Legend has it that when a certain immortal picked flowers from the ancestral tree and threw them into the Pacific Ocean north of Samoa, islands were formed that today are part of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati (pronounced kiribas). Now flowers of a more spiritual nature are appearing in Kiribati as the restored gospel blooms in the lives of Latter-day Saints.
The Church first made inroads to Kiribati in 1972, when a man named Waitea Abiuta contacted the Church’s Liahona High School in Tonga. Waitea was the headmaster of a school in Kiribati, and he requested that some of his graduates be allowed to pursue further education at Liahona High School. Soon a dozen students from Kiribati were enrolled at the Church school in Tonga. A few years later, six of those students returned to Kiribati as the nation’s first missionaries. Among their initial converts was Brother Abiuta, their former headmaster. Eventually Brother Abiuta’s school became the Church-owned Moroni High School, which continues to play a central role in the development of the Church in Kiribati.
Iotua Tune was one of Brother Abiuta’s students who later attended Liahona High School and joined the Church. Brother Tune’s pathway to the truth was unusually difficult. Before he went to Tonga, he received a soccer injury to his hip that caused him to spend two years in the hospital, with infection spreading throughout his body.
“I heard the doctor tell my grandmother that I was going to die,” Brother Tune recalls. “I decided I was not going to die. I got out of bed and walked a few steps for the first time in many months. I sat and offered a fervent prayer. I promised the Lord that if he would heal me, I would become a missionary.”
Brother Tune recovered, and he fulfilled his promise to the Lord. After joining the Church at Liahona High School and returning to Kiribati as a missionary, he attended Brigham Young University’s Hawaii campus and later earned a master’s degree at BYU’s Provo campus. He was offered a lucrative position in the United States, but he turned it down so he could return to his homeland and serve his people. The day he arrived back in Kiribati, he was called as the nation’s first native district president. He also served as the first native principal of Moroni High School. Today he serves as bishop of the Eita Ward and as Kiribati’s Church Educational System director.
Kiribati’s first meetinghouse was completed in 1982, and selections from the Book of Mormon in Gilbertese were published in 1988. Some 25 years after the Church first reached Kiribati, membership in the 33-island nation totals 5,100 out of a population of about 80,000. Most members live in the Tarawa Kiribati Stake, organized on 8 August 1996 and named after the nation’s capital, which is located in the Gilbert Island chain some 1,700 miles north of Fiji. The largest atoll state in the world, Kiribati straddles the equator near the intersection with the international date line. The nation comprises 280 square miles of land but more than two million square miles of ocean. For the most part, sailing canoes have not yet been replaced by outboards, and tourists are rare. The people grow much of their own food. Kiribati is part of the Fiji Suva Mission.
From its center of strength in Tarawa, the Church is reaching out to other islands in Kiribati. Liahona graduate Herman Tikana, now a teacher at Moroni High School, was among the first missionaries to serve on Tabiteuea, a 50-mile-long island located 80 miles below the equator at the southern end of the Gilbert Islands. “Many people came to our first meeting because they heard the Mormons were rich and they thought we would give them something,” Brother Tikana recalls. “When they found out we were only going to talk, most wandered away. Some listened, though, and within a month we had a small but active branch of committed members. I still remember the homemade kerosene lamps in marmalade jars that provided light for many of our discussions.”
“You can spend your money on things, and soon they are gone. Or you can save it for something really important,” says Kaumai Tiaon of the Teaoraereke Ward. Brother Tiaon saved for more than 10 years and sacrificed much—including his job—so he could take his family to the Sydney Australia Temple to be sealed. That ordinance meant even more to Brother Tiaon after his wife died on 30 December 1996 from cancer. “When you go to the temple with your family, you are very happy,” he says.
Like flowers in a tropical climate, the members of Kiribati are growing and blossoming and carrying the seeds of the gospel to families and friends throughout the islands of Kiribati.