“Tonga: A Land of Believing People,” Ensign, Sept. 2001, 42
It is late Saturday afternoon on the island of Vava‘u. Samisoni and Meleane Uasila‘a, who have raised 20 children in addition to their own 12, are preparing for the Sabbath. The setting sun shines through the freshly washed white shirts hanging on the clothesline and reflects off the lush green foliage surrounding the house. A child sweeps the steps as others clean up the yard. Pigs and chickens scramble out of the way. Inside, Sister Uasila‘a and her daughters prepare lu for Sunday dinner. Each wraps a taro leaf around meat mixed with coconut milk, then rewraps it in a banana leaf to be cooked slowly overnight in an ‘umu, an outdoor “oven” of heated rocks covered by banana leaves. Brother Uasila‘a, a stake patriarch and the principal of the Church’s Saineha High School, and some of his sons work in the “bush” (their taro field). They toss weeds and debris into a smoldering fire. The sun is setting. Yellow light streams through the gently rising smoke, silhouetting one of the boys tending the fire with a long hoe.
Similar scenes of preparation are repeated in tens of thousands of Tongan homes each week, for keeping the Sabbath holy is a law in Tonga. Christianity began to take root here with the August 1831 baptism by Wesleyan missionaries of Taufa‘ahau, who became King George Tupou I. Tradition says that he committed the islands of Tonga to God by scooping up a handful of soil and lifting it heavenward in prayer. Today Tongans reverence the Sabbath—willingly. Nearly all stores or businesses are closed. No taxis or buses run. Everything is quiet.
Elder Pita Hopoate, an Area Authority Seventy and director of Church schools in Tonga, says: “King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV emphasizes keeping the Sabbath holy, so Tongans go to church on Sunday. Then they come home and eat their best meal of the week.”
However, parallels between aspects of the Tongan culture and the gospel do not end with Sabbath observance. “Family comes first to us,” says Elder Hopoate. “Mother, father, children, grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins, nieces, and nephews are all called family, not relatives. The Church emphasizes family, and this is one reason the Church is growing.”
And The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is growing here in the “friendly islands.” Of the 106,000 people in Tonga, more than 46,000 are Latter-day Saints—just over 40 percent—the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints in any country in the world. This comes as no surprise to many.
“When Tongans become Latter-day Saints, the gospel just refines their already good values,” says Helen Latu, a teacher at the Church’s Liahona High School. “For them, it’s like a double dose of the gospel.”
Mele Taumoepeau, principal of Liahona High School, agrees. “We live our lives mostly on faith,” she says. “The very fabric of our society is godlike.”
‘Alofanga (‘Alo) Moli’s life has been refined as a result of the gospel. As a young boy on Vava‘u, he was unable to attend school regularly because of severe headaches and nosebleeds. Though not a member of the Church, he fell in love with Ana, who was. ‘Alo was baptized in December 1957 and a short time later was called to serve as a labor missionary, helping to construct meetinghouses. But health problems still plagued him. Once as he lay stricken he was blessed that if he served the Lord, these ailments would never return—a priesthood blessing that was fulfilled.
‘Alo’s training and education increased as he magnified his Church callings. In 1960 he and Ana married. In 1962 they served a two-year mission together. Brother Moli was called as a branch president in each place they served.
After their mission, the Molis and their two baby daughters moved to the island of ‘Eua to farm with Ana’s brother. ‘Alo served as counselor to the district president. “Our mission prepared us for the callings we received,” he says. “Later I served as branch president for 11 years. The rest of our 14 children were born here.”
This gospel training carried over into his personal life. “After Hurricane Isaac hit in 1982, crops were ruined, and I needed work,” says Brother Moli. “An unexpected opportunity came for me to manage a general store for three years. My experience as branch president helped me know what to do. No one believed I could do it because I had not gone to school, but the Holy Ghost had taught me.”
Now the Molis and their children and grandchildren live in Liahona. ‘Alo serves as a temple sealer, Ana as a temple worker. “Though I have only been a farmer on a tiny Pacific island,” says ‘Alo, “I stand before the world as a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel and the reality of Jesus Christ.”
The first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Nuku‘alofa in 1891 and started the Tongan District of the Samoan Mission. The first Tongan Mission was created in 1916, but in 1922 a law prohibited all but a few Americans from getting visas. To meet this challenge, the mission president called Tongans to serve as missionaries in their own country. After two decades, Tonga built up a large core of faithful Melchizedek Priesthood leaders. In 1940, when American Church leaders left Tonga because of World War II, strong local leadership was already in place. And an important missionary tool came on 7 June 1946, when the Book of Mormon was published in Tongan.
Today, serving a mission is an established tradition among young Tongans. President Kelikupa Kivalu oversees the Tonga Nuku‘alofa Mission, which is one of the most successful local missionary programs in the Church. President Kivalu says, “The mission here averages 160 missionaries at any given time, and it’s rare when they are not all Tongans. They often know each other and the people they teach. They know the culture and the language. Members know them, feed them, and house them.”
In September 1968 the first stake in Tonga was created. Church membership was just over 10,000, and the mission had 10 districts and 50 branches. Since that time, Tongan leaders, including the mission president and the temple president, have been almost exclusively local members.
Among those early local leaders was Tonga Paletu‘a. Laughter still comes easily to this 78-year-old man, who was the first Tongan to serve in each of the following callings: mission president, regional representative, temple president, and patriarch. He and his wife, Lu‘isa Hehea Kona‘i, like many other Tongan couples, have provided strong leadership. Scrapbooks and hundreds of pictures of past decades of service fill one end of their living room. The other end is uncluttered and serene. Here Brother Paletu‘a gives patriarchal blessings, continuing his life of service.
Church schools have been an essential part of the establishment of the restored Church since the turn of the century. However, the construction of Liahona High between 1949 and 1952 by dozens of young Tongan labor missionaries was a milestone. Both the school and the labor missionary program served as catalysts for Church growth. Currently eight Church schools exist throughout the Tongan islands.
“The Church is the heart of Liahona High School,” says Mele Taumoepeau, principal since 1996, “and, in Tonga, Liahona High School is at the heart of the Church. It plays a pivotal role here. Thousands, totaling several generations, have graduated from here in its 52 years of existence. Its influence extends to New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and the United States, where many alumni live. Indeed Liahona High School is a real Liahona in every sense of the word—a light giving our students direction.”
Ninety-nine percent of the students at Liahona High School are members of the Church. In the 1950s, Sione Tualau Latu was among the few who were not. Like most students not of our faith who attend, Sione gained a testimony and was baptized. He remembers, “I came from a poor family with nine children who lived on a small island. My father died before I was born, and I wanted to do something to help. I decided to try and go to the Church College [now BYU—Hawaii], but I knew I would have to pass a difficult government exam. I was afraid. I had been taught that if you fast and pray, the Lord will give you the answer. So I began to look for a place to pray in private. On my way home from school, I passed a taro field with its tall, broad-leafed plants. I thought, If Joseph Smith can pray in a grove of trees and get an answer to his prayers, then I can pray here and get an answer to my prayers. I began to fast and returned to the taro patch. I made sure nobody was around, and then I knelt down underneath the broad taro leaves. I prayed for what seemed like a long time. I felt so close to my Heavenly Father. When I got up, my shirt was wet with tears.”
Sione Latu passed the test and got a scholarship. “I knew these things came to me in answer to my prayer under the taro plant. I knelt down and thanked the Lord and promised Him I would come back and help my family and my country.”
Brother Latu did come back and has served his people as a longtime Church leader and a gifted businessman. He is well suited for his calling as director of public affairs for the Church, where he enjoys a good rapport with leaders in the Church, community, and government. He sees the growing positive effect that the high percentage of Latter-day Saints has on the nation of Tonga.
For example, one community leader, who was a member of a television panel on Tongan youth set up by Brother Latu, said he admired Church missionaries because at a critical time in their lives, these young people turned their time to studying the scriptures and learning the ways of Jesus Christ.
“Here children have respect for their parents,” says Lani Hopoate. “It’s our culture, our tradition. You always try to behave yourself. Family pressure is real, but it’s a good pressure. You live in a village, everybody knows you. People watch over each other. You even have a chaperone when you date.”
Suliasi Vea Kaufusi, head of temporal affairs for the Church in Tonga, agrees. “Tongans tend to think of their family before they think of themselves. When my father died while I was at the Church College, I came home to help my mother provide for my 12 brothers and sisters. That’s typical here. Sometimes adult children leave Tonga to get better jobs and then send part of their salary back to their family. In fact, that is an important source of income for many families. But even when Tongans leave, they still feel a strong connection to Tonga because of their sense of family and community. My own brothers and sisters now live in Tonga, New Zealand, Hawaii, Utah, and California, but we are all close.”
Of course, there are times when a family suffers pain as the result of divorce. Being part of a large extended family and a loving ward helps these families heal. Gospel teachings help them remain faithful. Says one sister, whose husband left her and their seven children six years ago, “Though my husband was not a Latter-day Saint, the children and I always had family home evening, family prayers, and scripture study, including learning scriptures by heart. After he left, I found work in a bakery, and my older children found jobs too. Family and ward members helped us also.” In this family, the three oldest sons have all served missions and married in the temple, as has the oldest daughter. The younger children are still at home. “The priesthood of my sons and our testimonies of the gospel have sustained our family,” says this sister.
On this island with few large buildings, the gleaming white temple with its stained glass window is a landmark. Dedicated on 9 August 1983, the temple is open six days a week and stays open all night on the last Friday of every month—busy with members performing temple ordinances for their ancestors. Here, where family has always been important, Tongans have great interest in their ancestry. Graves are not only decorated with flowers, but many are decorated with a full-sized handmade quilt held in place by a wooden frame that remains until it naturally deteriorates. These quilts are often of intricate patchwork design and contain the name of the loved one. They are a reflection of the love and respect Tongans have for their deceased ancestors. In fact, many Tongans mourn for one year after the death of a loved one. Women wear black and often wrap a handwoven funeral mat around their body over their clothing and tie it at the waist.
In the past, Tongans recorded the names, dates, and places of their ancestors on long rolls of tapa cloth (rough paper made from pounded bark). Many families know their family history back hundreds of years. In modern times, many families who are Church members have transferred this information onto paper or typed it into a computer in preparation for performing the temple ordinances.
Everyone benefits. “Having a temple here brings a special feeling to all of Tonga,” says temple president Sione Fineanganofo.
Testimonies abound in Tonga of the power of the priesthood as a means of bringing comfort or healing to those in distress. When 44-year-old Sione Siaki of Tongatapu fell ill with fever and pain, most were fearful he would die. The hospital in Tonga was full, but a nurse brought medication to his home. Day after day he suffered, for more than a month. “I was just lying there waiting to die,” says Brother Siaki. “Then our Relief Society president suggested a ward fast. She talked with our bishop, and twice our ward of 300 members fasted for me. Before the fasts, I couldn’t move. Two weeks after the second fast, I sat up and gradually got better. Now I am a temple worker. When I am in the temple, it comes straight into my mind that maybe this is why I was saved.”
Mele, the daughter of ‘Ahongalu and ‘Ana Fulivai of Vava‘u, was another who was healed. Nine years ago, Mele collapsed with an unknown illness. From March to December she lay in the hospital with fever, seizures, and hallucinations. Her mother stayed with her during the day. At night her father, who had worked all day operating heavy machinery, came to the hospital and sat by her bed. Mele would relax as she held her father’s hand all night long, drawing comfort in the knowledge that he held the priesthood.
Mele has recovered gradually, with only occasional problems. Says Ana, “We have learned to trust in the Lord. He has blessed us in ways we did not expect.”
Says Sister Taumoepeau, “I appreciate how peaceful it is here, how safe. What we don’t have in monetary terms is more than made up for in the love we share and the faith that prevails. We may not have all the worldly things, but we are surely blessed with things of the Spirit.”
Tongans are also blessed with an abundance of food, which they freely share with others. It is, in fact, a token of love. Here wealth is measured by what one gives away, so generosity also extends to other areas of life and the gospel. At the home of Salesi and Saane Fifita in Tongatapu, 14 children, extended family, and friends gather around three tables set outside on handwoven mats. A long tapa cloth is lovingly draped over a nearby fence. Two whole roasted pigs are surrounded by platters of fresh lobster, crab, taro, squash, a 19-inch fish, a bowl of oysters, sushi, lu, and bowls of fresh watermelon and pineapple. Brother Fifita, a member of the high council, oversees the farming of 70 acres of crops such as squash, watermelon, and sweet potatoes for commercial sale. With a son on a mission and three children married in the temple, the Fifitas credit their blessings to living the gospel, especially to paying tithing and fast offerings.
The Fifitas are not alone in their gratitude for the bounty of food and family unity they enjoy. Here “prosperity” is available to all. It is found in the blue and green waters that yield crab, lobster, oysters, and fish in abundance. It is found in the fertile brown soil of these volcanic isles that freely produces coconuts, tapioca, squash, taro, and yams. And peace is found within the arms of family, where there is always someone to listen and give comfort.
It’s Monday evening in Vava‘u. Across the bush it is dark, but in town a warm light glows from the windows of many homes. Through the night air come the strains of “I Am a Child of God” from one of several family home evenings being held. From the home of Tukia and Linda Havea comes the giggling of children mixed with the words and music of “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree.”
“Music is the language wherein we teach the principles of the gospel to our children and unite them,” says Linda. “They sing and at times do not know the meaning, but it stays with them, and eventually they will understand.”
Across town, the Uasila‘a family is also holding their family home evening. As usual, several friends of their children have joined them as they sing “How Great Thou Art” and then discuss whom to invite to their next family home evening for the missionary discussions.
In home after home, there are believing people—Latter-day Saints as well as those of other faiths. All enjoy the promise given in Leviticus: “Ye shall keep my sabbaths. … Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. … And ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land. … For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you” (Lev. 26:2, 4–6, 9).
In Tonga, these blessings are poured out upon the land and upon these believing people.