A recent Ensign article on the growth of the Church in the South Pacific has reminded me of the vigor, the jostle, the significance of my teenage years during the 1950s at the Auckland Branch at Scotia Place.
When my family emigrated to New Zealand from Western Samoa in 1948, the Auckland Branch became our second home and the members an extended family.
To us whose homes had no refrigerators, electric or gas stoves, running hot water, or central heating, the Auckland chapel was a palace. The shiny American bathrooms, the baptismal font murals, the curving staircase, the lily pond with bright blossoms, and the large accordion doors separating the chapel from the cultural hall—all made me glad to be a Latter-day Saint. Most important among my memories, however, are the opportunities I had to rub shoulders with so many fine people—to serve them, be served by them, learn from them, laugh and cry with them as we grew together in the gospel.
When barely twelve years old, I was asked to be the junior Sunday School secretary, thus beginning my official service in the Church. The junior Sunday School coordinator in the branch at the time was Catherine Richards, who later became my MIA Maid teacher. “You follow her counsel,” my mother told me; so when “Auntie Cathy” suggested that my cousin Angeline and I bear our testimonies for the first time, we did.
The social activities planned at the branch for the young people stimulated our school and work days with anticipation and excitement. There were ferry rides and all-day picnics to Waiheke Island, swimming excursions to the hot springs of St. Helen’s, softball games at Mission Bay, Hui Tau (mission conferences) in the country towns of North Island, operettas like The Gondoliers, and musical extravaganzas like A Rhapsody in Bronze.
As an MIA member, I attended the ward and stake dances held in the Auckland chapel. My father played in the orchestra and kept his eye on his seven children still at home—two boys and five girls. Often he would leave his tenor sax on the stand, walk down to the floor, and dance with his daughters. I can still remember his strong arms leading me in a foxtrot or a waltz. After the dance almost everyone took the city bus home. We were a chattering, laughing crowd spreading cheer from the heart of Auckland to our homes in the suburbs.
I cannot speak of the Auckland Branch without talking about the missionaries; they were our links to the Church in Utah. Whether they came from Florida, Arizona, or Maine, they were, as far as we were concerned, Salt Lake City boys. We never tired of their energy, enthusiasm, and appetites—they never refused dinner invitations, for they were always hungry. My family learned American geography, history, customs, and philosophy from them. With their Viewmasters and slide projectors they filled our Sunday evenings with mystery, literature, beauty, and inspiration.
Everyone rubbed shoulders: the high, the low, the poor, the rich. The mission president, his wife, and their children were our friends. They cared about us and we cared about them. We sought fatherly handshakes from President Gordon C. Young; we predicted a great future for missionary Jerold Ottley (we’re Polynesian proud when we see him conducting the Tabernacle Choir).
In January of 1955 President David O. McKay came to New Zealand to visit the Saints. We planned an elaborate entertainment for him, and I was chosen to represent the Samoans in welcoming him. I rehearsed again and again the ceremony of bestowing a kiss and a lei on the President of the entire Church. But just prior to the actual performance, I was informed that in the interest of time only one representative would bid the prophet a personal welcome. I was not the one. My heart broke right there in the cultural hall kitchen, but there was no time to cry. That night I performed in silence, not singing even one note—the lump in my throat was too big. After the performance there were hundreds of words of comfort but none healed my disappointment.
On the morning of President McKay’s departure, a message was delivered to my home: I was to bid President McKay farewell, and the ceremony would be the same as the one I had faithfully practised! Dressed in a white blouse and a black skirt pinned at the waist with two large safety pins, I was doubly thrilled when President McKay clasped my hands, saying, “Thank you” and “Good-bye.” As everyone sang “God be with you till we meet again,” tears filled my eyes.
My coming of age in Auckland began when I was allowed to attend the Hui Tau, the exciting mission conferences. Once, the younger half of my thirteen brothers and sisters traveled to Templeview in the back of a truck with the band instruments. The bus trips were always filled with singing, dancing, and joking. Many performances were rehearsed and polished during those long trips. The year I sported a pink dress with matching pink shoes that came all the way from Los Angeles was the year I danced my first floor show. I was young then. When I was sixteen I sailed for America.
Recently I renewed a friendship with a former Auckland Branch sister. I was touched to discuss with her a very special moment in her life and mine—one which inspired a virtuous commitment on my part throughout my young life. When my friend was a young woman she had a baby out of wedlock. The Sunday her child was blessed she bore her testimony. Confessing before the ward, she humbly asked for our forgiveness and gently pleaded for our friendship and understanding. Everyone wept with her—the bishopric, the old ones, the young ones, the men, the women, my sisters, my mother, me.
The impressions of that experience and the many others associated with the branch at Scotia Place are deeply etched on my heart.
“May your life’s path ever be such that you know your Lord and God stands by your side. To Rubina, from your many friends in the Auckland Branch and your Branch Presidency. 7/Oct./56.” This inscription in a very special copy of a triple combination of LDS scriptures helps to keep those memories alive and warm.
There is much written today about the growth of the Church. It is called a worldwide church, an international church, a church for every tongue and people. But this is all ancient history to me—such a church flourished years ago in the branch at Scotia Place.