The Seabirds of Kiribati


Like the seabirds that fill the skies over Kiribati, Latter-day Saints on these Pacific islands soar spiritually as the gospel fills their lives with joy.

There are times, in certain light, when it’s hard to distinguish sea from sky in Kiribati (pronounced kir-ih-bahs). The two blend together, and it becomes difficult to see where one begins and the other ends.

This early morning boat launch is such a time. The stars have faded, but dawn has yet to tint the eastern horizon. On Tarawa, Kiribati’s most populous atoll (a low coral island encircling a lagoon), the few electric lights have long since blinked out. And with no wind to move the waters of Tarawa’s lagoon, the small, 16-foot (5 m) craft seems frozen in place, embraced on all sides by silent anticipation.

At the craft’s helm, Tune (pronounced toon-AY) gazes intently ahead. His 16-year-old friend and ward member, Moretekai Ataia, is at the bow, watching the water carefully. Though their destination, Abaiang Atoll, is several hours away, they are alert. Shoals extend right and left, and Tune must maneuver the boat safely between them until he passes the reef at the mouth of the lagoon. Once into the deep water of the ocean, he can increase his speed and steer directly toward Abaiang.

He will also watch for groups of seabirds tumbling and swooping just over the waves. By then, it will be full light, and he will be able to see the dark silhouettes of the birds against the blazing blue sky. While Tune’s purpose for traveling to Abaiang is not fishing, he is a fisherman at heart and can’t resist tossing a line in the water. Schools of tuna run between Tarawa and Abaiang, and if he can find one, he can pick up a few of the treasured fish along the way.

The birds show where to find the tuna. They feed on the same small fish the tuna do, and when the birds locate the fish, tuna are sometimes there too, racing after the smaller fish, leaping clear of the water as they try to catch them.

This morning, the tuna aren’t there. By the time Tune and Moretekai motor into Abaiang’s lagoon, it is nearing midday. They have only one fish, caught just off Abaiang’s reef. Near shore, Moretekai jumps into the warm water and pulls the boat farther into the shallows. Then Tune drops anchor, and both wade to the white sands of the palm-covered beach.

Moving into the lush landscape, they follow a familiar path to their destination—a maneaba (meeting place) in a clearing near the home of an elderly couple named Tamton and Taake Ruata. This maneaba serves as the meetinghouse for the Tabontibike-Abaiang Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tune has brought Moretekai with him today to visit Tamton and Taake and other members of the Church on Abaiang.

Tune (his full name is Iotua Bareeta Tune, but everyone in the islands is known by one name) is not their priesthood leader, although he once was. Not too long ago he visited them as their district president. Now that he has been released, he visits as their friend.

The lone fish Tune and Moretekai bring with them becomes lunch. Taake cooks it on a spit over an open fire. Islanders enjoy sharing stories, and the simple meal of fish, rice, and coconut becomes a feast as Tamton entertains his guests.

Tamton’s Story

Tamton tells of his early life, long before he joined the Church. He describes how an argument with his young wife sent him sailing to Tarawa, where he saw for the first time motorbikes and electric lights. When he returned to Abaiang, he did what islanders often do after a remarkable experience—he composed a song about it. He sings it now, his voice strong, the words lyrical. When he finishes, he sings another of his compositions. This one speaks of the Savior’s invitation, “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). Tamton sings of how some follow the Savior’s teachings and others don’t and how happiness can be found only by following the Lord.

Finding and following Jesus Christ sometimes takes us through difficult waters. Tamton’s journey to Christ has been like that. “When the missionaries first came to Abaiang from Tarawa, they had difficulty getting land on which to build a bata [traditional grass house],” he says. “I felt sorry for them and invited them to stay with me. They taught me the gospel, and I felt what they were teaching was true. So I was baptized.”

That was in 1984. Tamton and Taake were among the first on Abaiang to join the Church. Amid suspicion and persecution, they immediately began helping the missionaries find others to teach.

Tamton and Taake feel they have been richly blessed by the Lord. Several years ago, Tamton wanted to build a large fish trap to support his family. But to build one, he needed to take thousands of rocks out into the ocean. The task seemed impossible. He had only a small canoe and just his sons to help.

“I prayed hard about the problem,” he says. “The next day I saw a float [a tangle of debris] beached on my land. In the float were some large pieces of styrofoam. With them, I built a raft, and with the raft, my sons and I built our fish trap. In fact, we built two.” The traps have been valuable family assets. When the traps catch more fish than the family can use, they sell the extra.

As their faith in Jesus Christ sustains Tamton and his family in times of need, it also comforts them in times of sorrow. Several years ago one of their sons died while fishing for octopus. He was only 22, but he suffered a heart attack alone out in the ocean.

Tamton’s eyes get moist as he speaks of his son. “The news broke our hearts,” he says. But then his eyes brighten. “We want him sealed to us.” When Tune was their district president, he taught Tamton and Taake about the priesthood and its power to seal families together forever in the temple. They are eager to go.

But with few resources, they have yet to see a temple, let alone visit one. Still, Tamton and Taake are trying to find a way.

Aritaake’s Story

With the meal and the singing and the stories over, Tune and Moretekai take their leave of Tamton and Taake. They have others on the island to visit.

The Saints in Kiribati have great respect for the priesthood, and wherever Tune goes on Abaiang, he is received with gladness. It soon becomes apparent it wasn’t whim that brought him to Abaiang. He was drawn to the island by prayer—reeled in like one of his tuna. He thought he was just visiting, perhaps finding an excuse to go fishing. But the real reason he came was to give Aritaake Moutu a priesthood blessing.

“Ever since I joined the Church, I’ve depended on priesthood blessings,” Sister Moutu says. “I had a problem with one of my legs before I joined the Church. Now whenever it gives me trouble, I ask for a blessing, and I’m always healed. This morning I was praying for someone to give me a blessing because my husband is not on the island.” She smiles at Tune. “That’s why you came.”

“It’s always like that,” Tune says. “She lives on this isolated island in the middle of nowhere. There are few jobs; most people live off what they can grow and get from the sea. There are no doctors or nurses on Abaiang. The Saints here depend a lot on the Lord. And the Lord takes care of them.”

“Yes, we have our challenges,” Sister Moutu says, “even after joining the Church. But we don’t notice them as much now.”

When the missionaries first contacted her family, Aritaake would run away—or chase the missionaries away. “But one time an elder by the name of Jones came to visit us,” she remembers. “When I turned him away, he stood outside the house and prayed for us. While he was praying, I felt something in my heart change. I asked the missionaries to forgive me and teach my family.

“One thing the elders did changed me completely. They asked me to pray. When I said my prayer, I became a different person. It was no problem believing the Church’s teachings.”

What impressed her most in all the missionaries taught? “The Spirit they brought. And the teachings about the family—how we can be happy as a family and remain together forever.”

It is time to return to Tarawa. Tune knows he needs to get back before the tide pulls too much water out of Tarawa’s lagoon, leaving parts of it too shallow for his outboard motor. But before he and Moretekai leave, Tune gives Aritaake the priesthood blessing she prayed for.

Tune’s Story

The I-Kiribati (people of Kiribati) are generous and gregarious by nature. Tune has a double portion of both traits. He seems always on his way to or from helping someone. Everyone knows him.

But he wasn’t always so well known. Reared by his grandparents on Kuria, a small dot of land south of Tarawa, Tune didn’t come to the capital island until he was 13 or 14 years old. He had been taught traditional skills, but his grandmother felt he needed a good secondary education, so they came to Tarawa, where a few private schools were located.

His grandmother enrolled him in school. “But then just before school started,” Tune says, “I dislocated my hip playing soccer. I was admitted to the hospital on Tarawa. Unfortunately, my hip got infected and I became very sick.

“When the doctors told my grandmother I might die, she called my family to Tarawa. I heard them talking to the doctors one day outside the curtain around my bed. The doctors said, ‘We don’t have any hope. This infection in his hip is very bad, and now it’s getting into the rest of his body.’

“When I heard that, I thought, ‘Wow! They think I’m going to die!’ I was raised a Christian, so I started praying. I said, ‘God, my only hope is You. If You spare my life, I promise to be a missionary. I will spend my whole life serving You.’ This was in 1972, before the LDS Church came to Kiribati.

“I was flat on my back in bed and couldn’t even sit up. But as I continued to pray, one day I found I could sit. After a while I could stand, then walk. I was in the hospital for two years.” Tune left with a bad limp, but he had survived.

“When I was released, for some reason I wanted to go to a school called AKAS, so my grandmother enrolled me in 1974. During that year, Eb Davis, the LDS mission president in Fiji, came to our school to select 10 students to attend Liahona High School on Tonga. Attending high school is a great opportunity. Only two groups had gone before. I was older than most and had been out of school for two years, so I didn’t have much hope I would be selected. But I was.

“The big problem for my family was finding the money to purchase the required round-trip airfare. I asked my father, ‘How will you get the money? We don’t have any.’ My father had a terminal illness that left him unable to work, but he said, ‘We’ll get the money.’ My mother sewed for the hospital and had some money saved. My uncle and other relatives also helped. It seemed a miracle, but we came up with the money.

“So there I was in 1975 at Liahona High School. When I came to the campus, I thought I was in heaven. The people were clean, the school was clean, and the men were wearing ties. And then I discovered this was a church school, run by Latter-day Saints. I had no idea what a Latter-day Saint was, so I asked.

“That first Sunday I started the missionary discussions. Grant Howlett, one of my teachers, taught me. I was really excited. I had promised the Lord I would be a missionary if He healed me, and I knew I couldn’t be a missionary until I joined the Church. I was baptized on 22 June 1975—the first from our group. When my friends asked why I joined the Church so quickly, I said, ‘I couldn’t reject anything they taught. I just felt it was what my Father in Heaven wanted me to do.’

“Two months after I was baptized, the students from Kiribati were asked if anyone was interested in going home to introduce the Church there. I gave them my name. But when they learned I was 17, they told me I was too young.” Six young men accepted the call to take the gospel to Kiribati. They began in late 1975.

“Before they left, I asked them to talk to my parents. They agreed. I also sent many letters to my family bearing my testimony. They accepted the gospel and were baptized.” His grandmother, Tebwebwenikai Ribauea Tune, was the first person in the family to join.

“I finished school in 1978 and still wanted to be a missionary. By then I had also met my future wife, Maii. We decided I would serve a mission; then we would meet in Hawaii and be married in the temple. But I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to Hawaii or finance a mission.”

Tune considers what happened to him over the next few years miraculous. After graduation he stayed in Tonga translating for the Church. A family from the high school helped him go to the New Zealand temple, where he received his endowment in 1979. Within a few months he was serving a mission in Kiribati. After his mission he was able to attend BYU—Hawaii to further his education (he was the first person from Kiribati to graduate from that school), and it was there he and Maii were married (the first couple from Kiribati to be sealed in the temple). An impression to return to Kiribati instead of accepting a job in the United States led to an encounter at the airport in Fiji with the Area President, Elder John Sonnenberg. A few days later Elder Sonnenberg called Tune to be Kiribati’s district president. President Tune’s ecclesiastic duties took him to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he had hip-replacement surgery.

While serving as district president on Tarawa, Tune also filled an appointment as principal of Moroni High School, a Latter-day Saint high school that resulted from the missionary work of Grant Howlett and his wife, Pat. When the Howletts came to Tarawa in 1976, the AKAS school was having financial and leadership problems. The Howletts supplied the leadership and petitioned the Church to buy the school. Eventually, the Church agreed.

Unfortunately, there was some opposition from people in the government. But Baitika Toun, a member of the Church elected to parliament, helped convince several key lawmakers that a school run by the Church would be of great benefit to the I-Kiribati. The Church purchased the school and called the campus Moroni Community School (now Moroni High School).

The school is now educating a new generation of Latter-day Saints who have strong testimonies and are eager to share the gospel. That is one reason the Church is growing so fast in Kiribati. Another is the gospel light that shines in the lives of Kiribati’s Latter-day Saints. “We have high standards and strong families,” Tune says. “People are attracted to that. When I started my mission, there were between 50 and 100 members of the Church in Kiribati. When I finished, we had 500. We now have close to 6,000. That’s about 6 percent of the population. After only 20 years, the Church had become the third largest denomination in Kiribati.” When Tune was released in 1996 after serving nine years as district president, the district was reorganized as a stake, and he was called as bishop of the Eita Ward (now the Eita First Ward).

It is now near sunset. Tarawa lies somewhere off the bow of Tune’s boat. A few terns and noddies fly past on their way to roost. Tune’s eyes follow them instinctively. The birds fly directly to land at dusk; by following them, a seafarer can always find home. Behind the birds, the sky has turned gold, tinting the sea gold as well. The light reveals a smile on Tune’s face. In the large cooler at his feet are four tuna that decided to join him during the trip home from Abaiang.

“The members here are like the seabirds,” he says. “The Great Fisherman has many fish to catch. We members are the birds showing the missionaries where those people are. And by the lives we live, we show our friends and relatives the way to eternal life.”

At the same time, the members of the Church in Kiribati are themselves among those gathered by the gospel net. If at times they soar in joyful anticipation of heaven’s joys, at other times they dive into the depths of mortal experience. Yet always there is the Light—and the leap of faith into it. At such times, for that brief moment, sea and sky become one.

Kiribati at a Glance

Map of Kiribati area

Population: 85,500

Size: 446 square miles (717 km2) of land; 2,206,339 square miles of water (3,550,000 km2)

History: Colonized by ancestors of the Micronesians about 3,000 years ago, joined later by Polynesians. British captain Thomas Gilbert passed a group of atolls in 1788, naming them the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati is the native pronunciation of Gilberts). Britain made the Gilbert Islands a protectorate in 1892 and later a colony. Occupied by Japanese, then American armed forces during World War II. Independence achieved on 12 July 1979 as a member of the British Commonwealth.

Church Membership: 7,294

Church Units: One stake with 6 wards and 2 branches; one district with 10 branches; part of the Fiji Suva Mission

[photos] Photography by R. Val Johnson

[photos] Far left: Bishop Iotua Tune visits members by boat. Left: Members of the Atieu Branch on Tarawa walk to church. Right: Members of the Bonriki Branch meet for sacrament meeting.

[photos] Latter-day Saints are admired for their morals, standards, and focus on the family. Left: Aaronic Priesthood holders Joshua and Jared Tune. Right: A traditional grass house, called a bata.

[photos] Above: Tamton and Taake Ruata were among the first on Abaiang to be baptized. Right: The Bonriki Branch Primary on the island atoll of Tarawa.

R. Val Johnson is assistant managing editor for the Liahona, the Church’s international magazine.