote many parts of the Bible almost word for word. His questions were sincere, and he understood concepts quickly. We talked about principles of the gospel in detail, including the priesthood. Atiati knew nothing of this power because the Samoan version of the Bible did not mention it. We showed him several references in the King James Version of the Bible that included the word priesthood, and then we pointed out to him that when the Bible was translated into Samoan, there was no Samoan word for priesthood, so those who did the translation omitted the word and the meaning.
Soon, Atiati was converted. He wanted to be baptized. He wanted to receive the priesthood. Now it was up to us to baptize him.
A day was set, and the site for the baptism was selected. Atiati asked us to fast with him and pray that he would have strength to endure the drive and the physical ordeal of the baptism. We asked the district leader and his companion to assist us. Some of the villagers were scornful of a church they did not yet understand, and some even ridiculed Atiati because of his disabilities. For these reasons, very few people in his village were told of the baptism; we did not want to attract a scoffing crowd.
The baptism was scheduled to take place at the chapel in Fagamalo, a village about eight miles distant. The baptismal font, located in front of the chapel in the middle of the churchyard, was open to the view of passersby. Anyone wishing to observe could do so from the road.
The day arrived. To avoid attracting a crowd, we left early to pick up Atiati. However, by the time we arrived, Atiati’s house was surrounded by people. At first, I thought something terrible had happened to Atiati during the night. But as we got closer, I could see that the crowd milling around the fale showed no signs of sorrow or remorse.
When we got out of the car, someone cried, “Atiati, the Mormons are going to drown you.” Laughter filled the air. The villagers had somehow learned of Atiati’s baptism and had come to mock and ridicule him.
The laughter continued as we carried Atiati to the waiting car. We were discouraged, but Atiati’s faith didn’t falter. As we drove to Fagamalo, we all wanted to forget the incident in Sasina, and conversation was light. Upon our arrival, however, we were horrified to see the road packed with mocking people. This crowd made the previous incident seem minor.
As we carried Atiati past the insulting crowd and into the chapel for the service, I fought feelings of anger and frustration. Our district leader, sensing our mood and the mood of those milling outside to view the spectacle, shared a stirring and spiritual testimony of the importance of baptism. When he finished, we picked up Atiati and carried him out to the font. When we emerged from the chapel, the taunting began again.
“Atiati, you foolish old man, don’t you know that the Mormons are going to drown you?”
“Hey, Atiati can you swim?”
“Go ahead, Mormons, sprinkle him since he can’t be immersed!”
We all felt the forces of evil surround us as we prepared for this, one of the most sacred of all gospel ordinances. Atiati had asked me to baptize him. I entered the water and turned to assist the elders in carrying Atiati into the water. As I reached up toward him, he looked at us and said, “Please, put me down.”
My heart sank. I feared that Atiati, steadfast and unwavering throughout all the weeks of our sharing the gospel with him, was now giving up. We missionaries felt feelings of doubt and frustration as we stared at this old man who had taught us so much in the little time we had known him. We hesitated, and again he requested that we put him down.
The crowd was aware that something was happening, and their taunts and laughter increased. Our faith in Atiati wavered. Atiati, guessing the reason for our hesitation, smiled and said, “This is the most important event in my life. I know without a doubt in my mind that this is the only way to eternal salvation. I will not be carried to my salvation! I will have faith in the Lord and his help.”
We lowered Atiati to the ground. Those who came to mock felt rewarded. To them, it appeared that Atiati was refusing baptism and that the Mormons had failed.
Atiati asked us to raise his hands so he could take hold of the railings. Exerting mighty effort, he attempted to pull himself up. The laughter faltered and began to die down. With his body shaking and perspiration breaking out on his forehead, Atiati stood. We all ached to reach out and assist him, but no one dared move. We were witnessing a miracle. A man who had lain in bed, twisted at every joint, unable to walk or even raise his arms, was now standing.
The crowd stood silent and astounded. No one moved or spoke. Their eyes could see, but their minds could not begin to comprehend.
Slowly, one trembling step at a time, Atiati descended into the waters of baptism. Overwhelmed by what was happening, I couldn’t even remember the words to the baptismal prayer. It took a few reassuring words from Atiati before I regained my composure and was able to perform the sacred ordinance. After I baptized him, Atiati asked to be carried from the font to the chapel, where we confirmed him a member of the Church and bestowed on him the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Atiati continued to be an inspiration. With the use of a cane, he quickly regained the ability to walk unassisted. The closest branch of the Church was three miles up a steep hill in the village of Aopo. Atiati left home at 4:00 A.M. each Sunday in order to arrive before the 10:00 A.M. meeting began.
Before I left the area, I had a final visit with Atiati. I asked him how he had known he would be able to walk on the morning of his baptism. He looked me directly in the eye and said, “Elder Peters, the Bible teaches us that faith can move mountains. Since faith can move a stubborn mountain, I had no doubt in my mind that it would mend these limbs of mine.”