In these latter days, the Lord is orchestrating mighty works around the world to spread the gospel and build the kingdom in preparation for his second coming. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve has said, “God will also ‘hasten’ His work. He will also ‘shorten’ the last days ‘for the elect’s sake’; hence, there will be a compression of events” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 39). One such work is taking place on the north shore of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The Hawaii Temple, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and the school that has become Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus flourish there.
The temple, the first of the trio of institutions, was built on a former six-thousand-acre plantation near the village of Laie, thirty-two miles from Honolulu. When this sacred structure was dedicated in 1919 as a spiritual sanctuary for the Polynesian Saints, little did the Saints know that the temple would become the nucleus of an educational and missionary endeavor with global scope and influence.
Years later, in 1955, ground was broken near the temple for the Church College of Hawaii, later renamed BYU—Hawaii. Studies soon commenced for 153 students in temporary barracks. Enrollment today has grown to 2,000 students each year, among which upwards of sixty nationalities and thirty languages are represented. While dedicating a new building in 1973, President Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency said: “This college is a living laboratory in which individuals who share the teachings of the Master Teacher have an opportunity for developing an appreciation, tolerance, and esteem for one another. For what can be done here interculturally in a small way is what mankind must do on a large scale if we are ever to have real brotherhood on this earth” (Church News, 10 Feb. 1973, p. 15).
I believe that the Lord established this Hawaii campus in preparation for some of the internationalization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1955, only the Lord’s prophet could have known what lay ahead for the worldwide Church. Membership totals outside the United States were minuscule: 4,046 in Central and South America, 37,044 in Europe, and only 1,392 in Asia. Thirty-nine years later, these areas of the Church have become home to over three million members!
Yet it is not the destiny of BYU—Hawaii to educate the masses. Rather, its mission is to educate a select few who, if they remain true, will be prepared to render uncommon service as the internationalization of the Church continues.
At the university’s ground breaking, President David O. McKay declared that “from this school, I’ll tell you, will go men and women whose influence will be felt for good towards the establishment of peace internationally” (Reuben D. Law, The Founding and Early Development of the Church College of Hawaii, St. George, Utah: Dixie College Press, 1972, p. 67).
The continuing internationalization of the Church depends on members who understand and respect each other’s cultures and heritages. Within the gospel culture, we must be like a delicious fruit salad, made up of distinctive parts yet unified in our purpose. BYU—Hawaii is recognized as a model in ethnic diversity and cultural relationships. At a time when some college campuses are being torn apart by racial strife and when wars are being fought over ethnicity, BYU—Hawaii stands as a beacon of harmony amidst diversity.
President McKay made another amazing prophetic statement at the ground breaking: “We dedicate our actions in this service unto thee and unto thy glory and to the salvation of the children of men, that this college, and the temple, and the town of Laie may become a missionary factor, influencing not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people who will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are” (ibid., p. 69).
I can imagine that even the most faithful followers and admirers of President David O. McKay may have wondered if they heard the prophet correctly: “Millions of people come to Laie? How could that happen!”
Only 109,798 tourists came to Hawaii in 1955, most of them from the U.S. mainland. Even for these few, the north shore of Oahu was not considered a “must see” part of the island. The beautiful temple grounds only occasionally functioned as a rest stop for island-circling tourists.
Several years after BYU—Hawaii was opened, however, building missionaries started arriving to carve out lagoons and construct thatched huts for the Church’s Polynesian Cultural Center. By this time, tourism in Hawaii was booming. Nevertheless, observers in Honolulu and Waikiki were skeptical about whether tourists would travel to obscure Laie.
The Polynesian Cultural Center opened its doors in 1963. During the center’s early days, students would stand along Kamehameha Highway and flag down the few passing tourists to invite them to the center. Performers sometimes played to audiences of only fifteen or twenty people. By 1977, however, the center had hosted more than one million guests and had become a major tourist attraction in Hawaii. Seventeen years later, it has hosted more than twenty million visitors from all over the world, with six million visitors annually.
The temple, the school, and the cultural center work together in a dynamic way: Students lend the cultural center their exuberance, smiles, and radiant spirits, and the students’ wages from their jobs at the cultural center make it possible for many to attend school. As they walk across campus, students are blessed to see the house of the Lord rising above the palm trees, and those who enter that holy place can attune themselves spiritually and refocus on eternal objectives. And the visitors’ center near the temple attracts visitors as they leave the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Only the Lord could orchestrate a marvelous threefold effort such as this. With the temple setting the tone, the Polynesian Cultural Center will continue to fulfill its prophetic destiny as a missionary tool affecting millions, and BYU—Hawaii will continue to send its culturally diverse, academically and spiritually prepared students throughout the world.