“Conversation: The Church in the Pacific,” Ensign, Feb. 1998, 79–80
The Church’s Pacific Area covers not only Australia and New Zealand but also numerous islands of the sea, including Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Tonga. To learn more about the progress of the Church in the Pacific, the Ensign spoke with Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the Seventy, President of the Pacific Area; Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy, First Counselor; and Elder P. Bruce Mitchell, an Area Authority Seventy, Second Counselor.
Question: Can you briefly acquaint us with the historical background of the Church in the Pacific?
Response: The Pacific is an area of a very rich, long history for the Church. The first known missionary who learned to speak a language other than English was Addison Pratt, who was sent to French Polynesia by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the early 1840s. Many older Church members worldwide grew up hearing stories of Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in New Zealand, where the first stake of the Church outside the U.S., Canada, and Mexico was organized in Auckland in 1958.
The Church has had schools in New Zealand since the turn of the century. Church schools were established in Tonga and Samoa in the 1930s and 40s. There is a Church school in Kiribati called Moroni High School that was established in the 1970s. While the era of starting new Church schools has essentially ended, the existing schools continue to have a great influence, including helping prepare missionaries. Almost all the missionaries in Tonga are Tongans, and the same is true in Samoa.
Members have discovered this year some connections to the pioneer sesquicentennial that weren’t very well known, such as the Julia Ann story (see “Was It Not a Revelation from God?” Ensign, Oct. 1997, 10). Not everybody who came to Zion crossed the plains. People in this area did a wonderful job of celebrating faith in every footstep. In Samoa, for example, 5,000 Samoan Church members dressed in pioneer outfits and rode wagons and pulled handcarts down the main street.
Q: Can you tell us about recent developments in the Church in the Pacific?
R: Just within the last few years, there has been a remarkable pattern here. It is not just growth—it’s an attitude of growth that is reflected in the number of stakes, for instance. It is really quite dramatic to go from 60 to 100 stakes in five years. Some people might assume, “Well, you can always divide stakes,” but these divisions have been accompanied by a great effort among the members. The percentage of adults who are endowed has been going up, as well as the percentage of adult males who hold the Melchizedek Priesthood—a statistic, by the way, that may be the most significant predictor of all other Church activity. Growth has been accompanied by real improvement, and we sense a lot of vitality and maturity coming into the area.
Right now the Pacific Area has about 336,000 members, including 134,000 families. The area has 101 stakes, the most recent at this date resulting from a division of the four stakes on the main island of Tahiti. Seven of the area’s 13 mission presidents are from the Pacific Area. The number of young men going on missions has increased in the area; this year the goal is 1,500, which would be an increase of about 450. The area has five temples, of which nearly all the leaders and workers are local members. Australia has 108 family history centers, New Zealand 34, and elsewhere in the Pacific 28. Last year about 200,000 people visited those centers.
The Church has come out of obscurity in the Pacific in some remarkable ways recently. President Gordon B. Hinckley visited Australia and New Zealand in May 1997 and five Pacific islands in October 1997, and the public media paid much attention to those visits as well as to Church pioneer sesquicentennial events during the year. One of Australia’s most widely watched TV programs, which usually presents investigative reports about frauds and scams, looked at the Church through the eyes of two native Australian missionaries. The missionaries turned out to be wonderful ambassadors and spokesmen for the Church, and the response to the program was as positive as anything we have seen.
Q: Will you comment more in depth about a few of the specific locations in the area?
R: The area is quite diverse not only culturally but economically. At one extreme are the sophisticated and successful businessmen of Australia and New Zealand, and at the other extreme is Papua New Guinea, which suffers from 85 percent unemployment and 15 percent literacy. That combination makes Papua New Guinea one of the most challenging places in the world right now. But the 38 missionaries of the Papua New Guinea mission are doing very well. They had 51 baptisms during a recent month. A Tongan mission president leads them, and most of them are native Melanesians, with a few Samoans and Tongans.
Australia is increasingly becoming a hub for the globalization between the West and the East. Because Sydney is so cosmopolitan and such a cultural and educational center, it attracts a very interesting international population. In the Hyde Park area, missionaries are finding a lot of openness and receptivity to the gospel message among international young people. They are very bright, capable people, mostly from Asian countries.
The Australian aborigines have what many regard as the world’s oldest living continuous culture, and many of them consciously distance themselves from modern culture. But missionaries are finding increasing interest among them, and there is an aboriginal branch in the Northern Territory. When aboriginal people stay in the Church long enough to get to the temple, they gain a vision about the meaning of the universe that helps them sort the true from the false in their own tradition. They have many true religious concepts to build upon, such as their sense that life has a purpose and their belief in a premortal life, life after death, and the need to be in harmony with nature.
Much cross-fertilization occurs among the cultures of the Pacific, and the Church is still opening new frontiers. The Church in New Zealand is interesting because of its strong Polynesian heritage. While about 80 percent of New Zealand’s population is of European descent and 20 percent is Polynesian, in the Church just the reverse is true.
Kiribati is a fascinating place with an especially interesting story. Several of those small islands played a key role in World War II. Back in the early 1970s some young people in Kiribati wanted more education, so they looked all over the Pacific for better schools. With the help of their teachers they decided to go to Tonga to the Church’s Liahona High School. Many of them joined the Church, went on missions, and then went back to their homeland. The first stake there was organized a year and a half ago. Another fascinating out-of-the-way location is French-speaking New Caledonia, which has been influenced by members from Tahiti. Elsewhere, missionaries first began proselyting in the Solomon Islands as recently as 1994.
The Church in the Pacific is becoming a model for international peace and harmony. In some congregations, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, visitors will see Asians, Polynesians, Europeans, and South Americans worshiping together. These countries are gathering places where different cultures are blending, and the gospel unites them. Latter-day Saint congregations are good models for cities, states, and countries as the world becomes more of a global village and people of diverse backgrounds learn to get along.