Saints in the Land of the Long White Cloud

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“Saints in the Land of the Long White Cloud,” Ensign, Mar. 2002, 42

Saints in the Land of the Long White Cloud

In New Zealand, members draw strength from temple attendance, their increased recognition in the country, and the vibrant mix of cultures they share.

Evidence of God’s hand is abundant in New Zealand—or Aotearoa, Maori for “Land of the Long White Cloud.” The verdant landscape itself testifies of a divine Creator, from the miles of windswept beaches to the bush-covered hills and the rugged mountain peaks that stretch toward the sky. Indeed, the New Zealand national anthem is a prayer to God:

God of nations, at Thy feet,

In the bonds of love we meet.

Hear our voices, we entreat;

God defend our free land. …

Like so many other countries, however, New Zealand is increasingly following the trends of the world—including the trend away from organized religion. Yet numerous Latter-day Saints here, anchored with a long history in the country, are holding firmly to their faith, fortifying their testimonies through temple attendance, heightening awareness of the Church through public affairs efforts, and drawing strength from the unique blend of cultures that forms their membership.

Faithful, Stalwart Members

Latter-day Saint missionaries first came to New Zealand in October 1854. Converts were few until the 1880s, when missionary work commenced among the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Many Maori felt a spiritual and cultural connection with the Church and believed the coming of the missionaries to be the fulfillment of Maori prophecy. Consequently, numerous Maori joined the Church, helping it establish a firm foothold in the country. Today, while a majority of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand are of Maori or other Polynesian ancestry, the Church is growing among those of many different ethnic backgrounds. And while most Latter-day Saints are first- or second-generation members, it is not uncommon to meet people whose history in the Church reaches back several generations.

Gloria Kelly’s history has been intertwined with that of the Church for many years. A fourth-generation member, she was baptized in the Auckland Harbour on 8 March 1952 and was among the first students to attend the Church College of New Zealand, a Church-owned high school in Temple View near Hamilton. (The term college is often applied to high schools in New Zealand.) She vividly remembers the bustle of activity in Temple View as labor missionaries rushed to put the final touches on the college and on the gleaming new temple before its dedication in April 1958, and she was in the congregation when President David O. McKay (1873–1970) dedicated the sacred building. She also recalls the heady days of working with members of her close-knit branch to build a new meetinghouse—one of the first in the Auckland area. Now, there are 10 stakes and numerous meetinghouses in the region.

As she has seen the Church grow and progress, she has also observed her once-isolated country rush to catch up with the rest of the world. Yet with the progress in New Zealand have come challenges. “When I first joined the Church, no one in New Zealand did anything on a Sunday besides go to church or spend time with their families,” she says. “All the shops were closed. Now we’ve got Sunday shopping, rugby games, and so on.”

Elder Lindsay Dil, an Area Authority Seventy in the Australia/New Zealand Area, says the country was religiously inclined until fairly recently. “A generation ago most people at least would go to Sunday School, so they had a religious foundation,” he says. “There’s been a marked change in the last 10 or 15 years, with a move away from the churches to being seekers of leisure.”

Many factors have contributed to the growing secularization of the country. As in other developed countries, the increasing influence of television, movies, and the Internet has diverted attention away from religion. A ban on Sunday shopping was lifted just over a decade ago, leading people to flock to the stores rather than the churches. Working hours have been increased, with a six-day workweek being common, leaving little time for other activities. In addition, the country is extremely sports-minded, and participation in athletics takes a sizeable portion of New Zealanders’ time. In fact, many make the tongue-in-cheek remark that the national religion is rugby. “It’s the Super Bowl almost every day of the year,” says Elder Glen L. Rudd, a former member of the Seventy who has spent many years in the country.

The traditional family is also becoming less common here, with more and more couples opting to live together before marriage or choosing not to marry at all. The number of couples living in these de facto relationships increased 46 percent between 1991 and 1996.

Yet the influence of the gospel is helping many Latter-day Saint families combat these trends. “We have very faithful, stalwart members here,” says Elder Dil. “To be a Latter-day Saint in New Zealand, you are really different, so you’ve got to be very strong in defending your faith. We have many faithful members who give their all in building the kingdom.”

It can be especially challenging for young people to be confronted with so many temptations, yet, most notably in areas where local leadership is strong and the institute program is thriving, there are many examples of youth and young adults who are firm in their faith. Remarks Scott Butters, president of the Wellington stake and director of the Wellington institute of religion, “What impresses me is that so many of the kids here in the Wellington area love the Lord and stay with Him all the way in spite of everything they’re facing. They are wise enough to say the Lord comes first.”

Twenty-year-old Sheree Saili is an example of one such vibrant young Church member. She joined the Church at age nine, together with other members of her family, and her Samoan-born father is now bishop of the Tawa Ward, Wellington stake.

Sheree points to the influence of her parents, youth leaders, and the institute program in helping her stay strong. “When I was in a certain situation I just imagined what my parents would think, and that helped me to know the right thing to do.” Additionally, she says, “The Young Women program really helps you during that age, just to know there are other people like you with the same standards and beliefs. Even though at times it may seem hard, it helps to know that other people are facing the same challenges you are.” Now that she is older, the institute program has taken on that role. Institute “is quite popular in Wellington,” she says. “If we don’t attend, President Butters will ring us up and say, ‘I didn’t see you at institute last week.’”

Currently Sheree is influencing other young people as she teaches early-morning seminary in her ward.

A Continual Emphasis on the Temple

New Zealand was among the first countries outside the United States to have a temple, and consequently, Church members here have the blessing of being “temple aware.” Many members say this has helped them have an eternal perspective and hold fast to that which is most important in their lives.

“Since 1958, when the temple was dedicated, there has been a continual emphasis on the temple,” says temple president and former member of the Seventy Rulon G. Craven. “The temple is the doctrinal icon of the Saints in New Zealand. Because of the high cost of literature here, many Saints can’t afford to buy Church books. There’s not a lot of individual study except in the scriptures. I think they get a lot of their doctrine from the temple.”

For many Church members, particularly in the South Island, getting to the temple means traversing long distances, and it represents a sacrifice in both time and money. Some members travel 24 hours or more to reach the temple. Noeline Odgers of the Christchurch stake says that those sacrifices help members appreciate the sacredness of the temple experience. “The rewards are great, and it’s so much sweeter for us,” she says. Noeline and her husband, Allistair, have made it a goal to take their four children to the temple yearly so that they can do baptisms for the dead. “We find it keeps them focused. It just keeps that desire in their hearts to be valiant,” she says.

Shane and Noni Kereama of the Timaru Branch, Christchurch stake, radiate excitement as they share the story of their conversion and their feelings for the temple. They were baptized in 1998, and the following year, together with their two children, they were sealed as a family. Their youngest child was born in the covenant in 2000. “You’ve got to have the goal of going to the temple so you have a better understanding of your purpose,” says Shane. “Because we’ve received the blessings of the temple, it’s really kept Noni and me strong.”

Breaking Down Barriers

While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the sixth largest church in the country, many New Zealanders know little about it. Yet as members gain confidence and participate more actively in their communities, the Church’s presence is becoming increasingly known. “In the Church we’ve probably been somewhat insular; we’ve tended to do a lot of things on our own,” says Stephen Keung, president of the Auckland Panmure stake and multistake chair of public affairs for Auckland. “It’s only recently that we’ve been opening ourselves for the community to see us.”

Sydney Shepherd, national director of public affairs, says that one of the challenges the Church faces in New Zealand is in “trying to persuade government, community, and other religious leaders that we are just regular people. But there has been an opening of doors with leaders that wouldn’t have been possible 5 or 10 years ago. We’ve seen the breaking down of barriers and the corresponding change in attitude in people not of our faith.”

An activity that has helped the Church become better known in the Auckland area is the staging of an annual “Family Week.” For the past seven years, the Church, together with other religious and civic organizations, has sponsored the event in the five cities of the area. During the week various seminars and family-oriented activities are held; each has the full support of the local mayors. President Keung says, “When we started, the Area Presidency and Church Public Affairs made it very clear that the messages we needed to get across were, number one, we are good neighbors; number two, we are a Christ-centered church; and three, we are a family-oriented church.” Several other stakes outside the Auckland area sponsor similar family-oriented programs.

Another event that has generated positive publicity is the annual Christmas temple lights display, which began in 1985. The largest Christmas lights display in the country, it attracted more than 145,000 visitors during December 2000. Church musical groups perform each night during the month, and starting in December 2000, various political, civic, and business leaders turn on the lights and deliver a Christmas message. Last December prime minister Helen Clark was among the invited VIPs who attended. As people come to view the lights, says President Craven, “they see the temple and feel the sacredness of it.”

Other successful public affairs and missionary efforts have been organized by staff members at the temple visitors’ center. The center sponsors musical programs and firesides, some of which are held in remote locations. The firesides have generated numerous missionary referrals.

Additional public affairs efforts have been reaping results. For example, members have placed Church materials in many local libraries, most of which had stocked little Church literature. “The librarians don’t know what is accurate Latter-day Saint material and what isn’t,” says Noeline Odgers. “So we’ve contributed Church publications and then we educate the members to use these Church library books as a resource.”

A Church for All Cultures

Latter-day Saint congregations in New Zealand are noted for their friendliness, and visitors entering a typical meetinghouse will likely be greeted with a friendly hug and kiss on the cheek. Much of that warmth of spirit comes from the influence of Polynesian members. Approximately 80 percent of Church members are Maori or come from nearby Pacific islands, particularly Samoa and Tonga, while 20 percent are of European descent (pakeha). Yet in the country as a whole, the reverse is true: 72 percent of the population is of European descent, while 14.5 percent are Maori and the remaining 13.5 percent are Pacific Islander, Asian, or of other ethnic backgrounds.

The mix of cultures “is a great blend,” observes President Craven. Gloria Kelly agrees that each of the cultures brings its own unique strengths, yet she notes, “There’s got to be a certain amount of give and take. The Europeans get used to the fact that the Polynesians are more informal, while the Polynesians get used to the fact that Europeans are more formal. But the wonderful thing is that we’ve got a common bond—the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

For many first-generation members with a strong cultural heritage, some cultural tugging is a challenge. Each must ask, “Is my first priority my culture or my religion?” Selesi‘utele T. Lavea, president of the Christchurch stake, knows these challenges firsthand as a native of Samoa. “I let people know that there is no culture more important than the culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he says. “Often our leaders tell us there are some good things about a culture to bring to the Church, but there are other things that are not relevant. That is what I am trying to teach.”

Some New Zealanders have perceived the Church as being a “Maori church” or an “American church,” but public affairs and missionary efforts are helping to show that the Church is for all, regardless of ethnic background. “Happiness in family life is most likely to occur when it is based on the principles of the gospel,” says President Keung, who is of both Maori and Chinese heritage. “When you promote that, you get away from whether the Church is for any particular group. When people understand the doctrine and see the Church in its fullest sense, they see that it is universal.”

Joe Tai, a member of the Cashmere Ward, Christchurch stake, is an example of one whose Maori heritage ultimately helped lead him to the Church. His wife, Helena, was a Church member but was not active when the couple married. Ten years later she decided to return to activity, and after several years she was called to be the Relief Society president in her ward. Joe, while not interested in the Church at the time, was supportive, taking her to and from meetings and members’ homes because of health challenges that made walking difficult for her.

For nearly 20 years Helena invited missionaries to their home periodically to have dinner, and they would “practice” the discussions on Joe. But while he enjoyed their company, he resisted their message—that is, until one day when he was researching information for his whakapapa, or Maori genealogical line. He happened upon an account of his great-uncle, a Maori chief, who had prophesied that a house of worship would be built on land where the temple now stands. The chief’s contemporaries had scoffed at the notion, but for Brother Tai, the realization of fulfilled prophecy was astounding. “I almost fell off my chair,” he recalls. “That was really the turning point for me.” Soon thereafter he was baptized, and the couple were sealed in the temple in February 2000. “There’s a different atmosphere in our home now,” Helena observes. “We’re moving toward the same goals, and we’re both heading in the same direction. It makes a difference.”

Throughout New Zealand, Church members are moving toward goals of their own: more strong families, increased temple attendance, and an enhanced ability to make a positive difference in their communities. “We’ve come such a long way in just the past five years,” says Elder Dil. “I look at the next five years and think, ‘We can’t even imagine where we’ll be.’ We’re a dedicated group of people, and we will keep on progressing.”

New Zealand at a Glance

Map of New Zealand

© Digital Wisdom/Mountain High Maps

Population: 3.8 million

Capital city: Wellington (163,800)

Largest city: Auckland (367,700)

Church members: 90,000

Temples: 1 (Hamilton New Zealand Temple)

Stakes: 25

The Auckland Stake, organized in 1958, was the first stake outside North America. Twenty-four stakes are on the North Island; one stake is on the South Island.

Wards and branches: 210

Missions: 2 (New Zealand Auckland and New Zealand Wellington Missions)

Photography by Rebecca M. Taylor, except as noted

Allistair and Noeline Odgers find that their family’s yearly trips to the temple help keep their testimonies strong. Background: Wainui Beach is on the east coast of the North Island. (Photo by David C. Gaunt.)

Above: Gloria Kelly attended the New Zealand temple dedication in 1958. Background: New Zealand is renowned for its lush landscape. (Photo © PhotoDisc.) Far right: Lotomau and Makerita Fesolai and their children, members of the Christchurch stake, enjoy home evening.

Top left: Young women practice for a New Beginnings program. Bottom left: Noni and Shane Kereama, baptized in 1998, now eagerly share the gospel with others. Above: Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city. Right: Sheree Saili teaches seminary in her ward.

Above inset: Peaceful scenes such as this attract visitors from all over the world. (Photo © Digital Stock.) Above: The Fjordlands at Milford Sound on the South Island rank as one of the wonders of the world with their rugged beauty. (Photo by Brian K. Kelly.) Right: Since Joe Tai’s baptism, his wife, Helena, has noticed a different atmosphere in their home. Inset: Elder Lindsay Dil, an Area Authority Seventy in the Australia/New Zealand Area.