Tamana is the smallest of the Gilbert Islands, which are now known as the Republic of Kiribati. Tamana is only 4 miles long by 0.5 miles wide (6.4 x 0.8 kms) and is home to about 1,000 people.
Over a century ago, Samoan missionaries brought the protestant church to Tamana. In honour of those missionaries, the Tamana people made a covenant marked by the construction of a monument. They vowed that they would only ever practice one faith: the Kiribati Protestant Church, or the KPC.
To this day, Tamana has honoured that covenant, refusing missionaries from other churches and even reportedly casting stones at any who tried to step down from their plane. On 18 October 2020, Tamana will celebrate 150 years of KPC solidarity.
Given this history, when Elder and Sister Brock—humanitarian missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—were invited to Tamana, they were excited and cautious at the same time. What if the rumours were true? As members of a different faith, would they face the same discrimination? Was it wise to accept the invitation?
Elder and Sister Brock’s interest in Tamana began in the early days of their mission to the Republic of Kiribati. While reviewing existing welfare projects, Sister Brock came across a request for 12 rainwater tanks to be installed in Tamana.
She learned that this most sparsely populated island of Kiribati was working hard to replace the thatched roofs of 12 village manweabas (meeting houses) with metal roofing. One benefit of metal roofing is that it allows rainwater to be caught and collected, which is why Tamana needed the 12 rainwater tanks. “The villagers would [then] have clean water,” says Sister Brock, “and not have to worry about saltwater seeping into their wells. It sounded like the perfect project.”
Sister Brock emailed Kiribati’s member of parliament from Tamana to find out if the rainwater tanks were still needed, and to arrange a meeting. MP Tekeeua Tarati responded almost immediately.
It was over their lunch meeting that Tekeeua explained to the Brocks the religious history of Tamana. Himself a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tekeeua described growing up on the shores of Tamana and shared how difficult it was for him to become the MP for the island because of his differing faith.
But it seemed like the hearts of the Tamana people were softening. In early 2019, the island was damaged by a tremendous storm. “As a church, we offered emergency assistance,” says Sister Brock. After an initial rejection on religious grounds, the aid was eventually accepted, and the Church immediately sent a cargo ship full of supplies. The Church received a letter of gratitude in behalf of the Tamana people.
Before Elder and Sister Brock traveled to Tamana, Tekeeua conducted a series of meetings with the island’s local community leaders. He explained to them that the Brocks were not proselyting missionaries, that they only wanted to establish a connection with Tamana so they could begin the work of installing rainwater tanks. “The island leaders counseled together and asked the communities if they would support such a visit,” says Sister Brock. “Surprisingly, the consensus was unanimous: ‘They can come.’”
Still a little apprehensive, the Brocks packed two new wheelchairs, two sets of crutches and other medical supplies then caught their 2-hour flight to Tamana. “We agreed that we would not wear our missionary tags,” says Sister Brock. Instead, she wore a wooden heart she’d made at a girl’s camp while serving as the Stake Young Women’s President back home in Atlanta, Georgia. “I knew that if they saw the heart pin on my dress, they would know first that ‘love’ is what we are about.”
As it turns out, the love was abundant on both sides. When they arrived, the Brocks were warmly greeted at the airport with fragrant leis, iced coconuts and an entourage that included the local pastor, the head elder of their congregation, the church councilman, villagers and even the mayor. Over the next week, the Brocks met often with the local church members—fellowshipping, celebrating, feasting and worshipping with them. When they finally left Tamana, it was like leaving family.
As humanitarian missionaries, Elder and Sister Brock live by the counsel of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always. Use words if necessary.”
Sister Brock reflects that acts of service, love, compassion and unity are powerful expressions of one’s faith. “We will be forever grateful to MP Tekeeua Tarati for inviting us to Tamana to meet such Christlike people,” she says. “I pray that our desire to provide clean water to their villages is a bridge to continued Christian fellowship.”