Charting a New Course in Micronesia


He lies in the bottom of his canoe, feeling for the subtle motions of the waves. They carry a message—which island they have bounced off most recently, which other waves they have encountered. From training and experience, he knows the waves, knows what they tell him about where he is. And once he knows where he is, he knows where home is.

Nowadays, not many islanders remember how to use the sea to navigate. Micronesia has been caught for too long in changing cultural currents far stronger and more confusing than any that collide with the island shores.

“I, the Lord your God, … remember those who are upon the isles of the sea” (2 Ne. 29:7)

Micronesia covers more than 4,497,678 square miles of the central Pacific (larger than all of Europe combined) but has a combined land area of only 1,245 square miles. Of the 2,200 small islands and atolls, only about 125 are inhabited. The islands are grouped into seven political units: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (consisting mostly of the Caroline Islands), the Republic of Palau, the United States Territory of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, the Republic of Nauru, and the Republic of Kiribati (formerly known as the Gilbert Islands). Several other islands, like those in the Wake and Johnston atolls, are United States possessions.

For millennia, life in Micronesia was much the same. Temperatures varied little, and there was plenty of fish in the lagoons to supplement the fruit, vegetables, and roots cultivated on land. Though some archipelagos experienced periods of drought, most received enough rain to remain verdant year-round.

Illness and death from disease and the dangers of the sea were not uncommon, but the people had strong family and community ties, with a tradition of helping one another. The women held title to the land, and chiefs were chosen from among the men. Skills in carpentry, fishing, agriculture, and medicine were valued, and neighboring islands traded crafts. Each person belonged to a family and clan; each knew his or her place in the world.

Today, change is sweeping over Micronesia like giant waves. Although many people on islands distant from the political and commercial centers live much as their ancestors did, those in the urban areas are struggling against strong new social currents. Centuries of occupation by one nation after another have left the ancient culture battered. In recent years, welfare handouts have seriously undermined the islanders’ self-sufficiency; traditional skills are losing ground to government-sponsored consumerism. Diets that increasingly include imported foods have made diabetes a major health concern. Alcohol and tobacco are destroying lives. On some islands, suicide is the major cause of death among young men who, with little to do and no place to go, feel lost, adrift on an unfamiliar ocean.

Not all the changes are negative, of course. Though still not widely available, modern medicine has lengthened life and decreased suffering. Opportunities for education are available. The family unit remains strong, and community solidarity is still a way of life.

Of great significance also is the message that missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been bringing to the islands for several decades: The Lord cherishes these isles of the sea, and his Church charts a safe course through these turbulent times. As the good news spreads, more and more Micronesians are finding their place in the world and navigating their way Home.

“You don’t know if a coconut contains milk until you open it” (Palauan proverb)

More than 50 years ago, Ben Roberto was born on Angaur, a small island less than two miles wide and only 2 1/2 miles long near Palau. “When I was young,” Ben says, “Angaur seemed like a large place, but when I started looking at magazines and seeing other places, I realized how small it was.” After two years in college on Guam, he joined the United States Army, hoping to experience more of the world.

He found more than he expected during his tour of service in Vietnam. “I had never experienced anything like that,” Ben says. “It got me to wondering what life was all about.” After his service in the military, Ben worked at various jobs in the United States, finally ending up as an iron worker. He was looking for “something exciting.” But “after all the searching, there was still something missing. I felt there had to be more to life.”

One day he came across a Gideon Bible in a motel room. Reading it left him hungry for more and feeling that what he might be looking for was God. “So I started looking, going to different churches. Something started happening to me, troubling me, telling me to go to Palau. I was in Milwaukee when I decided to go home.”

After Ben returned to Palau, his long search for God remained fruitless. Then one day in 1980, a year after his return home, he was approached by LDS missionaries. The Church was new in Palau, and at first he rejected their words as nonsense. But after reading the Book of Mormon and some other Church literature, he received a spiritual witness that he had found the truth.

Ben was baptized and turned his life over to the Lord. Despite his age (he was 41 at the time), he was prompted to serve a mission. It didn’t seem a likely possibility—but a mission president was inspired to call him on a district mission. Elder Roberto served in Palau for 16 months. Shortly after his release, he was married, then sealed in the Manila Philippines Temple.

Brother Roberto currently serves as a district president. He is also a member of Palau’s board of education and works for the legislature. “The Church has been the greatest education that I have had,” he says. “When I’m given a task, I use my Church experience, the way the Church does things, to get it done.”

President Roberto praises the missionaries for helping redirect the tide of change in Micronesia. The gospel improves lives, and because the missionaries represent it so well, “many Palauans are accepting the Church. Every missionary who has come has left a good impression.”

And now missionaries are being called from the islands. When Roberto was serving his mission, he taught a young Palauan named Rebluud Kesolei. Brother Kesolei later served his own mission, finishing as an assistant to the mission president. Now other young men are following Elder Kesolei into the mission field.

The changes in the lives of these native missionaries are impressive. “The Lord brings these young men into a mission,” President Roberto says, “then he shines them. They are shining wherever they go, and other young Palauans look at them and want to be like them.”

In much the same way as Lehi tasted of the precious white fruit and was filled, they have opened an island coconut and tasted the milk (see 1 Ne. 8:11–12). Now they find joy in sharing the fruit of the gospel with those they love.

“Family ties do not break” (from a Pohnpeian proverb)

Not long ago, Ricky Joel graduated from high school on Pohnpei, a mountainous, tropical island about 12 miles wide and 14 miles long. A second-generation Latter-day Saint currently serving a mission in Los Angeles, California, Ricky is an example of the blessings that come to families who join the Church.

“Ricky doesn’t drink or smoke,” his sister, Jayleen, says. “And he has lots of friends. The guys say, ‘You need to respect him; he’s an elder.’ And all my girlfriends are interested in him. It’s rare to see a boy with teeth not stained by the betel nut.” Betel nut is a mild narcotic that, when chewed with lime, stains teeth red.

Ricky’s parents were among the first to join the Church on Pohnpei. His father joined first, in 1977; his mother had a more difficult time because her grandfather was a minister in another religion. When the missionaries first arrived, persecution came too. Some of the people “beat them up and told bad stories about them,” Ricky says. “But my dad made friends with them.”

Fortunately, such challenges have ebbed, though untruths still circulate and misunderstandings persist. In a society that equates manhood with smoking and drinking (both alcohol and a local limb-numbing beverage called sakau are popular), Ricky finds keeping the Word of Wisdom a challenge. “If you drink,” he says, “you have lots of friends. If you don’t drink, they call you a girl.”

Ricky received his testimony of the gospel by working with the missionaries. Like his father, he developed a friendship with the elders and has been helping them for the past three years. Through the experience, he learned that the Book of Mormon is true. “Everything about the Church is true,” he says. “I feel lifted up.”

Seeing how different Ricky and other active LDS youth are from their peers has begun to soften the attitude of many Pohnpeians toward the Church. While most of the younger generation are struggling to cope with newly imported vices like alcoholism and dysfunctional family life, the Latter-day Saint youth seem to be handling the challenges with better success.

Still, there are plenty of challenges for Pohnpei’s young Latter-day Saints, who, like other LDS youth in the islands, are exploring new waters. They succeed by preferring a strong relationship with God to fitting in with the crowd. The love they feel for their Heavenly Father binds them to him and helps them keep his commandments.

“If you don’t let what people think bother you,” Ricky says, “it’s easy being a Mormon.”

“Where there is kindness, there is life” (from a Marshallese proverb)

When the missionaries first approached Jormeto and Vineta Moreang on Majuro, Jormeto told them he was busy. He admits now that he was stretching the truth. There’s not all that much to do on Majuro. Although it is the capital of the Marshall Islands, like most atolls it is a small, self-contained world. Thanks to construction of a causeway during the Second World War that joined several islands in the atoll together, Majuro is more than 35 miles long. But it still remains only a few hundred yards wide. A single road connects the west end with the east. Recreation consists mostly of swimming and fishing.

The Marshallese are a religious and hospitable people, and Jormeto, embarrassed by his inhospitality, finally allowed the missionaries into his home. At first, Vineta left when the elders came. But when she saw that her husband was serious about changing his life, she joined the discussions. Three months later, in July 1985, Jormeto was baptized. Vineta was baptized that October.

Jormeto says that his life is much better now. “Before, I didn’t care about my family’s needs. I was just interested in cigarettes and drink. But when I learned that our Heavenly Father cared for us, I began to change. I started reading the scriptures and Church manuals.”

“There’s a lot of change when a person joins the Church,” Vineta says. “Family life gets better. There is more respect. Even people’s bodies change, and they begin to change their environment.”

Change did not come easily for the Moreangs. “I asked the missionaries a lot of hard questions,” Jormeto says. “But they never showed anger or disappointment. They always stayed with me, like brothers. The more I tried to push them away, the more they loved me.” Their gentle kindness and concern kept him listening until the Spirit finally swept through his soul like a cool ocean breeze. At that point, he embraced the gospel of life.

And so have many others on Majuro. Some 10 percent of the estimated 23,000 people on Majuro have joined the Church, though keeping people active is a challenge. The Saints need training, and priesthood leaders are in short supply. Even so, Majuro may soon have the first stake in Micronesia. Brother Moreang explains the reason for the rapid growth: “Other churches are not teaching the full gospel,” he asserts. “People recognize the pure gospel when it comes.”

Jormeto has seen the growth firsthand. Shortly after his baptism, he was called to be president of the Long Island Branch on Majuro. At that time, only four members attended church. When he was released several years later, more than 100 were attending. Brother Moreang currently serves as a counselor in the district presidency and as Sunday School president of the Long Island Majuro Branch. He also teaches seminary and operates a taxi business.

He has plenty to do.

“The Lord has made the sea our path” (2 Ne. 10:20)

Not so long ago, experienced seafarers used stick charts to teach new sailors how to navigate. The charts showed the wave patterns in the archipelago, and by consulting the charts, young men quickly became expert at using the sea to find their way island to island.

Today, stick charts are rarely used. Modern technology has swept away the need and knowledge to use them. In other ways as well, the modern world has sent waves of social change thundering throughout Micronesia. Whether the islanders are able to find a safe path among these confusing currents, or sink beneath them, depends largely on the choices they are making now. Some of the old ways need to be preserved. Others may need to be discarded. And some new customs can improve life. The problem is deciding which of the old ways to keep, which to set aside, and which of the new ways to adopt. Micronesians need an experienced navigator.

For members of the Church, that navigator is the Lord. Through his Church, he is charting a safe course to a new and promising future. “Great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea,” Jacob wrote. “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose … the way of eternal life” (2 Ne. 10:21, 23).

[photos] Above: Joy Awit of Saipan; background: Palau; upper right: Flowers abound in Micronesia. Right: Ricky Joel of Pohnpei, who received his testimony while helping the missionaries, is currently serving a mission. Below: These elders, all from island nations in the South Pacific, recently served in the Micronesia Guam Mission. (Photography by R. Val Johnson.)

[photos] Above: Members of the Koror Topside Branch in Palau in December 1993. Far right: Early baptisms in Palau were performed at this ocean site. Below: These boys join in the singing at church on Majuro. At the pulpit: Vincent Ben Roberto serves as Koror Palau District president. Upper left: Palau at sunset.

[photos] Above: Guam at sunset. Left: Vineta and Jormeto Moreang of Majuro have seen great changes in their lives since joining the Church.

R. Val Johnson is assistant managing editor of the Church’s international magazines.