Tucked far away into the distant reaches of the Pacific Ocean are 840 islands grouped together into the nation of Fiji. On many of the 106 inhabited islands of Fiji, new ideas—gospel principles and programs—are beginning to take root.
Membership in the Church now exceeds 1,500, and it is growing rapidly. The mission itself is young, having been organized in July 1971, but missionary work on the islands dates back to 1893, when Elders Brigham Smoot and Alva John Butler, sailing on the Wainui from Samoa, landed at Nuku‘alofa, about 400 miles southeast of Suva, capital of Fiji. They built a headquarters, bought a 13-foot boat “complete with sail, oars, and an anchor,” and set out to teach islanders in the southwest Pacific.
Fiji is some 3,200 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,300 miles north of New Zealand. It was part of the Samoan and Tongan missions before its several hundred islands were made a separate mission. Also included in the Fiji Mission today are the Cook Islands and Niue Island. Although the Cook Islands are closer to Samoa and Tonga than they are to Fiji, they have been included in the Fiji Mission because of better air-travel connections.
Elder Melvin Thomas Day of Bountiful, Utah, who recently returned from a mission to Fiji, said air travel to the Cook Islands was really limited. “After you fly there, you have two choices—you either stay 20 minutes or one week,” he reported.
Elder Johnny Pitt of Lakeview, Utah, who served in the Cook Islands Zone of the mission, reports on the growth he saw there during his two-year mission. “When I first arrived, the districts were under the jurisdiction of missionary couples. Now the responsibility has been given to the local Saints. The people are exercising their own priesthood and leadership abilities.”
In the South Pacific, as elsewhere in the Church, the local members are encouraged to accept positions of leadership in church and community activities. As a result, most branch officers are local members; the branch presidents and their counselors are nearly all Fijians, Indians, Tongans, Samoans, Rotumans, or other nationalities who have settled in the islands.
This diversity of native origin is evident throughout the mission. On a street in downtown Suva one can see Fijian men in Sulu skirts; bearded Sikhs from Punjab; Brahmans from Bihar; Hindus from Bombay; Melanesians; Micronesians; Polynesians; Chinese; and Europeans. Most government positions are held by persons of English, Australian, and New Zealand extraction. Within the Fiji Mission, Fijians, Cook Islanders, and Niueans look, speak, and dress differently.
The Saints in Fiji are growing in their knowledge of the gospel, and their testimonies and spirituality are increasing daily, according to President and Sister Sherman Lindholm, now of Tooele, Utah, who were the first couple called to preside over the new Fiji Mission.
Sister Lindholm tells of a Relief Society president in a tiny branch where 12 women—ten of them nonmembers—attended Relief Society. “She gave the women lessons and then challenged them to make their lives and surroundings better. She showed them how to improve their homes by putting up partitions for privacy and how to plant attractive vines to grow up over their thatched roofs, how to crochet doilies, how to clean more efficiently. The village chief didn’t want this woman in his village at first. But when she took him around and showed him how the village had been improved, he agreed she could stay and the meetings could continue.”
Priesthood holders on the island of Mangaia received favorable public attention by a service project of cleaning up the shoulders of the roads on their islands, Elder Pitt reported.
Church activities enjoyed by the Saints worldwide are finding great favor in Fiji, President and Sister Lindholm declare. The family home evening program is becoming very popular in families comprised of Church members; Sunday School and sacrament meetings are well attended; home teaching participation is growing; and socials and activities sponsored by the Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood MIAs are particularly successful. “Everyone pitches in and helps plan the parties, especially if there is food!” says Elder Day.
In Relief Society the women learn quilting and other handicrafts, in addition to crafts such as weaving mats and baskets. The Relief Society visiting teaching program has been difficult to accomplish, however, because the Church members are so scattered over the islands.
More than 140 students are enrolled in a Church-sponsored school that meets in the Suva chapel. Fiji has no compulsory education, so schools there are run by churches. Of the students attending the Church school, about 60 percent are Indian and 40 percent Fijian.
Missionary work results in many conversions among these people, despite some unusual difficulties of travel and language. Elder Pitt recalls that he logged more than a thousand miles on his mission, traveling among the Cook Islands on small boats at an average speed of five to ten knots. In Fiji, missionaries speak English, Fijian, Hindustani, and Chinese; in Niue they speak Niuean; in the Cook Islands they speak Maori.
The missionaries often find difficulties in coping with local traditions such as diversity of language and customs, as well as the many faiths found on the islands—Christian, Hindu, Moslem, and others. Some persons still practice witchcraft, and others worship ancient gods.
But the spirit of the gospel is touching many hearts among these friendly, generous, easygoing people. The islanders demonstrate great faith, believe strongly in the power of the priesthood, and frequently ask to be healed by administration. Sister Lindholm tells of a woman who came to the mission home one day and asked to be administered to on behalf of her sick mother, who was unable to come to the elders. She was told that the administration should not be conducted that way, but the mission home personnel prayed with the woman for her mother’s recovery.
A 78-year-old woman who lived on the island of Aitutaki always walked a mile and a half to and from Church, despite the affliction of elephantiasis, which had greatly enlarged her limbs. One Sunday when she did not come to church, the missionaries became concerned and went looking for her. She was ill with pneumonia in a hospital. They administered to her, and two days later she was home and doing her work again.
The Lindholms tell of one convert, a preacher named Filimoni, who had become interested in the Church after reading about the Mormons in an encyclopedia. One day they received a telephone call from a nonmember Indian who said a friend of his wanted to meet them. The friend, Filimoni, invited President and Sister Lindholm and other members to meet with his congregation. A group of the Saints traveled by boat up a river to the village where the man preached and told them about the gospel. Later Filimoni, his wife, and their children were baptized.
The Fijian Saints have been blessed in many ways. For example, in October, 1972, Hurricane Bebe roared across the islands with winds reported at 182 miles an hour in one of the worst South Pacific disasters of the century. Royal New Zealand Air Force rescue planes were unable to land on the islands because of the extensive litter on the runways. Three-hundred-ton fishing boats capsized. Main roads were cut off by fallen trees and swollen rivers. The storm left 13 persons dead, 100 injured, and more than 3,000 homeless. However, among the Latter-day Saints there was only minimal property damage, and no injuries or deaths were reported.
Again, in 1972, Hurricane Agatha destroyed most of the fruit crop on the island of Aitutaki, and while some Church members sustained property damage, there were no injuries.
“Great faith is often shown by these people,” Sister Lindholm says. Sister Kini Sokia of Suva is an example of this faith. She and her family joined the Church in 1957 after reading a book about Mormons. The book, which had been discarded by a local library, had been found in a trash can by a relative of the Sokias.
While the Sokias were saving money to go to the New Zealand Temple, Sister Sokia’s husband died of a heart attack. She said that although she could not afford to go to the temple then, she would eventually go, because “the Lord will provide.” A Mormon family read about the Sokias in a newspaper and offered to finance the family’s trip to the temple.
When Sister Sokia learned that her family could at last go to the temple, she said, “See, the Lord has provided.”
It is a fitting story to symbolize the faith and devotion of the Saints in Fiji.