“A Conversation with the Pacific Area Presidency,” Ensign, Dec. 1994, 70–71
Missionary work in the Pacific Area began when the first missionaries, sent by the Prophet Joseph Smith, arrived at Tahiti and nearby islands in 1844. To find out how the Church is prospering 150 years later in Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and neighboring islands, the Ensign spoke with Elder Lowell D. Wood of the Seventy, president of the Pacific Area, and with his counselors, Elders V. Dallas Merrell and Durrel A. Woolsey, also of the Seventy.
Question: Can you tell us about how the Church is progressing in your area?
Answer: The Church has been well established in the Pacific for many generations, with many fourth- and fifth-generation members. We have approximately 281,000 members, with sixty-two stakes, twenty-five districts, and five temples. We divided the Australia Sydney Mission last year, and in 1992 we created the Papua New Guinea Mission. We now have thirteen missions in the Pacific Area.
We are very encouraged by the Church’s progress. Our members are faithful, church-going people, and we have many committed leaders, mission presidents, and missionaries. Growth is steady, and we have a significant increase of baptisms this year as compared to last year. In New Zealand, about 40 percent of our full-time missionaries are local. In Samoa and Tonga, 90 percent of full-time missionaries are local.
Q: How does having such a large pool of missionaries aid the work?
A: It is a great help. We are even exporting missionaries. A lot of our Samoan and Tongan missionaries have been serving in New Zealand and Australia, and we have missionaries from Australia and New Zealand serving in Japan, Spain, France, Africa, and America. We have a mission president from Australia, Walter J. Bailey III, who has just been assigned as president of the New York New York South Mission. That is very exciting for us.
In the past few years, many local missionaries have studied another language as they served in other areas of the world. The experience they gain and bring back makes a great difference in the strength of local membership. We are encouraged by our returned missionaries, and we are still excited about our celebration earlier this year of the 150th anniversary of the first missionary work in Tahiti, Tubuai, and the Tuamotu islands, work begun by Addison Pratt and other early missionaries.
Q: Can you tell us about the members in the Pacific Area?
A: It’s always a joy to talk about our Saints. In one of the stakes in American Samoa, average attendance at sacrament meeting is 92 percent. Ninety percent of members attend stake conference. We have seen as many as twenty-four hundred people at a stake conference there. We have many faithful members and leaders.
The Lord’s temples are a great blessing to the members. We are fortunate to have temples in Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. Temples have been built on the islands because the members were so faithful in sacrificing everything they had to go to the temples in Hawaii and New Zealand.
Q: What are the kinds of challenges facing members in your area?
A: We would like more missionaries to pay more of their mission expenses, but in some of these places unemployment may be as high as 80 percent. It is very difficult in some cases to save money for a mission. However, we are encouraged by the economic progress and development we see happening on the islands.
In Australia and New Zealand, other problems arise. Big cities there are comparable to big cities anywhere, with all the evils of the modern world. Our members, especially our young people, are challenged to honor their covenants.
In the Pacific Area, as in other areas, we also face the challenges of retaining members after they are baptized and of reaching those less-active members who can contribute their leadership and strengths. But we are optimistic, and we feel good about what is happening.
Q: What do you see on the horizon in the Pacific Area?
A: We see steady Church growth. We are very pleased with the educational progress of members, and we expect increased educational and spiritual progress in the future. Over the past year, we have emphasized the young single adult program, centering it on a “chosen generation” theme. One focus is to show videos of General Authority firesides given at Brigham Young University. We are getting large numbers of young adults together for the firesides and also for social and cultural activities. We feel very encouraged with the increasing faithfulness of the young adults.
In Australia we expect strong family history work to continue. We have more family history libraries and more family history work done per capita in Australia than in most other areas of the Church. More than 80 percent of the work done in the Sydney Temple is done from family names generated in Australia. We are pleased with that.
As an area presidency, we have tried to focus on three things: increasing convert baptisms, reactivating less-active members, and increasing temple attendance and the number of temple recommend holders. We have worked toward these objectives for about four years, and our efforts are beginning to prove successful.
Q: How are Latter-day Saints in the Pacific Area sharing their faith and principles?
A: In late 1993, the area presidency initiated a plan throughout the Pacific Area to encourage Latter-day Saints to be good neighbors. Our primary interest is to invite Church members to reach beyond their comfortable circle of Church relationships and become positive influences in the wider community. Suggested areas of activity include conducting local community service projects during the weeks before ward and stake conferences, encouraging improved relationships with community leaders and the clergy of other faiths, and building stronger relationships with the media. There is much that Latter-day Saints can do to influence the ultimate direction of our communities and, in the process, bless the lives of members of other faiths and create a more favorable environment for the Church to accomplish its mission.
Q: Can you give us some examples of our people being good neighbors?
A: In Tonga earlier this year, the Church assisted in cleaning and beautifying local schools. The reaction from political leaders was one of surprise, then pleasure—surprise that a Church would do so much without any thought of reward, and pleasure at seeing the results. When the parliamentary speaker, a member of another faith, joined with us a short time later at stake conference, he was most effusive in his thanks and offered to personally support Church members’ efforts to search out their family histories.
It is surprising how quickly our members can influence the spirit of a community. This applies even in Australia, where the Church is relatively small and does not yet have a strong presence. John Grinceri, regional director of public affairs for the Church in Perth, the capital of the state of Western Australia, recently made a presentation on the Family First brochure and video to the head of the state government’s Office of the Family. This led to the development of a warm friendship. A few weeks later, the Church was invited, along with eight other community organizations, to help organize the state government’s Year of the Family conference under the direction of Brother Don Cummings, former Sydney Temple president. The conference’s principal guest speaker was Terrance Olson, chair of Brigham Young University’s Family Science Department. He also gave lectures in other parts of the country and, in meetings with state and federal politicians, presented a formal submission from the Church on the importance of families.
To bring a sharper focus to the “good neighbors” plan, we recently brought together Latter-day Saint community and business leaders in meetings in New Zealand and Australia to encourage these members to take an active role in improving the quality of life in the general community.
There are many examples of individual Church members being good neighbors. The recent Australian bush fires gave our members an opportunity to participate in areas of real community need. Many Church members went the extra mile in assisting firemen and fire victims. In giving clothing and blankets, making food for exhausted firefighters, or simply comforting stranded motorists, Latter-day Saints did their part during a major community emergency.
We feel blessed to witness Church members living their faith whether they’re in countries where the Church is one of the major religious groups such as in Samoa and Tonga, or where it is among the smallest, such as in Australia. Both environments provide unique challenges. Yet the Saints are moving forward no matter what obstacles are placed in front of them.
Q: What can Latter-day Saints worldwide learn from Pacific Area Saints?
A: The same things we can all learn from each other—that faithfulness, obedience, and sacrifice bring happiness. That is a universal truth, not just an area truth. In some island locations in our area, according to Western standards, there is great poverty. In those areas, some people live very simply. Some have thatched-roof homes. Some sleep and cook on the ground. Some have no furniture. Yet they are happy. Some people might believe or assume that these members are not happy because they do not have much. But they have the gospel, and they demonstrate that you do not have to have a lot of material possessions to be happy. I think that is a valuable lesson for a lot of us to recognize and remember.